How to Write a Mystery That Tingles the Spine
It’s one thing to know how to write a mystery.
It’s quite another to know how to make a reader glance over their shoulder as they read, just to make sure that eerie feeling is coming from the book.
To know how to lay out the clues at the perfect pace and in the perfect moments, revealing neither too much or too little.
To know how to ask a librarian to recommend a book on poisoning techniques without looking suspicious.
Okay, so I can’t help you with that last one. But I’ve got you covered for the others.
Writing a spine-tingling mystery means building an absolute orchestra of intriguing story elements. From your characters to your structure to your setting, every component of your novel should energize and complicate your central mystery.
It sounds like a lot to pull off and sure, it kind of is. That’s why we’re going to tackle this piece by piece.
Step one: get reading.
You’ve got to read a lot of books in the genre you wish to write.
I recommend creating three reading lists for yourself.
- Current bestsellers
- Mystery classics that have stood the test of time
- Mysteries that interest you
Prioritize current bestsellers so you can quickly learn what today’s readers are looking for in mystery novels.
Time permitting, sneak in the occasional book from your classics and interests lists. These books have something to teach you, too, whether it’s understanding the heart of the genre or understanding what it is about the genre that inspires you.
Now this is important: create these lists using only books from your chosen subgenre. If you read a gritty, L.A.-based noir immediately after a cozy mystery with a cupcake-pun title, you’re going to get some mixed messages about mystery tropes.
Not sure what your favorite mystery subgenre is? Here’s a quick rundown of each one.
Police Procedural - These mysteries focus on the investigation itself. If you’re all about the puzzle and into forensic technology, this might be your jam. Example: Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer series
Noir - The atmosphere is dark and gritty. The protagonist is a cynical and flawed detective who may have some self-destructive tendencies. Solving the crime only proves that the world is a dark and terrible place. Example: Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins series
Suspense - These books are painstakingly engineered to be unputdownable. A great suspense mystery contains unexpected twists, extremely high stakes, artfully plotted clues, and a ticking clock. Example: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Caper - Many capers follow the journeys of both criminals and detectives, which means it’s less about solving a mystery and more about witnessing the adventure. Capers are humorous with colorful characters on both sides of the law. Example: Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series
Cozy - Cozies feature amateur sleuths—often (but not always) senior women who enjoy baking, knitting, or brewing tea between murders. There is no graphic violence, no explicit sexual content, and little-to-no cursing. There are, however, loads of charm and humor. Example: Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series
Once you’re familiar with your subgenre, you’re ready to start building a mystery.
Design Your Crime
After you’ve had some practice, you might find your own best method for how to write a mystery.
But for now, let’s start with a crime and work backwards. When you know that it was Professor Plum in the study with the rope, then you know you have to plant a rope somewhere and put a few holes in the old prof’s alibi.
Let’s keep it simple to start. Decide:
- Who committed the crime (And who their victim is)
- What the crime was (Murder? Robbery? Socks with sandals?)
- Where the crime occurred
- When the crime occurred
- Why your perpetrator would do such a thing
- How they did it (Was there a weapon involved? Did they have to break into a secured area? Did they have any help?)
This is a great time to research both the crime and the way your protagonist would be likely to investigate it.
What to Research
For the crime itself, look into details such as:
- The kind of clues the murder weapon would leave behind (blood spatter, bruising, gunpowder, etc.)
- The effect of the murder weapon on the human body (How would the victim fall if shot from above? How does the body react to this particular poison?)
- Any physical abilities necessary to pull off this crime (How much strength does it take to push an upright piano off a balcony?)
- Timing (How much time does one have to get out of a museum after triggering an alarm? Does the poison take effect right away or will it take a few hours?)
- What it takes for someone to procure the necessary weapons and paraphernalia in their specific location and moment in history
As for the investigation, consider:
- What technology the protagonist has access to (This might be dependent on the time period, their profession, or their socioeconomic status)
- Where your protagonist got their crime-solving knowledge (The FBI? A parent who was a detective? Encyclopedia Brown?)
- How they would access the crime scene (This can get interesting if your protagonist is an amateur sleuth or a suspended detective)
- The legality of searching and questioning suspects
The advantage of clarifying these details up front is that you hopefully avoid creating accidental plot holes later. You don’t want your climax to hinge on a specific clue only to have a beta reader tell you that clue would never exist in a crime like yours.
Once you know your crime inside and out, it’s time to…
Set the Scene
Think of the last three mysteries you read. Where did they take place? Do you remember?
You probably do. Most mysteries lean on the setting really hard, as they should.
For one thing, the setting helps you establish a mood, from dark, grimy alleyways to stark, snow-covered farmland.
Setting also influences the crime itself. How do you get rid of a body if the ground is made of hard clay? Would the foolhardy criminal in your caper bother to rob a bank when Buckingham Palace is just a few blocks down?
Your setting can also create interesting complications for your protagonist. In The Searcher, a retired city detective who has no intention of solving mysteries winds up sleuthing in a tiny, rural town in a country that is not his own.
And Agatha Christie loved to go all bottle-episode on her mysteries, trapping detective, suspect, and murderer all together in an enclosed location.
Whatever setting you choose, be deliberate about it and let it shape both the crime and the investigation.
Flesh Out Your Characters
Now that you’ve laid out your villain’s dastardly deeds, it’s time to dig deep on your players.
Magnificently crafted characters truly make the mystery. An intriguing protagonist draws the reader in and gets them invested in the outcome. Mystifying suspects build suspense. Even a very dead victim can bring your story to life.
And, as you do, remember these tips specific to certain mystery characters.
They also need motivation. No one wants to read about a detective who solves crimes for the healthcare benefits. Your protagonist must be deeply invested in solving this crime for a very specific reason.
Are they haunted by their failure to solve a similar crime ten years ago? Are they a maverick who got kicked off the force and are determined to prove that their reckless tactics get results? Who will the next victim be if they don’t find the killer in time?
This is a good move that’s easy to overlook: give your victim a past.
Let it be a messy past. Now, messy might mean “criminal.” Or it could simply mean that they were not universally loved and the list of people who might like to see them dead is longer than expected.
When you build a complex life and identity for your victim, you’re able to gradually reveal this history to your readers over the course of the novel. This is a great way to build curiosity and give your reader a sense that they’re gathering new clues.
You don’t have to do this with dead victims only. If a character has been robbed or attacked, imagine what it adds for your reader if you reveal information that casts doubt on that character’s reliability. Are they giving the whole truth? What if they’re the real perp?
This character is the answer to your whodunit, which means they should be dastardly but probably not in an in-your-face kind of way. You don’t want to give everything away on page 50, but when your sleuth solves the mystery, you want your reader saying, “Ohhh, of course.”
So how do you create a character who is capable of atrocious acts but doesn’t necessarily give off a vibe of atrocity?
Give them depth. Dabble’s own Doug wrote a great article on creating villains that are complex, chilling, and sometimes even unsettlingly understandable.
You also want to make sure your criminal has a reason for doing what they did. It doesn’t have to be a morally sound reason. It can even be a reason rooted in sociopathic logic. But your perp should be able to articulate their motivation.
Finally, design a backstory and relationship for your victim and perpetrator. The crime doesn’t have to be personal, but you should be able to explain why this specific jerk-waffle came after this specific victim.
When your villain feels real, has clear motivation, and has a relevant connection to the victim, your reader will be on board even if they didn’t see it coming.
Another smooth move is to create a link between your perpetrator and your sleuth. This could be a personal connection or common acquaintances, but it doesn’t have to be that direct. Maybe your perp and protagonist share common strengths. Maybe your sleuth sees the darkest parts of themselves reflected in the villain.
However you handle it, this link can create a fascinating obstacle for your protagonist.
Don’t forget your suspects. They help you create misdirection without irritating the reader. They reveal your victim’s backstory and challenge your sleuth’s self-confidence. Without suspects, there would be no crazy red strings on the investigation board.
And now that you know 1) exactly how the crime plays out and 2) exactly who your victim is, you’re all set to assemble this gang of red herrings.
So who are these people? How do they know your victim? Where were they when the crime occurred? Can they be trusted? How do we know?
Keep in mind that your investigator is looking for someone who would have had:
- The means
- The motive
- The opportunity
Give each suspect a motive. Give most of them the means and/or opportunity, too.
If you’ve done that, you’re ready to move on from how to plan a mystery and start talking about how to write a mystery.
How to Write a Mystery: Plotting and Writing
You’ve got all your pieces in order. Time to actually tell the story.
My first tip for how to write a mystery is to make use of the Dabble Plot Grid. You don’t have to, but trust me: it will make your life way easier. The Plot Grid helps you keep track of all those details like suspects and clues and everybody’s whereabouts. You can even create your own column headings and labels to fit your unique system of organization. Here’s how I’d do it:
As for how to structure your story, the Fichtean curve tends to be a favorite of mystery writers.
If you don’t know what that is, the Fichtean curve is a structure in which you are constantly dropping clues and building tension until your story reaches a thrilling climax. For a more in-depth explanation, check out this handy article.
Here are a few other tips on how to write a mystery that flows.
Open with the Crime
You don’t have to. Not all mysteries do. But it’s a popular way to start because it plants questions in the reader’s mind from page one. If your first scene is not about the crime, introduce the crime as soon as possible.
Suspects, Clues, and Red Herrings
Introduce these story elements at a steady pace.
Your sleuth discovers the letter that leads them to Veronica who owns the company that produces the baseball bat used to kill the victim. Veronica acts super shady during questioning and lets it slip that the victim was a former employee who’d been caught embezzling. But wait! There’s red lipstick on the glass left at the crime scene and everyone knows Veronica only wears her signature color, power pink.
You get the idea. Build possibilities then smack ‘em down. Enter the clue that’s going to solve the case then introduce a contradictory clue that feels even bigger. Present a witness who surely knows the real story, then make them cagey or inconsistent.
It’s even okay to have clues that turn out to be irrelevant in the end. This may feel like it spits in the eye of Chekhov’s Gun, but in the case of a mystery, this kind of misdirection is part of the story.
Using labels on the Plot Grid is a great way to easily keep track of what clues are legit, which ones are red herrings, and if you’re spacing out your clues enough.
Structure your breaks in terms of cliffhangers. Save all those new clues, revealed suspects, and unexpected twists for the end of the chapter. That’s how you keep people up past their bedtimes.
Another reliable way to inspire nail biting? Raise the stakes as the story moves forward. Maybe the killer strikes again. Maybe they take out another suspect or someone close to the case. Is this a warning? Who will be next? Can your sleuth solve this mystery before another life is lost?
Devise a Stunning Confrontation
At some point, your protagonist will crack the case and go after their perp. How they do it depends on your subgenre.
But whether you go for a heart-pounding speedboat chase or a civilized, long-winded reveal in the parlor room, be sure to:
- Lay the crime out for the reader
- Play fair (Don’t introduce a suspect or clue your reader has never seen before)
- Tie up loose ends
- Create a rising sense of danger for the protagonist. This person has been chasing the idea of a killer for 200+ pages. Now they’re directly confronting someone they know is capable of murder. Even if they’re Miss-Marple chill about that, at least let your reader feel it.
Finally, I have one last tip to give you for how to write a mystery, and that is this:
Clear Your Search History
Absolutely no one needs to know you Googled “Can you poison someone with window cleaning solution?”
Other than that, you’re good to go! You’re ready to write a mystery that thrills, chills, and gets readers begging for a series.
And if you’re curious to try out the Dabble Plot Grid as you build this beautiful-yet-complicated masterpiece, great news! You can test all of Dabble’s Premium Features for free for fourteen days. Just follow this link.
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