Writing a Mystery Novel: The Basics

One of the most common questions I get asked is why I choose to write mystery novels, and let me tell you, the number one reason is because mystery novels are what people want to read! According to, mystery is the second most widely read genre after romance and erotica. And romance and erotica are both very easy elements to add to an ongoing novel of any genre.

            Writing a mystery novel is always a good option to choose for your first book, but it does entail considerably more planning than almost any other genre (except for maybe a fantasy novel). When I start to write, the first thing I decide on is the characters that are going to appear in my novel. If you can develop dynamic and interesting characters in your mind, often times the story will almost seem to write itself.

            In my most recent novel, Before Now, I felt compelled to write about what it would be like to be a mirror-image twin. Once I decided that my main characters were twins, I began developing their separate and interesting character features. All of this occurred before I even put the pen to paper. If jotting down notes helps you, of course, please make notes as you go, but sometimes I find its easier to write if you know your characters on a personal and intimate level—as if they were actual people in your life. Now I’m not suggesting you actually use people from your real life, you can, but make sure you use them with permission, or change their names to avoid a lawsuit. And I always include a disclaimer in the beginning of my novel explaining that everything in the book is fictional.

            Once you have your characters, it’s time to start and develop the plot line. Every author does this differently. I know some authors that prefer to do a full written outline and plan out every detail. Others, like myself, prefer to have a starting and end point, and work out the middle as we go along. Each has it’s own unique complications and benefits. If you write everything out first, you will have a very clear image of exactly where your story is going and when it will end. This will help guide you and keep you on topic as you write. The downside to this method is it can lead the author to feeling trapped, as it can take awhile to complete the outline and you’ll feel less liberated to make changes as you write. By writing without an outline, as long as you know where you want to end up, you can make any and all changes that you prefer as they come along. Sometimes an idea may occur to you in the middle of the night and this method makes it easy to include said idea in your manuscript. Do be careful with this method though, as sometimes the twists you add can make no sense and your writing can feel very directionless. Either way, you know yourself and know which method would be best for you.

            And here’s where we discuss mystery novels specifically. You MUST have twists and turns. Not only is this expected of a mystery novel, but also you need these to keep people from putting down your book. People will often finish a mystery novel, even if it isn’t their favorite, because they have this need to find out what is going on. Especially with programs like Kindle Unlimited, where you are paid by the page, you need your reader to finish the book. You still get paid if they don’t, but would you rather be paid for 200 pages or 400 pages? I think the answer is clear. Now I’m not suggesting you piss off all your readers, because this will create other issues, like your readers not returning for future novels, but the ending in a mystery novel matters much less than the journey it takes to get there.

            One way to make this journey intriguing is to incorporate twists and turns. A very easy and simple way to do so is to have “patsy” or “distraction” characters. These are characters you intentionally write to appear suspicious—either to draw attention away from your real villain, or simply to add doubt to distract the reader. In my novel Before Now, I deliberately made Daisy, Remi’s roommate, to appear a bit odd. It only took a few sentences to do so, but it made the reader doubt her character thus making her a suspect. I recommend having a few of these characters. You can slowly clear them of involvement, or kill them off as you please, and this will help drive your story along. Make sure as you are writing, you don’t feed the reader pieces of your mystery too fast, this will overwhelm them, but also, don’t give them information too slowly, this will bore them. Find a good pace and stick with it, I usually find giving one small snippet of information per chapter does the deed. And if I’m killing people off, I space it out as evenly as possible as not to make my novels seem too “bloody.” Also make sure that as you make people suspicious and clear them of said suspicion, try to keep things realistic as possible. If things start getting too crazy, the reader can often times lose their engagement and put the book down—and this is the opposite of what you want as a writer.

            During all of these twists and turns where you are providing information on the plot, you should also be revealing the development of your character(s). Readers like organic characters that grow and change with the story. Some of the worst books I’ve ever read are the ones with characters that I feel are flat and never changed. As humans, we are always growing and changing and our characters should do the same—it will make them that much more lifelike for the reader. (This goes back to my statement above, generally readers like realistic mysteries unless you’re crossing genres and writing about the supernatural or fantasy).

            Now lets talk about how to end your novel. I’m not going to tell you that every mystery novel should end happy, but if you want to build a reader base, you must make sure you have an ending that is both believable, and happy enough that the reader wants to read more from you. Personally, I’m a fan of what I call “real life endings” where the reader doesn’t always find out the answer to everything. But even though I often leave a few small ends untied, I try to always make it a happy ending for my main character(s) and answer all the major questions in the book. By the end of the book, most readers are invested and get very angry if it ends sadly—because real life is sad, and a book is often a person’s escape from the real world. Keep that in mind as you write, especially if you like to write sad endings. One benefit to writing mystery novels is leaving a question unanswered at the end. Humans have a natural desire to solve mysteries—make sure you use this to your advantage. Leaving unanswered question(s) can lead the reader to your next book whether it’s related or not! In the end of my most recent novel, I surprised the readers with one last twist, and this will lead them to my next novel, or so I hope.

            Obviously, there are many more components to writing a mystery novel than just characters, plot twists, and an ending, but those are the basics and I think anyone that has all three can write a successful mystery novel—its really not that difficult! If you want more resources about actually writing a book in general, please check out my blog series The Road to Self Publishing. I have an article titled How to Write a Book, which can help you build from the ground up! As always, I love to help my readers, so if you have more questions, feel free to contact me through my website, or on twitter or instagram @thehopeopera.

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Hope E Davis
Hope E Davis

Self published mystery author of two novels with a third on the way. Ghostwriter and blogger as well as a lover of travel. Check out my website

The Road to Becoming a Self-Published Author
The Road to Becoming a Self-Published Author

Ever since I published my first book in 2018, I’ve had numerous people approach me saying all they’ve ever wanted to do is publish a book. My response? Now is the time! Self-publishing has NEVER been easier! I’ve now outlined my journey in this blog.

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