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How to Write a Mystery Story

Last Updated: July 7, 2023 References

This article was co-authored by Lucy V. Hay . Lucy V. Hay is a Professional Writer based in London, England. With over 20 years of industry experience, Lucy is an author, script editor, and award-winning blogger who helps other writers through writing workshops, courses, and her blog Bang2Write. Lucy is the producer of two British thrillers, and Bang2Write has appeared in the Top 100 round-ups for Writer’s Digest & The Write Life and is a UK Blog Awards Finalist and Feedspot’s #1 Screenwriting blog in the UK. She received a B.A. in Scriptwriting for Film & Television from Bournemouth University. There are 10 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been viewed 564,682 times.

A good mystery story will have fascinating characters, exciting suspense, and a puzzle that keeps you turning the pages. But it can be difficult to write an engaging mystery story, especially if you have never tried to before. With the right preparation, brainstorming, and outlining, you can create a page-turning mystery of your own.

Preparing to Write

Step 1 Understand the distinction between the mystery genre and the thriller genre.

  • When it comes to mystery, one of the key elements is tension and making the story compelling from the very beginning. [1] X Research source
  • In mystery stories, your reader does not know who committed the murder until the end of the novel. Mysteries are centered on the intellectual exercise of trying to figure out the motivations behind the crime, or the puzzle.
  • Mysteries tend to be written in the first person, while thrillers are often written in the third person and from multiple points of view. In mystery stories, there is usually a slower pace as the hero/detective/main character tries to solve the crime. There are also limited action sequences in mysteries than in thrillers.
  • Because mysteries are often slower paced, the characters are usually more in-depth and well rounded in a mystery story than in a thriller.

Step 2 Read examples of mystery stories.

  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. The 19th-century mystery novel was originally written in serial form, so the story moves forward in measured steps. Much of what became standard in crime fiction was done by Collins in this novel, so it is an engaging and instructive introduction to the genre.
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Chandler is one of the genre’s greatest writers, creating engaging stories about the trials and tribulations of private detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe is a tough, cynical, but honest P.I. who becomes entangled in a plot with a General, his daughter, and a blackmailing photographer. Chandler’s work is known for its sharp dialogue, great pacing, and riveting hero, Marlowe. [3] X Research source
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. One of the genre’s most famous detectives, along with his equally famous sleuthing partner Watson, solves a series of mysteries and crimes in this collection of stories. Holmes and Watson inject their unique character traits into the stories along the way. [4] X Research source
  • NANCY DREW by Carolyn Keene. The whole series is situated in the United States.Nancy Drew is a detective. Her close friends Helen Corning, Bess Marvin and George Fayne appear in some mysteries. Nancy is Carson Drew's daughter. Carson Drew is the most famous lawyer in River Heights, where they live.
  • "Hardy Boys by Franklin W. Dixon.This is similar to Nancy Drew.It is about two brothers: Frank and Joe Hardy, who are talented detectives.They are the sons of a very famous detective, and they sometimes help in his cases.
  • A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne. This recent mystery novel is set in 1970s suburban Washington. It centers on the “crime” in the neighborhood, the murder of a young boy. Berne intersperses a coming of age story with the mystery of the death of the young boy in bland, boring suburbia, but manages to make the story anything but bland or boring. [5] X Research source

Step 3 Identify the main character in an example story.

  • For example, in The Big Sleep , Chandler’s first-person narrator describes himself through his clothing on the first page: “I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with the dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be."
  • With these opening sentences, Chandler makes the narrator distinct through his way of describing himself, his outfit, and his job (private detective).

Step 4 Note the setting or time period of an example story.

  • For example, in the second paragraph of the first page of The Big Sleep , Marlowe places the reader in the time and setting: “The main hallway of the Sternwood place was two stories high.”
  • The reader now knows Marlowe is in front of the home of the Sternwoods and it is a larger home, possibly wealthy.

Step 5 Consider the crime or mystery the main character needs to solve.

  • In The Big Sleep , Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to “take care” of a photographer who has been blackmailing the General with scandalous pictures of the General’s daughter.

Step 6 Identify the obstacles or problems the main character encounters.

  • In The Big Sleep , Chandler complicates Marlowe’s pursuit of the photographer by having the photographer killed in the early chapters, followed by the suspicious suicide of the General’s chauffeur. So Chandler sets up the story with two crimes that Marlowe has to solve.

Step 7 Note the resolution of the mystery.

  • The resolution of the mystery should feel surprising to your reader, without confusing them. One of the benefits of a mystery is that you can pace the story so the solution unfolds gradually, rather than in a rushed or hurried manner.

Developing Your Main Character and Outlining the Story

Step 1 Create your detective or sleuth.

  • Body size and shape, hair and eye color, and any other physical characteristics. For example, you may have a short female main character with dark hair, glasses, and green eyes. Or you may want a more typical detective character: tall with slicked-back hair and a five o’clock shadow.
  • Clothing and dress. Your character’s clothing will not only create a more detailed image for your reader, it can also indicate what time period your story is set in. For example, if your main character wears heavy armor and a helmet with a crest, your reader will realize your story is set in medieval times. If your character wears a hoodie, jeans, and a backpack, this will tip off your readers that the story is likely set in modern times.
  • What makes your main character unique. It’s important to create a main character who stands out to your reader and feels engaging enough to sustain many pages in a story or novel. Consider what your character likes and dislikes. Maybe your female sleuth is shy and awkward at parties, and has a secret love of reptiles. Or perhaps your detective is a complete klutz and doesn’t consider himself a strong or smart person. Focus on details that will help to create a unique main character and don’t be afraid to draw on details from your own life or your own preferences and tastes. [7] X Research source
  • What matters most is that your main character has a burning question or burning need to solve the mystery.

Step 2 Determine the setting.

  • If you decide to set your story in a time period or location you are unfamiliar with, conduct research on the time period or location through your local library, online sources, or interviews with experts in a certain time period or location. Be specific with your research and during your interviews to ensure you get all the details of a setting or time period right.

Step 3 Create the puzzle or mystery.

  • An item is stolen from your main character or someone close to the main character.
  • A person close to the main character disappears.
  • The main character receives threatening or disturbing notes.
  • The main character witnesses a crime.
  • The main character is asked to help solve a crime.
  • The main character stumbles upon a mystery.
  • You can also combine several of these scenarios to create a more layered mystery. For example, an item may be stolen from your main character, a person close to the main character disappears, and then the main character witnesses a crime she is later asked to help solve.

Step 4 Decide how you are going to complicate the puzzle or mystery.

  • Create a list of possible suspects your main character may encounter throughout the story. You can use several suspects to point the detective and/or the reader in the wrong direction to build suspense and surprise. [8] X Research source
  • Write a list of clues. Red herrings are clues that are false or misleading. Your story will be stronger if you include several red herring clues in the story. For example, your main character may find a clue that points to one suspect, but it is later revealed the clue is actually tied to a different suspect. Or your detective may find a clue without realizing it is the key to unlocking the entire mystery. [9] X Research source
  • Red herrings are all about saying "follow this thread" when the "thread" in question is completely wrong. A good writer can put something in the way that stops readers from realizing what's going on.

Step 5 Use cliffhangers to keep the story entertaining.

  • The main character is investigating a possible lead alone and encounters the murderer or killer.
  • The main character begins to doubt his/her abilities and lets his/her guard down, allowing the murderer to kill again.
  • No one believes the main character and he/she ends up trying to solve the crime alone,and he/she ends up getting kidnapped.
  • The main character is injured and trapped in a dangerous place.
  • The main character is going to lose an important clue if he/she can’t get out of a certain location or situation.

Step 6 Create a resolution or ending.

  • The main character saves someone close to them, or an innocent person wrapped up in the mystery.
  • The main character saves himself/herself and is changed by his/her courage or smarts.
  • The main character exposes a bad character or organization.
  • The main character exposes the murderer or person responsible for the crime.

Step 7 Write a story outline.

  • Introduction of main character and setting.
  • The inciting incident, or the crime.
  • The call to adventure: The main character gets involved in solving the crime.
  • Tests and trials: The main character finds clues, encounters potential suspects, and tries to stay alive as he/she pursues the truth. Close ones might be kidnapped as a threat
  • Ordeal: The main character thinks he/she has found a key clue or suspect and believes he/she has solved the crime. This is a false resolution, and is a good way to surprise your reader when it turns out the main character got it wrong.
  • Major setback: All seems lost for the main character. He/She found the wrong suspect or clue, someone else is killed or harmed, and all his/her allies have abandoned him/her. A major setback will amp up the tension in the story and keep the reader guessing.
  • The reveal: The main character gathers all interested parties together, lays out the clues, explains the false leads, and reveals who the murderer or guilty person is.

Writing the Story

Step 1 Use the five senses to describe the setting.

  • Think what your main character might see in a certain setting. For example, if your character lives in a home much like yours in a small town, you may describe his/her bedroom or his/her walk to school. If you are using a specific historical setting, like 70s California, you may describe your character standing on a street corner and looking at the unique architecture or the cars that drive by.
  • Consider what your main character might hear in a certain setting. Your sleuth may listen to the birds chirping and the sprinklers on the lawns on the way to school. Or your detective may hear the roaring of cars or the crashing of ocean waves.
  • Describe what your main character might smell in a certain setting. Your main character might wake up to the smell of coffee being made in the kitchen by his/her parents. Or your detective may be hit with the smell of the city: rotting garbage and body odor.
  • Describe what your character might feel. This could be a light breeze, a sharp pain, a sudden jolt, or a shiver down his/her spine. Focus on how your character’s body might react to a feeling.
  • Think about what your character might taste. Your main character may still taste the cereal she had for breakfast in his/her mouth, or the drink from the night before.

Step 2 Start the action right away.

  • Think about being concise with your language and description. Most readers continue reading a good mystery because they are invested in the main character and want to see his/her succeed. Be brief but specific when describing the main character and his/her perspective on the world.
  • For example, Chandler’s The Big Sleep starts by situating the reader in a setting and gives the reader a sense of the main character’s perspective on the world. “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”
  • With this beginning, the story starts in action, with a specific time, date, and description of the setting. It then presents the main character’s physical description and job title. The section ends with the main character’s motivation: four million dollars. In three lines, Chandler has covered many of the essential details of the character, the setting, and the story.

Step 3 Show, don’t tell.

  • Think about how you would react in a situation if you were angry or scared. Have your character react in ways that communicate angry or scared, without telling the reader about the character’s emotions. For example, rather than “Stephanie was angry,” you could write: “Stephanie slammed his/her water glass down on the table so hard his/her dinner plate rattled. She glared at him, and started ripping the thin, white napkin into shreds with his/her fingers.”
  • Showing, rather than telling also works well for descriptions of setting. For example, in The Big Sleep , rather than tell the reader the Sternwoods were wealthy, Chandler describes the luxurious details of the estate: “There were French doors at the back of the hall, beyond them a wide sweep of emerald grass to a white garage, in front of which a slim dark young chauffeur in shiny black leggings was dusting a maroon Packard convertible. Beyond the garage were some decorative trees trimmed as carefully as poodle dogs. Beyond them a large greenhouse with a domed roof. Then more trees and beyond everything the solid, uneven, comfortable line of the foothills.”

Step 4 Surprise your reader but don’t confuse her.

  • Plot. Ensure your story sticks to the outline and has a clear beginning, middle, and an ending. You should also confirm your main character shifts or changes at the end of the story.
  • Characters. Are your characters, including your main character, distinct and unique? Do all the characters sound and act the same or are they different from each other? Do your characters feel original and engaging?
  • Pacing. Pacing is how fast or how slow the action moves in the story. Good pacing will feel invisible to the reader. If the story feels like it is moving too fast, make the scenes longer to draw out the emotions of the characters. If it feels like the story gets bogged down or confusing, shorten the scenes to only include essential information. A good rule of thumb is to always end a scene earlier than you might think or want. This will keep the tension from scene to scene from dropping and keep the pace of the story moving.
  • The twist. The twist can either make or break a good mystery story. This is completely optional, but many of the best stories have a twist at the end. Make sure that a twist is not too "cheesy". The more unique a twist is, the easier it is to write. When writing an overused twist, such as "then they woke up", you'll need to be a very good writer to make it sound good. A good twist not only fools the audience, but fools the character(s) too. Consider hinting towards the twist during action scenes, so that when the reader looks back on the story, they'll wonder how they missed it. Try not to make the twist evident too early on.

Mystery Story Help

essay mystery story

Community Q&A

Community Answer

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Things You'll Need

  • Paper and pen and/or a computer with a word processor (like Word)
  • Mystery books/stories
  • An idea/plot for the story

You Might Also Like

Write a Short Detective Story

  • ↑ https://www.writersdigest.com/write-better-fiction/7-tips-writing-great-mystery-suspense-novels
  • ↑ http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/tip-sheet/article/59582-the-10-best-mystery-books.html
  • ↑ http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/bigsleep/summary.html
  • ↑ http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1661/1661-h/1661-h.htm
  • ↑ https://www.nytimes.com/books/97/07/20/reviews/970720.20careyt.html
  • ↑ http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2013/10/how-to-write-murder-mystery.html
  • ↑ http://www.creative-writing-now.com/how-to-write-a-mystery.html
  • ↑ http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2014/03/how-to-write-murderously-good-mystery.html
  • ↑ http://www.creative-writing-now.com/how-to-write-fiction.html
  • ↑ http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2013/10/how-to-write-murder-mystery-part-two.html

About This Article

Lucy V. Hay

Before you write your mystery story you’ll want to create some characters and outline the plot. You might make your main character a detective or just a curious citizen who witnessed a crime. Once you have characters, choose a setting and a mystery such as a murder or a robbery of a precious artwork. If you want to make your story dramatic, add in cliffhangers and red herrings, or clues that lead to dead ends. When you’re ready to write your story, scroll down for tips from our Creative Writing reviewer on creating a well-paced and exciting narrative. Did this summary help you? Yes No

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  • Writing Prompts

70 Mystery Writing Prompts That’ll Keep Your Readers Hooked

From whodunits to unsolved crimes, here are over 70 mystery writing prompts that will keep your readers hooked from beginning to end. 

The mystery genre is all about gathering clues and evidence to solve a crime or mystery of some sort. Common mysteries to solve may include murder, kidnappings, theft and any other unsolved crimes. The thing that makes a mystery story so appealing is that no one knows who the true culprit is until the very end of the story. And the big reveal at the end is always shocking to the reader. The secret to a good mystery lies in the plot twist . You have to be two steps ahead of your readers – Get inside the head of your readers and think, “Who would your readers think the main culprit is?” Then switch it around, and pick someone who is highly unlikely to be the real baddie.

You can pick a random prompt from our mystery writing prompts generator below to practice your plot twist skills on:

In a mystery novel, characters are a huge part of the mystery. Common characters may include:

  • Street smart detective – They ask all the right questions, but are the answers to be trusted?
  • Bent cop – Known for planting fake evidence at crime scenes.
  • Mysterious guy – No one knows anything about them, and therefore they could be an easy suspect in the case.
  • The scapegoat – The one everyone is blaming.
  • The obvious suspect – All clues point to this person.
  • The unobvious suspect – No real evidence against this person, but somehow they link to the crime in question.

When writing your mystery story think about the characters you would include carefully before diving in. We even recommend creating character profiles for each character, and maybe even a mind-map to show their connection to the crime in question.

70 Mystery Writing Prompts

List of over 70 mystery writing prompts, from unsolved murder cases to items that vanished into thin air:

  • The richest man on Earth has a hidden vault filled with millions of dollars, expensive jewellery and gems. One night he goes to add to his collection of gems and notices a sentimental piece of jewellery missing.
  • One-by-one random things keep on going missing in your house. First your watch, then a teapot. Who is taking them and why?
  • One of your classmates mysteriously stops coming to school. It’s been nearly 2 weeks since you last saw them. What could have happened to them?
  • A police officer finds a dead body at a barber’s shop in town. The cause of death was drowning. No one knows how the body got there and who did it.
  • A person takes a game of snakes and ladders too literally. In random locations around the city, snakes and ladders have been placed. Where do those ladders go? Why are snakes placed in these random places? Can you solve this strange mystery?
  • You wake up in a warehouse with no memory of how you got there. The warehouse office is filled with newspaper clippings of missing people from the past 20 years. Who is the kidnapper and why are you in this warehouse?
  • Last night a series of supermarkets and warehouses across the city were robbed. The thief or thieves only steal toilet paper. Can you solve this case?
  • Meet Benji, the cat detective. Benji is a feisty feline who is on a mission to capture the great tuna can thief. 
  • At exactly 7.08 pm last night a scream was heard from 59 Pebble Lane. The neighbours knocked but no one was home. Later that night, the police arrived at approximately 2.13 am to find a cold dead body on the floor in a pool of spilt tea.
  • You are a reporter for the Imagine Forest Times newspaper, you are writing an article on the missing bird eggs in the local forest.
  • Imagine you are a security guard. It’s your first night shift at the local art Museum. The next morning a priceless painting goes missing, and you are blamed. You need to prove your innocence before you are sent to prison, but how?
  • Write a time travel mystery story where the main character keeps going back in time to find out who really murdered their parents.
  • You and your friends go to the fairground. You decide to ride the carousel. Round and round you go, and then the ride stops. When it stops you notice one of your friends is suddenly missing. Where did they go? (See our list of writing prompts about friendship for more ideas.)
  • The main character in your story is caught red-handed with the missing jewel in their hand. But did they really steal this jewel?
  • Write a diary from the perspective of a paranoid person who thinks their neighbour is stealing from them.
  • Write down an action scene where the main character trails the secondary character to an abandoned warehouse. What do you think will happen next?
  • Someone has been stealing mobile phones at your school. You think you know who it is, so you set up a try to catch the thief.
  • A bent police officer has been planting false evidence at crime scenes for years. Who are they protecting and why?
  • Write a script between two characters who are meeting in secret to discuss some new evidence in a murder trial.
  • Imagine you are a detective interviewing a suspect in the crime of jewellery theft. Write down some questions that you might ask the suspect. If you have time, you can also write the possible answers from the suspect’s point of view.
  • You discover a note in your bag. It says, “I know what YOU have done!” – Who can have left this note, and what are they talking about?
  • Write a story about a young police officer who is solving the murder case of his best friend from high school. The twist is that this police officer turns out to be the murderer.
  • For over 10 years, your twin sister was missing. But there she is – Suddenly walking in the middle of the street. Where has she been? What happened to her?
  • Imagine you are an investigator examining the scene of a murder crime. What types of clues would you look out for? Can you make a list of at least 10 possible clues you might find?
  • A police car is chasing a potential suspect in a murder trial. Halfway through the chase, the police car disappears. The suspect slows down their car, and wonders, “What happened? Why did they stop coming after me?”
  • You come home from school one day and notice that your mother’s things are gone. Your first thought is that she left you and your father. But the truth is that she was kidnapped by someone.
  • A mysterious person has stolen all your teddy bears and is holding them for ransom somewhere. Each day you get a cryptic riddle. If you can solve each riddle you will receive one teddy bear back each time. 
  • It’s the year 3,000. Your main character is a lawyer for a robot. They must prove this robot’s innocence in a human murder trial. (See this list of sci-fi writing prompts for more inspiration.)
  • Someone keeps stealing textbooks from your school. One day you go to school and see a huge statement art piece outside the school made from the stolen textbooks. Can you find out who did this?
  • Cinderella has turned into a detective. She needs to solve the case of the stolen glass slippers. After all those glass slippers are super rare.
  • The main character in your story must prove their innocence in a murder trial. How would they do this? What evidence would they need?
  • The main character in your story discovers that their brother is the real killer. They then try to destroy all evidence linked to their brother to protect them.
  • “Poppy! Poppy! Where are you, buddy?” Mindy searched for her pet Labrador everywhere. But she was nowhere to be seen. It turns out all the dogs in town have been missing since last night. What could have possibly happened to them?
  • Someone has been leaving embarrassing photographs of various people all over town. Can you track down this person? Why are they posting these photos? 
  • Write a mystery story titled, ‘Piece-by-Piece’ about a jigsaw puzzle thief who is stealing random puzzles pieces.
  • You notice some muddy footprints leading into a thick forest at your local park. You follow this trail of footprints to a secret hatch in the woods. The door of the hatch has been left open. When you go inside you discover something shocking.
  • Your dog digs up an old lunchbox in your backyard. Inside the lunchbox, you find a key, an address and some old newspaper clipping of missing people. You think you can solve this case of the missing people by just visiting that address. But things get a little more complicated…
  • This is a mystery story about a boy named Billy who’s home alone and is playing with a toy truck when he finds a strange box. His mother, a lady with a past, is suspicious of this mysterious box, so she calls the police. Billy’s mother is a detective, and they find that the box is really a trap, and Billy is kidnapped.
  • Write a crime mystery story about how a little girl’s dream of becoming a scientist led to her death. Why would anyone murder a young girl who wants to be a scientist? How did this happen?
  • A small-town sheriff gets caught up in the biggest robbery in history. When over a million dollars just vanish into thin air, people are quick to blame the shifty-eyed sheriff from out of town. But is he really the culprit in this crime?
  • When Sara was a young girl she was kidnapped by a strange man and woman who took care of her. But now Sara wants to know what happened to her real parents. Are they still alive? Are they still looking for her?
  • The clock is ticking. Somewhere in the city, a group of hostages are locked up. With every hour that goes by, one hostage will be killed. The main character, a street-smart detective must solve the clues to find the location of these hostages in time.
  • A police officer finds himself in a very unusual situation. It is just before 6 pm on a Friday night when police were called to a disturbance in the street. The call came from a man who was allegedly threatening a woman with a knife. The man was arrested at 6.05 pm and taken to the police station. However, it was later revealed that the woman left at home has been murdered by someone else, but who?
  • A murder mystery party takes a dark turn when one of the guests is murdered for real.
  • Write a mystery story titled, ‘Who Stole My Homework?’ The main character’s A* worthy English essay is stolen by someone, but who?
  • Use this sentence as inspiration: Inspector Robins pulls out his notebook and writes down two words: Green fingers.
  • “10 car windows broken in 10 days! What does it all mean? What does it mean?” Exclaimed Detective Riley.
  • During a stop and search, a police officer finds a dead body in the boot of a car. But is the car driver really to blame?
  • A lost bracelet ends up in your best friend’s locker at school, along with other precious items. Your best friend is wrongly accused of stealing these items.
  • One girl must find her stolen prom dress before the prom. In the days leading up to the prom, more and more of her accessories for prom night are being stolen. Who is this thief?
  • Write a mystery thriller titled, “Come and Get It”. It’s about an arrogant criminal who is stealing sentimental items from each police officer in the state, He leaves these items in random locations in the city, along with a note that says: Come and get it!
  • Every night the car alarms for every car on your street turn on at exactly 2.03 am. why is this happening, and who is responsible?
  • A mysterious hacker has hacked into the city’s power grid. They have the power to on and off electricity whenever they want. Can you catch them before they do any more damage?
  • A secret admirer is leaving expensive gifts for your main character. At first, these gifts seem great, but then they soon take a dark twist (see our Valentine’s Day Prompts for more inspiration).
  • Your main character is at their senior prom. Dancing the night away. Suddenly the lights go off. Pitch darkness for a minute. When the lights come on, your best friend is gone. And there’s a message in red paint on the wall: You’re next!
  • Your teacher gives back your English assignment, and you got an F! Looking closer, you realise that this is not your assignment at all! The same starts happening in your other classes. Someone has been swapping your assignments – But who?
  • For the past few days, you have been receiving anonymous emails from someone. The emails are telling you not to be friends with him. You don’t take any of these emails seriously until the police come knocking on your door.
  • A family picnic at the park becomes unbearable when you open up the basket to discover every family members untold secrets.
  • You are at a Chinese restaurant with your family. It’s time to open up the fortune cookies. When your mother opens up her fortune cookie, it says: “One of your children has been very naughty!”. Then your father opens his cookie up, it says: “Who’s been sneaking around behind mommy’s and daddy’s back?” All eyes at the table are on you. But what did you do?
  • Your main character is a bent cop. Trying to manipulate the course of justice, and helping real criminals get away with murder. One day, someone plants evidence that gets this bent cop arrested for a murder they did not commit.
  • Write down a scene between two characters. In this scene, the ‘real’ criminal is trying to convince a detective that someone else is guilty of the crime of stealing from a church.
  • There are three potential suspects in the murder case of Phillip Green. You are the lead detective on this case. What questions would you ask these suspects to find the real murderer? Make a list of at least 10 questions you may ask.
  • A health inspector arrives at a vegan restaurant to discover rotten vegetables, and raw, old meat. The owners know nothing about this and believe someone planted this as sabotage. Who can have sabotaged the vegan restaurant?
  • Write a short mystery story for kids titled, ‘Why is the sky blue?’ One child’s curiosity about the sky leads them to discover a secret playground in the park.
  • Your main character is a news reporter who is convinced that the killer of Rosie Moore is still out there. They know that the police have convicted the wrong person for this heinous crime. Can your main character find the real killer before the wrong person is sentenced to life in prison?
  • Someone has been replacing all shampoos around town with a hair removal solution. When half the town’s hair starts falling out, it is up to you, a top detective to solve this crime.
  • Write a mystery story set in the future where a secret cyber group called the ‘Merry Man’ are hacking the bank accounts of rich people and giving this money to the poor. Your main character is a police detective trying to hunt the members of this cyber group down.
  • A mysterious person is playing a nasty game of hide and seek with you. They have kidnapped your friends and family members and hid them in various locations within the city. You have exactly 1 hour to find each person before something bad happens to them.
  • Someone has left a note in your locker at school. The note reads: Help me, please! You ignore this note, but more notes start appearing in your notebooks, bag and even at home. Until eventually you get a package through the mail. You open this package and scream…
  • Write an animal mystery tale about a dog who wants to find the original owner of a doll he found in the park.
  • Can you solve this bonus mystery prompt: Someone has been stealing socks from the locals at night. Who could this be and why would they be doing this? (See video prompt below for more ideas.)

Did you find these mystery writing prompts useful when writing your own story? Let us know in the comments below!

mystery Writing Prompts

Marty the wizard is the master of Imagine Forest. When he's not reading a ton of books or writing some of his own tales, he loves to be surrounded by the magical creatures that live in Imagine Forest. While living in his tree house he has devoted his time to helping children around the world with their writing skills and creativity.

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BRYN DONOVAN

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50 Intriguing Mystery Story Ideas!

handcuffs, pipe, brandy

Mystery story ideas often follow a similar pattern. Early on, a dead body turns up, a valuable item goes missing, or a puzzle begs to be solved. The reader knows that by the end of the book, questions will have been answered, which is a comforting element in even the most gruesome murder mysteries.

This simple structure allows for endless creative and original variations. And ten different writers could take the same writing prompt here and write ten vastly different stories! I’ve been reading a lot of mystery novels lately — mostly cozy mysteries, not gritty crime novels, although I might enjoy those, too. That inspired me to write this list of prompts for mystery story ideas.

You can also use this list as an idea generator for free-writing.  Whether you stumble across a story idea you love in the process, or you just get your creative writing juices flowing again, it’s so worth it.

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Although I had mystery novels in mind, some of these could become a subplot in a different fiction genre, from fantasy and romance (especially romantic suspense), to historical fiction and thrillers. (And you might also be interested in my list of 50 thriller plot ideas !)

Be sure to save the post for future reference (or pin it on Pinterest!)

50 MYSTERY STORY IDEAS: plots and writing prompts | magnifying glass, book, glasses

Mystery Story Ideas

1. A woman asks a writer to write the story of her life. Then she goes missing.

2. Murder victims are found buried with some of their wordly goods, Viking style.

3. Three people close to the murder victim have confessed. Each of them swears they acted alone.

4. Notes and gifts from her “Secret Santa” at work take a strange turn.

5. It’s going to be a beautiful wedding at a beautiful destination, but two people in the wedding party have been murdered.

6. The creator of a high-tech prototype that will change an industry has gone missing.

7. Her parents believe her to be their biological child, but they all learn otherwise.

8. The dead woman’s wedding ring is found in a ditch forty miles away.

9. A museum conservator is restoring an old painting, and an X-ray reveals something shocking or mysterious painted or written in the layer beneath.

10. A sorority sister who bullied prospective pledges is found dead.

11. As a man researches his genealogy, he finds that ancestors from a few different generations and a few different countries made visits to the same remote place.

12. Someone replaced the woman’s contact lens solution with a damaging liquid. (This mystery story idea brought to you courtesy of a phobia of mine!)

13. He’s always been a faithful husband, but someone has planted false evidence of his having an affair.

14. A detective is hired for a high price to find a thief who stole something that doesn’t appear to have any real value.

15. Every unmarried lady at the ball wanted to dance with the duke, so it’s too bad he was found stabbed in the garden.

16. In the middle of a wilderness, someone finds an abandoned bunker with security cameras, powered by a generator.

17. The graves of historic figures are being robbed.

18. Clues to the mystery come to him in dreams, but nobody believes him.

19. Serial murders in cities in two different countries are very similar.

20. A man she didn’t know left her a valuable and unusual item in his will.

21. A writer researching his biography of a Golden Age movie star comes across something that makes him suspect that contrary to the official story, she was a murder victim.

22. The accidental death of this investigative reporter seems a little too convenient.

23. The murders all relate to common fears, such as public speaking, flying, and heights.

24. A woman wakes up with a headache and goes into work, only to learn that she’s been missing for a month.

25. Writers are being murdered at the mystery writers’ convention.

26. The painting must have been stolen from the museum in broad daylight, but the security cameras malfunctioned and no witnesses have come forward.

27. Three different guests at the Air BnB died later under mysterious circumstances.

28. A practicing witch or voodoo priestess is accused of murder.

29. The murders are re-enactments of famous murders in novels or movies.

30. He claims to be the rich man who was lost at sea two decades ago.

31. The inspector’s friend is murdered while he is talking on the phone to the inspector.

32. A dead body is found in an unclaimed piece of luggage at the airport.

33. He was murdered on his honeymoon on a cruise ship, and his new, much-younger bride was the only one on board who even knew him.

34. A woman who didn’t know she was adopted meets her twin sister, who gives her a dire warning.

35. One of the pies submitted to the state fair contest was poisoned.

36. The report of a celebrity’s death is false, but he dies soon after.

37. The murder victims all have the same tailor.

38. Who would kill the guest of honor at their 100 th birthday party?

39. The victim was found drowned in a whiskey barrel at the distillery.

40. A wife arranges a romantic “scavenger hunt” for her husband, but someone else changes a few of the clues.

41. The thief who steals rare books always leaves a sonnet behind. (As someone who’s written a few sonnets, I’m particularly fond of this mystery story idea, but you can think of all kinds of creative “calling cards” for criminals!)

42. The wrong body is in the casket at the visitation. No one knows who it is, or where the other body is.

43. The murders were definitely committed by a human, but resemble the attacks of wild animals.

44. After the woman returned the lost wallet, someone began stalking her.

45. The book she’s reading seems to be telling the story of her own life, though she doesn’t think she’s ever met the author.

46. A man who faked his own death must be found in time.

47. Someone in a villain costume and mask attempts to kill an actor at a fan convention. The actor is saved by a fan dressed as a superhero.

48. An Egyptian mummy, or what appears to be one, is found in an unlikely place.

49. A man is found murdered following a heated argument with several people on social media.

50. A body is found in the organic vegetable garden at a hippie commune.

Do you have some thoughts on mystery story ideas?

If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comments! 

And if you want more inspiration, please check out my book 5,000 Writing Prompts !  It has 100 more mystery writing prompts in addition to the ones on this list, plus hundreds of other master plots by genre, dialogue and character prompts, and much more.

essay mystery story

Thanks so much for stopping by, and happy writing!

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62 thoughts on “ 50 intriguing mystery story ideas ”.

  • Pingback: 50 Mystery Plot Ideas and Writing Prompts! – All About Writing and more

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I love cozy mysteries and I love these prompts. A couple of them have spoken to me already and I’ve never written a mystery before.

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Thanks, KC! And yeah… cozy mysteries are a whole new world for me, and I love them. 🙂

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And I thought I could come up with some off the wall stuff…Thanks Bryn! You’ve offered up several gems.

Haha, thank you Anne!

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Your writing prompts should get the writing juices flowing. Thanks for sharing.

Hey, thanks for reading! And for commenting!

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Thanks for the mystery prompts, Bryn! I’ve queued up a link to share tonight for Write it Wednesday on my blog.

Oh, thank you. It’s always an honor!

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Is 46 a transvestite mystery then?

It’s either a typo, transvestite, cross dresser, a man who was dressed as a woman as part of his job, or dressed as a woman as a way of hiding from the trouble he’s in. Your choice 🙂

Ha! It’s a typo. I corrected it. 🙂 Thank you!

PS I do that ALL THE TIME in my writing! I always have to correct a few pronouns when I edit a story.

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Number 2 is brilliant and I would binge watch an entire Scandi-noir series based on it.

Hahaha! Thanks, Maggie!

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You helped me a LOT, thanks! I wrote stories on #9 and #11. I liked several others, but couldn’t think of ways to put them into stories. I tweaked #9 quite a bit. You have awesome ideas! ??

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Hi Bryn, just to say your “Master List for Writers” rocks – love it!

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Thanks a lot Bryn… the ideas were nice… can work as a kick starter…!!

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this was very helpful thank you so much (they were also in a very understanable english, im only 13 and from denmark)

These ideas are genius! Please write more for mystery and other types of books. (if you have time.) I LOVED EVERY SINGLE ONE OF YOUR IDEAS.

Hello, Bryn! Thank you so much for making this! it’s really inspire me:))

these are useless

just kidding there good

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is it okay to use these prompts for movie ideas?

  • Pingback: 4 Places to Find Plot Ideas for Your Mystery Novel | | Silviya's Writing Nook

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Its really good to have these prompts…..they speaka lot for the forwarding story

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so glad to have found you! Love it! Story Ideas for a whole Lifetime!!

Hi there! I’m so glad it’s helpful! Thanks for the nice comment; I really appreciate it!

Yayyyyy I wanna be a author can I know how to become a AUTHOR BTW I’m 11 yrs old and I love reading and writing stories Love it!

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thank you i am 11 with my friend we are writing a book

Saul, that’s awesome! I wish you and your friend good luck on your book. Have fun!

Hello, I just found this, and thanks so much! I really wanted to write a mystery novel but I couldn’t come up with anything. Thanks a lot for the effort u put into these ideas and I’m so glad that people like you exist…. ❤

im 12 and im writing a mystery series! so helpful !

Good luck on your mystery series!

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Thanks for the prompts!

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What a lovely collection of mystery ideas!

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  • Pingback: 50 idées de complots mystérieux et invites d’écriture! – Bryn Donovan

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A lot of good ideas here Bryn. Thanks for the inspiration!

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I think 99% of content that could lead to a mystery story, comes from people. In solving the mystery, usually it’s a question of finding out what happened, right? I think it’s just as important to know WHY someone did something. The human factor, not just the event, is like, so important, right?

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Nice, and helpful. Let me see if I can connect two or more together and come up with a good plot.

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thank u so much! i am 11 yrs old and I’ve been writing short and simple stories since 7 or 8 years old. i came up with the idea to write a mystery novel/murder mystery when i remembered the “Sweet Valley High” series that i read most of by Francine Pascal and how much murder and drama got developed after the 94th one. Anyway, my mind was blank and the ideas i did came up with weren’t exactly genius. i was searching and stumbled against your ideas. they are sooo helpful!! i can literally imagine one of those ideas that u wrote into a movie (for example, your 1st one where everyone is searching for the woman and find nothing. then her adopted brother who had a bond discovered where she was and knew that he should tell no one. he talked to her through lights and letters written on the wall(i got that from STRANGER THINGS) and rescued her from the people who were holding her hostage) i stretched that but i can really imagine this in my mind right now. well, i am so grateful for your ideas. i hope more people can find your ideas helpful worldwide. thank again 🙂

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i think that that is really cool. i used to start stories like that around 8 and 9 and i am also 11 looking for more stories

i will also be really happy if u reply 😉

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hiya im also 11 i was wondering if you could help me on a 100 word unsolved writting challenge?

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Be careful kids. You do not know that the people contacting you are not adults pretending. Never give out your details to strangers. Keep safe. Keep writing.

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will do, thanks 🙂

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Number 41 is awesome!! I might use it, but in my story the thief leaves behind haikus. Thanks for the prompts!!!

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Hi can you please help me out on a private dective story

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I have been reading posts regarding this topic and this post is one of the most interesting and informative one I have read. Thank you for this!

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A cult believes the victim is not human/heretic.

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My problem right now isn’t finding an idea. It’s how to bring it to fruition. Any advice on that would be helpful

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Blog • Perfecting your Craft

Posted on Dec 02, 2020

How to Write a Mystery: The 6 Secret Steps Revealed

A great mystery novel will draw in readers with compelling characters, tricky twists, and a clever trail of clues. Of course, the secret to writing a hit like Gone Girl isn’t going to fall into your lap. But in this post we’ll help you strap on your deerstalker, grab your magnifying glass, and crack the code of great mystery architecture!

1. Investigate the subgenres of mystery

You may already know what sort of mystery you want to write. However, it still pays to read plenty of mystery books to get a good grasp on the genre before you start! When it comes to mystery and murder mystery subgenres, here are the usual suspects:

Cozy mysteries

Cozy mysteries often take place in small towns, frequently featuring charming bakeries and handsome mayors. Though the crime is normally murder, there’s no gore, no severed heads in boxes, and no lotion in the basket. As a result, there are rarely any traumatized witnesses or family members in these murder mysteries — making cozies perfect for a gentle fireside read.  Example : the Miss Marple series by Agatha Christie.

Recommended reads

  • A Guide to Cozy Mysteries [blog post]
  • And Then There Were None: The 10 Best Agatha Christie Books [blog post]

Police procedurals

Police procedurals commonly center on a police investigation (betcha didn’t see that one coming). They feature realistic law enforcement work, such as witness interrogation and forensic science, and require a great deal of research to convince seasoned readers of their authenticity.  Example : Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series.

How to write a mystery | example of the police procedural subgenre

Noir detective novels

Most associate “noir” with black-and-white films of cynical gumshoes and femme fatales — but did you know that dark, gritty noir novels came first? Their flawed characters and complex plots are renowned for leaving readers in the grey. ( Did the investigator do the right thing? Was the culprit really evil?) The crime may be solved by the end, but the mystery itself is rarely so open-and-shut.  Example : The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain.

Prefer your detectives a little more clean-cut? Check out our guide to reading the Sherlock Holmes books !

A suspense mystery is all about high stakes and unexpected twists — elements that make it nearly impossible to stop reading. The mystery builds throughout the narrative, clues are painstakingly planted to divulge just the right amount of information, and things are constantly edging towards a dramatic, often shocking climax.  Example : Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl .

  • The 50 Best Suspense Books of All Time [blog post]

Which genre (or subgenre) am I writing?

Find out which genre your book belongs to. It only takes a minute!

2. Commit to a crime before you write

While some authors like to write without an outline, improvisation doesn’t lend itself well to the mystery genre. To build suspense effectively and keep your readers engaged, you’ll need to drip feed information bit by bit — which means you’ll need to know your crime and its culprit inside out before you put pen to paper.

Consider not only who committed the crime, but how they pulled it off, and why. Is there anything unusual about their methods, or any specific details you can include that will add texture to your story — say, the lingering smell left behind by a specific real-world poison, or the unusual wounds created by an unconventional weapon? Would anyone else have witnessed the crime — or thought they witnessed it — and if so, how might your criminal keep them silent?

By mapping out and researching your crime, you can think about telltale clues that may have been left behind, and when best to reveal these clues to your readers to keep them hooked. Just make sure you clear your browser history afterwards.

3. Research and pick your setting with purpose

Setting is the backbone of mystery; it fosters the right atmosphere and typically plays a significant role in the plot. But according to crime fiction editor Allister Thompson , far too many mysteries are set in the same old places. “The world doesn’t need another crime novel set in New York,” he says, “or in London if you're British, or in Toronto if you’re from Canada.”

How to write a mystery - still from Breaking Bad

Instead of an overused urban setting, why not set your murder mystery someplace unique? “Not only does it give you more interesting material, it also gives you a really good marketing angle,” Allister says. “The distinct cultural mix and geography of Albuquerque, for example, was a huge part of Breaking Bad’ s hook.”

For more tips from Allister, check out this Reedsy Live on mystery writing mistakes and how to avoid them.

This all requires research to execute well. Local news sites should give you an idea of what matters to an area’s residents, the problems they face, and what’s interesting about their community. You’ll come to understand what might actually unfold in a setting like this one, adding depth and authenticity to your mystery.

4. Carve out an intriguing cast of characters

Mysteries are largely about human intrigue, and to pull that off, you’ll need to assemble an interesting cast of characters . Dedicate time to fleshing out your victim, perpetrator, suspects, and sleuth, and you’ll have a much easier time getting readers invested in cracking the case. 

To ensure you know your characters inside out, try filling out a character profile — check out our free one below. 

FREE RESOURCE

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Reedsy’s Character Profile Template

A story is only as strong as its characters. Fill this out to develop yours.

Create a memorable sleuth

Your sleuth, whether they’re a nosy neighbor or a chief inspector, serves as the eyes and ears of your novel — so it’s important that the reader cares about them from the start! 

To do this, establish some baseline stakes by determining your sleuth’s motive. What’s stopping them from saying “I guess we’ll never know” and walking away? Would an innocent person be jailed? Will the killer strike again? Or is your sleuth’s motive less selfless, maybe a promotion or a cash reward?

Your sleuth doesn’t have to be a quirky mega-genius a la Sherlock Holmes, but even your “everyman” amateur detective should still be a well-rounded and unique character. Give them idiosyncrasies, interests, and a life outside of the crime, including perhaps a history or connection to the victim that makes them especially invested — “ this time, it’s personal… ”

Profile your perp

To write a killer culprit, you’ll first need to get their motive right. Your entire plot hinges on this character and their reason for committing a crime, so it has to be thoroughly believable! 

Unless you’re dealing with a serial killer (in which case their motive might be more nebulous and unhinged), figuring out your culprit’s motive should always involve the question: What does the killer stand to gain or lose ? More often than not, the answer will involve money, passion, or both — or perhaps the oft-pilfered title of “best village baker”, if you’re writing a cozy. 

how to write a mystery | the suspects

Explore the dynamics between the victim and suspects

For there to even be a mystery, your culprit can’t be the only possible criminal. To keep readers hunting for the truth, try to show your other suspects having any two of the following:

  • means (did they have access to a weapon?), 
  • motive (how would they have benefited from the crime?), 
  • and opportunity (were they close to the crime scene?). 

It’s then the job of the sleuth (and the reader in tandem) to dig out whether they have all three — and even if so, whether they actually did it. 

To muddy the waters, explore your victim’s relationship to all the suspects, not just the culprit. A morally grey victim, with a messy past and complex relationships, will allow for more intrigue in your murder mystery. Readers are presented with multiple possibilities, and will have to rule them out in turn as new information comes to light, just like a real detective.

If you want to develop amazing characters to populate your mystery, why not check out our free 10-day course on the subject?

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5. Build tension throughout the story

The central pillar of any good mystery is the push-and-pull between question and answer. As the author, it’s your job to draw the reader’s attention to the right things at precisely the right moment. 

The best way to ensure this is to nail your story structure ! By expertly planning your novel’s shift from the unknown to the known, you’ll produce the gripping rise in action that all great mystery novels possess. Here’s how to do just that.

Looking for inspiration for your next mystery story? Look no further than our mystery plot generator !

Hit 'em with a hook

Every story should start with a great first line, but mysteries are particularly fertile ground for first-rate hooks. Many authors open with the crime. The opening line of Darker than Amber , for example, is brief, unexpected, and action-focused:

“We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.” — John D. MacDonald, Darker than Amber

There’s no one “right way” to open your mystery novel. But to make sure it’ll capture readers' attention, try to write an opening that a) jolts readers into paying attention, b) leads them to ask further questions, and c) introduces some stakes (conflict, danger, etc.).

Pull out the red string and connect your clues

You’ve successfully enticed readers with your hook! Now, to keep them engaged, you’ll need to structure your plot around the clues to your mystery’s solution. 

How to write a msytery - diagram of the Fichtean curve

This moment takes place when the pivotal clue turns up, or when your sleuth realizes the significance of a forgotten lead. What happens at that point leads to your novel's ending.

Give your sleuth time to think

While you may want to make your story as action-packed as possible, it's also important to slow down at times.  As well as including those action-oriented info-finding scenes (think: examining the crime scene for physical clues, talking to suspects to glean their alibis), you'll want to include more cerebral scenes that show them thinking or talking through their theory of the case, says Reedsy mystery editor Anne Brewer .

"These types of scenes give you an opportunity to sign post to the reader where the investigation is going (you can even employ misdirection here by having the sleuth make mistakes and get things wrong sometimes), as well as show off their special skills that make them a good investigator."

Consider red herrings

Because they lead the reader down the garden path and away from the truth, you might think red herrings would cause frustration. But when done well, they’re part of the fun, and that’s why they’re a tried-and-true trope of murder mystery. 

By upping the tension and escalating the pace, even if it’s towards a dead end, red herrings conjure the signature push-and-pull of the mystery genre. (Not to mention, they keep readers from guessing the answers too soon!)

For a classic mystery bait-and-switch, you might consider:

  • a character who appears complicit, but isn’t;
  • an object that seems more important than it is ( cleverly subverting Chekhov’s Gun !); or
  • a misleading clue that was planted by the culprit.

Finally, remember that when it comes to the ending of your mystery, it’s important to play fair. Don’t suddenly introduce an evil twin as the final twist without setting it up earlier! The ultimate conclusion should be both unexpected  and  earned if you want to satisfy readers, says Reedsy editor Alyssa Matesic . "You don't want to hint too obviously at the twist (such as who the killer is), because then the reader might put the pieces together prematurely and the reveal scene will feel lackluster and anticlimactic. At the same time, you don't want the twist to feel like it comes out of left field, because then you'll lose the reader's trust. You need to leave just enough breadcrumbs throughout the story so the reader feels like the twist has been right under their nose the whole time."

6. Revise your mystery (with the help of experts)

Once you’ve finished your first draft , you should absolutely celebrate with party poppers and champagne… but then it’s time to transform it into a truly standout mystery! After taking the time to perform a thorough self-edit , summon the courage to send your manuscript out into the world — the world of beta readers , that is. 

Beta readers

Beta readers are the invaluable people who read your draft and provide honest, third-party feedback. They can tell you which characters they connected with and which they didn’t, identify plot holes, and point out any other issues you’ve become blind to during your revisions.

As well as asking for general feedback on your story, ask your beta readers to record their working theories as they read. This way you can see whether readers will pick up on clues at the right moment, and whether they’re misled just the right amount by your red herrings.

Professional editor

An experienced mystery editor who eats, sleeps and breathes these books can offer suggestions that even the most talented beta readers will struggle to express. 

In the first stages of editing, a developmental editor will provide you with a holistic, in-depth review of your manuscript, helping you examine characterization and redistribute your clues to build to a stunning conclusion. 

After producing a second draft, Thompson recommends working with a copy editor : “It’s too competitive out there not to put your best work forward [...] without errors, bad grammar, or spelling mistakes.” So polish up that manuscript like a magnifying glass if you want it to stand a chance of success!

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So, there you have it! If you follow these six steps, you should be well on your way to giving mystery readers what they crave — a thrilling tale of bad guys, cliffhangers, and diligent sleuths. But if you want to test out your new knowledge on a smaller scale first, head over to Reedsy Prompts and investigate our archive of mysterious short story starters to kick things off.

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How to Write a Mystery Story: 12 Powerful Writing Tips

Mystery stories have a unique allure, drawing readers into a world of crime, suspense, false clues, secrets, and intrigue. If it’s done well, they will imagine themselves in the sleuth’s footsteps, shrouded in a cloak of apprehension, unraveling the enigmatic clues that lead to a spine-tingling revelation.

But what makes a mystery story truly engaging, and how can you write one that will keep your readers guessing until the very end?

In this guide, we’ll share 12 powerful mystery writing tips that will show you how to write a mystery novel, transforming your storytelling process and leaving your readers eager to turn the pages, desperate to uncover the truth.

What Makes a Mystery Story?

A detective in vintage clothes looking at a mysterious puzzle piece

Mystery is a genre that revolves around a puzzle that needs to be solved. This question can be a crime, but it can also be another type of mystery, such as a supernatural occurrence or a missing person.

These stories contain a central character who takes on the responsibility of unraveling the mystery and uncovering the truth. Readers are invited to follow the investigator’s thought processes, reasoning, and fact-finding methods as they diligently pursue leads, analyze evidence, and piece together the puzzle’s fragments.

Mystery Story Definition: “A mystery story is one in which the central plot revolves around the resolution of puzzling or sinister events, led by a detective or amateur investigator.”

To heighten the narrative tension, mystery stories usually employ elements of conflict , suspense and surprise. Authors reveal clues and evidence gradually, as well as introduce red herrings—misleading details or plot twists meant to divert attention away from the real villain or actual solution.

As the story progresses, readers become amateur detectives themselves, actively participating in the investigation by piecing together clues, speculating on motives, and attempting to solve the mystery before the characters do.

As such, this genre harnesses the innate human fascination with the unknown, the uncanny, and the insatiable curiosity to unearth hidden truths.

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9 Types of Mystery Stories

A detective in vintage clothes sneaking around with a pulled handgun

Mystery stories come in various subgenres, each with its own unique elements and characteristics. Here are some of the different subgenres, along with descriptions of each.

1. Cozy Mystery

Cozy mysteries are known for their light-hearted and non-violent approach to crime-solving. They typically feature amateur detectives, often in a small-town or village setting, who solve crimes with wit, charm, and the help of their community. These mysteries emphasize the puzzle-solving aspect rather than graphic violence or suspense.

Some popular cozy mystery series include Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series, Donna Andrews’s Meg Langslow novels, and Leslie Meier’s stories with reporter/investigator Lucy Stone .

2. Hard-Boiled Mystery

These unsentimental mysteries are gritty and realistic, featuring tough, cynical, and morally complex protagonists, often private investigators or police detectives. These stories delve into the darker aspects of crime and society, with a focus on urban settings, violence, moral ambiguity, and the bending of rules to solve cases.

Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade series, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories, and Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer books represent this subgenre with aplomb.

3. Police Procedural

Police procedurals offer an in-depth look into the workings of law enforcement agencies. These stories emphasize the step-by-step investigation process, including interviews, forensic analysis, and legal procedures. Authors often research and accurately depict police work and criminal justice systems.

Here you will find Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta forensic pathologist novels, and Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series.

4. Legal Mystery

This mystery type is centered on lawyers, prosecutors, or legal professionals who solve mysteries within the context of the courtroom or legal proceedings. These stories often involve complex legal dilemmas, courtroom drama, and ethical quandaries.

The most famous contributor to this subgenre is John Grisham, ably accompanied by Scott Turow, Steve Martini, and Richard North Patterson.

5. Medical Mystery

These science-focussed mysteries involve the investigation of perplexing medical cases, diseases, or outbreaks, often featuring healthcare professionals, medical detectives, or amateur sleuths who strive to uncover the underlying medical cause, solve medical puzzles, or prevent potential health crises.

Almost all Robin Cook and Michael Palmer books fall into this category, together with Leonard Goldberg’s Daughter of Sherlock Holmes series and Michael Crichton’s ” The Andromeda Strain”.

6. Historical Mystery

Historical mysteries are set in the past, often featuring a historical period, event, or figure as a backdrop. These stories provide readers with a sense of time and place while incorporating historical details and mysteries that fit within the chosen era.

In this subgenre, you will find Anne Perry’s Thomas Pitt novels situated in Victorian-era London, C.J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series from the Tudor era, and Lindsey Davis’s Falco series set in ancient Rome.

7. Supernatural Mystery

Paranormal or supernatural mysteries incorporate elements of the paranormal, such as ghosts, vampires, or supernatural phenomena, into the mystery plot. These stories often blur the lines between the natural and the supernatural, creating an eerie and mysterious atmosphere and an unusual mystery that requires substantial out-of-the-box thinking to solve.

Some of the most famous authors include Shirley Jackson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stephen King.

8. Whodunit Mystery

Whodunit mysteries, also known as classic or traditional mysteries, emphasize the puzzle aspect of the story. The central question is “Who committed the crime?” Readers are presented with clues and red herrings, and they are encouraged to solve the mystery alongside the investigator. The crime is usually a murder, and the protagonist is a detective who is trying to solve the case.

Here the classics are Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books, and the Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy L. Sayers.

9. Psychological Mystery

Psychological thrillers, also often called psychological mysteries, blend elements of mystery and suspense with a focus on the psychological and emotional aspects of the characters. These stories usually involve unreliable narrators, mind games, and the exploration of the human psyche.

These books have been particularly popular since the turn of the century and include “Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn, “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins, and classics like “Strangers on a Train” by Patricia Highsmith.

How to Write a Mystery Story

A detective in vintage clothes writing a mystery story on a typewriter

If you feel motivated to write your own mystery story but you feel like you need some guidance on the practical aspects of constructing one, this section provides a step-by-step guide on the art and craft of writing a mystery novel that will keep your readers eagerly turning the pages. So, let’s get started.

Step 1: Understand the Genre

By immersing yourself in the genre, you’ll become familiar with its conventions. This knowledge helps you create a story that resonates with readers who appreciate the specific characteristics of mysteries.

From cozy to supernatural mysteries, explore the subgenres so that you can choose the one that aligns with your writing style and interests. Knowing the nuances of each subgenre helps you tailor your story effectively.

While reading, analyze the structure of the novels. Identify common tropes and plot devices used in the genre. Consider how authors introduce clues, red herrings, and character motivations.

Take notes on what works well in the novels you enjoy. Pay attention to character development, pacing, dialogue, and how authors handle suspense and revelations.

Step 2: Craft a Mystery

While this step looks impossibly huge, you don’t have to work out all the details here. You can fill in much of it in later steps, so don’t feel overwhelmed.

But at least start by clearly defining the central mystery or crime that drives your story. This is the core puzzle that your protagonist will aim to solve. The mystery can be almost anything: murder, theft, missing persons, kidnapping, identity theft, sabotage, blackmail, cybercrime, a political conspiracy, a secret society/cult, or some other unexplained phenomenon.

Consider your own interests and passions. Writing about a mystery that fascinates you will make the storytelling process more enjoyable and authentic.

Real-life events, news stories, or historical incidents can serve as inspiration for your story. Adapt these events and add fictional elements to create a compelling narrative.

Use the “what if” technique to brainstorm potential mysteries. Start with a simple question like “What if a famous painting went missing?” or “What if a small-town librarian discovered an old diary with hidden secrets?”

Step 3: Develop a Backstory

A desk covered with investigation files, books, and a magnifying glass

Every crime or action to be investigated should have a motive. Why did the perpetrator commit it? The motive should be logical and compelling, providing a strong reason for the actions taken. Some possible motivations include the following:

  • Greed: Greed or financial gain are powerful motivators for crimes like theft, embezzlement, fraud, and murder.
  • Revenge: Revenge and personal vendettas can lead to crimes such as murder, blackmail, or acts of sabotage.
  • Envy: Jealousy can drive individuals to commit stalking, harassment, or even violence against those perceived as rivals.
  • Desperation: Dire circumstances like financial ruin, addiction, or a desperate need to protect loved ones may lead to criminal actions as a last resort.
  • Power and Control: A desire for dominance and control over others can motivate crimes like kidnapping, human trafficking, or abusive behavior.
  • Political or Ideological Beliefs: Some characters may commit crimes in the name of political or ideological beliefs, leading to acts of terrorism, espionage, or subversion.
  • Love and Passion: Romantic or passionate relationships can lead to crimes of passion, including murder or acts of violence committed in the heat of the moment.
  • Curiosity and Experimentation: Some mysteries may stem from characters’ curiosity, experimentation, or a desire to test boundaries, leading to unforeseen consequences. Think scientific experiment gone wrong, exploring forbidden areas, opening sealed containers, dabbling in occult rituals, AI experimentation, dark web exploration, etc.

Together with constructing a reason why the mysterious event happened, start thinking of the relationships your story will have to include to make sense of this reason. While you can develop your characters in depth later, describe the family dynamics, friendships, rivalries, or past connections that may have contributed to the events.

Step 4: Establish Clear Stakes

Define what’s at stake in the story. Why is solving the mystery important? What consequences will result if it remains unsolved?

Stakes give your protagonist a compelling motive to investigate the mystery. They also create tension and suspense, as characters race against time to unravel the mystery and prevent negative consequences. In short, they make readers care about the outcome.

The most immediate and high-stakes consequence of failing to solve a mystery is life or death. But such a failure can also lead to imprisonment, reputational damage, financial ruin, loss of valuable artifacts or knowledge, trauma, guilt, or danger to a community or political system.

Step 5: Create a Protagonist

A detective with old-fashioned clothes and a gun roams around

Your detective or main character serves as the driving force behind the narrative, and their qualities, quirks, and motivations can greatly influence the reader’s engagement. Include the following in their profile:

  • Characteristics: Consider unique physical traits, personality quirks, or habits that set your detective or protagonist apart from the typical investigator.
  • Motivations: While you can include the stakes of investigative failures here, also describe personal or ethical reasons why your character wants or needs to solve the mystery.
  • Backstory: Explore their past experiences, traumas, successes, and failures. Understanding their history will help you portray their motivations and vulnerabilities effectively.
  • Flaws and Weaknesses: Introduce character flaws, weaknesses, or personal challenges that your detective or protagonist must overcome. Weaknesses that relate to the challenges they will confront are particularly appealing.
  • Unique Skills or Expertise: If there is a particular profession, hobby, or talent that make your character well-suited for solving mysteries, describe them here.
  • Character Growth Arc: Consider how your protagonist’s experiences throughout the story will shape them and lead to personal development.

Step 6: Create Supporting Characters

Populate your story with a cast of diverse and interesting characters, including potential suspects, witnesses, and allies for your investigator. Each character should have their own motives, secrets, and function in the story.

The allies will be people with unique skills, knowledge, or expertise that complement the protagonist’s abilities. They should have their own motivations for helping with the investigation. To make it interesting, you can also develop complex relationships between the protagonist and their aids in the form of conflicts or tensions that arise as the investigation progresses.

The potential suspects can be either heroes or villains, but should, by definition, not be the main character responsible for the crime or mystery. Consider these elements of suspects:

  • Motives: Give each suspect a clear and distinctive motive for being involved in the mystery. These motives should be believable and provide a plausible reason for their potential involvement in the event.
  • Backstories: Explore their personal histories and experiences to understand what drives them and what secrets they may be hiding.
  • Alibis: Establish alibis for your suspects that can be investigated and verified by your protagonist. This will help you to construct clues and red herrings later.
  • Relationships: Consider the relationships between suspects. Do they have alliances, rivalries, or conflicts with each other? These dynamics can create additional layers of intrigue.

Step 7: Build a Setting

Building a rich story setting is essential for immersing readers in your mystery and enhancing the overall atmosphere and believability of your narrative. A setting can be so suitable and well developed that it almost serves as another character.

Draw inspiration from real places, events, or settings that align particularly well with your narrative. For example, a snowed-in Victorian Mansion is a good place for a paranormal investigator to investigate a haunting, since they cannot simply leave when events become too scary.

Sherlock Holmes did this particularly well in his Arthur Conan Doyle stories, where the foggy and atmospheric streets of Victorian-era London with their ancient alleyways, echoing footfalls, and glimpses of silhouettes contribute to the sense of menace and intrigue in the stories.

Alternatively, you can pick a setting that contrasts with your mystery in a way that is memorable in some way. In “Death on the Nile,” for example, Agatha Christie transports readers to the beautiful, exotic, and romantic setting of a luxurious riverboat on Egypt’s Nile River, where a murder mystery soon develops.

Engage readers’ senses by describing sights, sounds, smells, textures, and even tastes that characterize the environment.

Step 8: Craft Clues and Red Herrings

Layering clues and red herrings is a crucial step in crafting a captivating mystery story. Clues propel the investigation forward and guide readers closer to the truth, while red herrings are false leads designed to misdirect and create suspense.

Clue vs. Red Herring

If a detective finds a hidden compartment in a suspect’s desk containing a photograph of the victim and an old love letter, it can either be a clue or a red herring, as follows:

Clue: The suspect had a romantic relationship with the victim, potentially leading to a motive for the murder.

Red Herring: The photograph and love letter were planted by someone else to frame the suspect, diverting attention from the real culprit.

Crafting Clues and Red Herrings

To craft good clues and red herrings, keep these factors in mind:

  • Core Clues: Identify the core clues that are essential for solving the mystery. These are the pieces of information that, when combined, lead to the ultimate solution. These clues should be logically connected and scattered throughout the story to help readers solve the mystery, but avoid introducing them too early.
  • Red Herring Opportunities: Look for opportunities to introduce distractions, misdirection’s, or false leads that divert the protagonist and reader away from the true solution. Avoid using more than two of three simultaneously, as readers will then not notice them.
  • Character Motives: Consider the motives of characters, including potential suspects, witnesses, and allies. What reasons might they have to provide false information or create deceptive situations? Align red herrings with character motivations.
  • Progressive Revelation: Start with minor or subtle clue hints and progressively escalate to more significant revelations. This builds suspense and maintains reader interest.
  • Character Involvement: Involve characters actively in the discovery of clues and red herrings. Allow them to interpret and react to the information they encounter, deepening their engagement in the mystery.
  • Balanced Revelations: Ensure that genuine clues and red herrings are revealed in a balanced manner. Avoid having a long stretch of the story with only one type of revelation. Mix genuine progress with moments of misdirection.
  • Seamless Integration: Incorporate both types of lead naturally into the narrative. They should arise from character interactions, evidence, dialogue, or the environment. Avoid making them too obvious or contrived.
  • Clue Variety: Use different types of clues and red herrings to keep the mystery engaging. These can include physical evidence (e.g., a bloodstained shirt), verbal hints (e.g., a cryptic message), or character behavior (e.g., an unexplained absence).
  • Foreshadowing: Foreshadow major clues with subtle hints or references earlier in the story. Foreshadowing helps make the ultimate reveal feel earned and logical.

Step 9: Plan the Investigation

A detective in vintage clothes analyzing a crime scene with a magnifying glass

Now that you’ve specified the potential suspects, the clues, and the red herrings, you can plan the protagonist’s investigation. Much of it will fall into place with the insertion of the details in the previous steps, so a good approach is to develop a timeline or chronology of events related to the mystery to lead your protagonist down a logical investigative path.

Decide when your protagonist will stumble onto the clues and red herrings. At the beginning, they will probably encounter more false than real clues. Once they eliminate these, the clues will start playing a bigger role in their investigations and their thinking.

Establish how they will encounter the information that feeds into their investigations. Physical evidence, witness testimonies, research, undercover investigations, anonymous tips, characters’ suspicious behavior, coincidentally crossing paths with a suspect, the noticing of patterns, or any other method can work.

Step 10: Build Suspense and Tension

The stakes you identified in a previous step will help you to build tension, but you can also use other methods to convey a sense of urgency that propels the investigation forward. Time constraints, impending danger, or impending consequences can intensify tension and keep readers on edge.

Control the pace at which you reveal information. Gradually disclose clues, red herrings, and key revelations throughout the story. Avoid overloading the reader with too much information at once, as this will lead to wildly exciting periods interspersed with long, tedious parts.

Foreshadowing allows you to hint at future developments and create an atmosphere of anticipation. Drop subtle clues or suggestions about what’s to come, leaving readers eager to see how these hints will play out.

Use the setting and conflicts between the investigators and/or the suspects to build further tension.

Another way to prevent readers from getting bored is to include emotionally charged scenes that resonate. These scenes can involve personal revelations, confrontations, or high-stakes confrontations with suspects or adversaries.

Step 11: Write a Satisfying Resolution

This is the culmination of your mystery story, where the central mystery is solved, loose ends are tied up, and the reader experiences a sense of closure and fulfillment.

The resolution should unveil the truth behind the mystery in a gradual and logical manner. Avoid a sudden, last-minute revelation that feels contrived. Instead, let the protagonist piece together the final clues and deductions.

A good way is to orchestrate a confrontation between the protagonist and the culprit or key players involved in the mystery. This showdown can be emotionally charged and provide the outstanding answers.

Ensure that the resolution is plausible and consistent with the clues and information provided throughout the story. Readers should be able to look back and see how the solution was seeded throughout the narrative.

The resolution should explain why the crime or event occurred, who was responsible, and how it was carried out. Provide a clear understanding of the “whys” and “hows.”

Show the impact of the resolution on the characters, particularly the protagonist. Allow them to experience growth, closure, or transformation as a result of solving the mystery. Address any personal stakes introduced earlier in the story.

If your story has a theme, use the resolution to reflect and reinforce it. The resolution can offer insights or lessons related to justice, morality, or the human condition.

Step 12: Revise Your Story

Read through your story to examine it for plot holes, inconsistencies, contrived plot points, character depth, inappropriate pacing, and the incorrect placement and effectiveness of clues and red herrings.

You should ideally hand copies to friends, relatives, and beta readers who enjoy mystery fiction. Readers who read regularly in this genre will be able to help you identify tropes, clues, and investigative details to improve.

Based on these insights, revise your story until it is ready for professional review.

8 Common Pitfalls to Avoid in Mystery Writing

A dective in old-fashioned clothes falling dramatically to the ground

Even the most experienced mystery writers employ editors to delete their cliches, close their plot holes, and fix their logical inconsistencies. There are certain traps that beckon all mystery writers, so it’s important to be aware of them if you want to write a mystery story that is polished and professional.

Here are some common pitfalls to avoid in mystery writing:

1. Too Easy to Solve

One of the biggest pitfalls that mystery writers can make is making the mystery too easy to solve. If the reader can figure out the solution to the mystery too early on, they will be bored and disappointed.

To avoid this pitfall, make sure that you plant enough clues throughout your story, but don’t make it too easy for the reader to figure out the solution. Use red herrings to misdirect the reader and keep them guessing until the very end.

2. Too Difficult to Solve

While mysteries often involve intricate plots, avoid making them overly convoluted or completely impossible to solve. If the reader can’t figure out at least potential solutions to the mystery, they will be frustrated and confused.

To get around this pitfall, make sure that you give the reader enough information to solve the mystery, but without giving everything away. Leave some of the clues up to the reader to interpret.

3. Too Few Potential Suspects

Readers of mystery stories know that the main villain is usually someone who seems likeable and is a good friend of the protagonist. So, if you have only one or two such characters in your story, it will be far too easy for readers to identify the villain.

Accordingly, make sure that there are enough suspects who are basically likeable, at least until seventy percent through the story.

4. Predictable Ending

A mystery with a predictable ending can be disappointing. Strive for a resolution that surprises and satisfies readers, even if they’ve made some correct guesses along the way.

In other words, even if readers can predict the villain, make sure that the motivations for their crimes or the details of how they committed them are surprising.

5. A Deus Ex Machina Ending

A Deus Ex Machina ending is an ending that is resolved by a sudden, unlikely, or unexplained event that is not foreshadowed or explained in the story. It can make the ending feel unsatisfying, unrealistic, and like a cheat.

You can avoid this by making sure that your ending stems from something that has gone before in the story. You should write the story in such a way that the reader has all the information they need to understand the solution to the mystery.

6. Overuse of Coincidences

Coincidences can sometimes be useful, but not if your protagonist coincidentally stumbles onto most of the clues they need to solve the mystery. Your readers want to believe that the mystery is resolved through your protagonist’s efforts and intelligence.

Consequently, try to minimize coincidences or, if necessary, provide a plausible explanation for them.

7. Neglecting Character Development

Well-developed characters are essential in any genre, but they’re especially important in mysteries. Avoid creating one-dimensional characters solely driven by the plot. Readers should care about what happens to them.

Formulate backstories, motivations, and personalities for the more important characters.

8. Too Many Red Herrings

While red herrings can add intrigue, using too many can overwhelm readers and make the story feel contrived.

Make sure each red herring serves a purpose in the narrative. It has to lead to a potential suspect or a direction for the investigation.

Literary Genre Quiz (Hard)

essay mystery story

Frequently Asked Questions

In this section, we will answer some of the most common questions about the definition and characteristics of mystery stories.

What Defines a Mystery Story?

A mystery story is a narrative that revolves around an enigma, puzzle, or unresolved question, typically involving a crime or unusual event. It engages readers by presenting a central mystery that propels the plot, characters, and readers on a quest for answers, often leading to a successful investigation and resolution of the mysterious event.

What Are the Elements of a Mystery Story?

A mystery story has a central puzzle that needs to be solved, a protagonist who is trying to solve it, clues that are scattered throughout the story, red herrings that mislead the reader, often a climax in which the protagonist and antagonist confront each other, and a resolution in which the mystery is solved.

What Are Popular Mystery Story Examples?

Popular mystery story examples include iconic works like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, featuring the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes and his loyal friend Dr. Watson solving complex cases; Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple series, renowned for their intricate plots and memorable characters; Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon,” in which a hard-boiled private detective solves a case involving a priceless statue, greed, and murder; and modern mysteries like Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” celebrated for its psychological twists and unreliable narrators.

Final Thoughts

To write a good mystery story, remember that a compelling central mystery is at the heart of it all. Engage your readers with a tantalizing puzzle that invites them to participate in the unraveling. Develop characters that feel real, with motives that drive their actions and reactions. Master the art of suspense, using carefully placed clues, red herrings, and plot twists to keep your audience guessing.

But above all, never forget that crafting a good mystery is not just about the destination but the journey itself. Embrace the challenge, let your creativity flow, and may your stories be the kind that readers can’t put down!

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Yves Lummer

As the founder of BookBird, Yves Lummer has pioneered a thriving community for authors, leading more than 100,000 of them towards their dreams of self-publishing. His expertise in book marketing has become a catalyst for multiple best-sellers, establishing his reputation as an influential figure in the publishing world.

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Mystery Essay Examples

Bermuda triangle: the mysterious world.

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The Mystery Around Lady Alroy in the Sphinx Without a Secret

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Review of All Good Things: a Jack Hart Mystery by Rosemary Reeve

All Good Things: A Jack Hart Mystery by Rosemary Reeve is a suspenseful, action-packed mystery. Jack Hart is an associate at a prestigious law firm in Seattle. He has a warm friendship with (and secret crush on) his coworker, Harmony. When her dad (who is...

Eros, Mystery and Fantasy in Mircea Eliade’s Writings

My research topic focuses on predominant elements: Eros, mystery, and fantasy in “Șarpele” and “Domnișoara Christina”. These three elements are characteristic of Mircea Eliade and they can remark of Mihai Eminescu, in the writing “Cezara”, which is similar to “Șarpele”. Eros is a central theme...

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The X-Files is always somewhat of a mystery for the viewer, always leaving behind some question to ponder as the credits roll. Whether its wondering how someone can survive being burned alive, raised from the dead, or survive a run in with a horde of...

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