What makes a mystery novel worth reading (and buying)? The essentials, of course!

It’s no mystery that mystery, in its many forms, remains one of the best-selling and most popular genres in books. Sales of mystery novels continue to soar, with stories all varied in tone, setting, and character. Indeed, there’s nothing quite like a great mystery novel, a puzzle with most of the pieces missing. The best mystery books have the ability to personally involve the reader as a sleuth.

For those who think of writing a mystery novel, it’s important to take note that the mystery market has changed massively over the years. The cast of characters and the setting in modern mystery have opened up in ways nobody could have expected. Still, the fundamentals remain the same, and that includes paying close attention to the essentials of writing a mystery novel.

I advise aspiring mystery writers that before they jump into the genre, they should get hang of the essentials first. To write mystery, they need to read lots of mystery books so they could see what’s already been done – so they could avoid clichés or tropes, something that has been done a thousand times before. So, read lots of mystery books to develop new unique storylines. Learn from the classics or my two published works The Number Cups and Mystery at Pima Point to see how I’ve done it. There’s a lot to learn in writing a mystery novel.

What are the elements in writing a mystery novel? A mystery story should have five basic but important elements:

  • Characters

Characters in mysteries include:

  • the protagonist who tries to solve the mystery (usually a police detective, private investigator, or amateur sleuth, someone to play the role similar to Sherlock Holmes or Lieutenant James);
  • the antagonist, who is the criminal and villain hiding in plain sight and whose identity and motive for the crime won’t be known until the climax;
  • the victim or victims who suffer from the crime;
  • the witness or witnesses who saw the crime being committed;
  • a couple of red herrings or potential suspects, individuals who seem more suspicious or complicit than they actually are and are meant to throw the protagonist off track, and;
  • a bunch of other people that the protagonist and/or antagonist knows.

When writing a mystery novel, make sure to introduce your characters with enough information so the reader could visualize each person. Provide detailed descriptions of a character’s personality traits and physical attributes. Your characters should stay true to their descriptions so the reader could understand how the story unfolds.

  • Setting

How to introduce and sustain an air of mystery in your mystery story? Other than withholding the true identity of the antagonist and their motive for the crime (until the climax), describe the location of the action, the spot where the crime takes place, and, if applicable, the base from where the (unsuspecting) antagonist operates.

With clear and accurate descriptive language, you should be able to describe the environment or surroundings to allow the reader to picture the scene. It should not be that difficult to describe your setting because mystery, unlike fantasy, mirrors real-life situations. Use everyday or familiar settings to help your reader visualize and become more connected to your story.

  • Plot

The plot is the story around which your mystery novel is based. Your plot should have a clear beginning, middle, and conclusion (end) with all the necessary descriptions and air of mystery. A well-planned and crafted plot helps your reader make sense of the action from start to finish. In fact, it’s where your reader gets involved in the mystery story as a sleuth of sorts and feels a great deal of satisfaction and fun from helping the protagonist solve the mystery.

  • Crime

The act is committed by the antagonist. It’s this event that fuels the plot and sparks the central conflict that launches the investigation and sends the sleuth and his team on their quest to catch the culprit. Without the crime, there would be no mystery, no story, no cat and mouse chase – and to some extent, gunfight or physical battle – between the sleuth and the villain.  

When crafting the crime angle, create a profile of the villain. Then decide how they would commit the crime, why they commit it, and how they would cover it up, conceal the weapon or evidence, throw off the investigators, etc.

  • Climax and conclusion

This is the most important element of writing a mystery novel (after the plot). Unlike other genres, mystery focuses on the resolution of the problem and the revelation of the mystery, both of which lead to the realization by readers.

Your mystery novel should build up to satisfying answers to pressing questions such as “Who? What? Why?” Your ending should not only reveal truths but also guide your reader to trace the story back and realize clues or hints they have missed. A satisfying end should make a complete sense of everything.

Writing a mystery novel requires that you get hang of the essentials – and the elements.

Image by bluebudgie from Pixabay

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