The author of “The Number Cups” and “Mystery at Pima Point” shares tips for writing a mystery novel that keeps readers turning page after page.
In a mystery novel, there is always a murder case; it can happen in any setting and any time. The sleuth can be a professional (like a police officer or private investigator), an amateur (like Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys), or just anyone who wants to solve a mystery. There is also the villain who hides in plain sight and who crime spur the investigation (and the story), and a couple of red herrings or false leads whose role in a mystery novel is to throw the sleuth off track. And there are clues or hints to uncover the mystery.
What makes a good mystery novel? Different writers have different opinions, and just like many other genres, mystery offers room for variations. But while we may differ on the essentials (and how we apply them), only one thing is universal: it’s the ability of the novelist – and the book, in general – to personally involve the reader as the sleuth.
Indeed, the best mystery novels blend the joy of a great read with the feeling of intrigue and suspense and the excitement of putting the puzzle pieces (given out by the author throughout the story) to figure out the mystery – before it’s revealed.
So, how to write a mystery novel that keeps readers turning page after page? I offer five tips:
Craft a strong hook
All mystery novels need effective hooks. The hook is typically a line or image – that great opening – that piques the interest of the reader from the first page or, even better, the first line. It should spur the reader to try to solve the mystery.
A good mystery novel should start with just enough information about the crime to build an air of suspense and intrigue from the first sentence or page. This is the dramatic element that your reader expects not only at the beginning but also throughout your book. The first sentence or page may initiate the mystery but the subsequent chapters add more sense and flavor to the storyline for a more mysterious feel, of course.
Know everything about the crime
Every mystery has a problem to solve, usually who committed what crime, where, when, how, and why. If you don’t know all that, you’re going to confuse yourself. When you build the plot, make sure to research about actually committing a crime or killing someone, and understand it from a medical standpoint and the anatomy of it.
Think of how the death will take effect. What does poison do to the body? How can stabbing someone on the back kill them? How does strangulation work and how does one strangle someone? This is just as important as deciding who committed the crime, how they did it, and why. You can’t write the entire scene wrong and leave loopholes.
Use red herrings
Red herrings are intended to be distracting and misleading. In fact, it’s also their role to keep the reader from solving the mystery on their own or getting close ahead to the resolution.
Why add red herrings in your mystery novel? Red herrings escalate the tension and suspense and make your novel more riveting – and the mystery harder. They keep the reader from guessing the villain and wanting more. The reader may feel frustrated that they still haven’t figured out the identity of the villain. They may also feel confused or disappointed but they really are invested in the story, so they’ll want more.
Add red herrings like you would with any other characters or clues in your mystery novel. You have to pretend they’re the real villain or clues until the sleuth makes the big reveal in the conclusion.
Leave a trail of clues
Clues are to mystery as magic is to fantasy. Clues make the reader play an active part in solving the mystery. The reader becomes a sleuth of sorts, following the trail of clues to unmask the identity of the villain.
When writing a mystery novel, you need to organize your writing process to keep track of what clues you create, when and where they appear, and who knows what to make sure your plot lines make sense. Every clue has to be described or detailed so that when it’s brought back, it feels like something you were aware of briefly or failed to recognize.
So, leave clues throughout your mystery story as long as they don’t look too obvious.
Modern mystery has varied in tone, setting, and characters… especially characters. Our society has evolved socially over time, so it’s best to drop the clichés through character and make use of the diversity to present more appealing and likable characters, even villains, and even drop subtler clues.
By applying these tips in writing your mystery novel, you give your readers the gift of a satisfying read. Readers will be inclined to read your next novel.