Develop a Fascinating Premise for Your Mystery Novel

Where do ideas for the best mystery novels come from? Use targeted questions to craft a premise that will hook your readers from the first page. Bestselling author Hallie Ephron shares how to develop a fascinating premise for your mystery novel.
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I used to think that I couldn’t write a mystery novel because I’m not very good at making things up. Where would I find ideas?

Then I stumbled across a terrific idea at a yard sale.

It was at a Victorian house with gingerbread-trimmed gables and leaded glass windows. I was peppering the homeowner (a complete stranger) with questions about their recent renovations, and she asked me if I wanted to go inside the house and have a look around. Of course I did.

(5 tips for building a house or setting that comes alive for readers.)

I was wandering through the house when I thought, Suppose a woman goes to a yard sale. What if somehow she manages to talk her way into the house? And what if she never comes out?

I ran home and started writing. The book, Never Tell a Lie, starts with a yard sale at a Victorian house and ended up being a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award. It was also made into a movie for the Lifetime Movie Network.

Turns out intriguing ideas are all around you. Learn to tune in and pay attention when your brain perks up and says, Oh, that’s interesting.

Finding Ideas for Your Mystery Novel

Here are just a few places to find ideas:

  • books (No, you can’t steal the main idea of a book—that’s plagiarism—but you can build on an image, a situation, or a line of dialogue.)
  • conversations—your own or overheard
  • news and magazine stories
  • something that happened to someone you know
  • your own experience
  • your dreams

Whenever I trip over a story idea, I jot it down and stash it in a folder labeled COMPOST. By now, the folder is bulging with clippings and handwritten notes. Here are some ideas culled from the news:

  • A Toyota salesman tries to investigate terrorists on the Internet and gets arrested for terrorism.
  • Severed feet, still inside shoes, keep washing up on a beach.
  • A man tries to stage his own disappearance by murdering a look-alike he finds on the Internet.
  • A woman finds a bullet in the pork butt she’s cooking.
  • A young man who writes his sexual fantasies in a personal journal is charged with creating child pornography.
  • Start your own compost file, and save ideas that intrigue you.
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Making the Leap from Idea to Premise

A premise is the basic proposition behind the book. Transforming an idea into a well-articulated premise is the first step of writing a mystery novel.

Here’s an example of a premise developed from one of the ideas in my compost heap.

Idea from the News

Mystery Novel Premise Using Suppose and What If

A young man who writes his fantasies in a personal journal is charged with making child pornography.

Suppose a troubled young man writes violent, explicit sexual fantasies in his journal and shares his journal with his therapist. And what if a series of violent crimes then occur that closely mirror the details of his fantasies?

The words suppose and what if anchor a well-articulated premise. A premise written in this format shows you where you’re going. It keeps you on track throughout the writing process, and it can be useful when you’re pitching your book to agents, editors, and, ultimately, booksellers and readers.

Once the premise is articulated, it suggests all kinds of plot possibilities. Did the young man commit the crimes? Did his therapist? Did the therapist share the man’s journal with someone else, or was the journal stolen? Or maybe the young man copied those fantasies from another source. The story could explore issues of culpability and privacy. And on and on and on …

(How to develop high-concept book ideas.)

Practice turning an idea into a premise. Clip articles from the newspaper that appeal to you and contain the germ of an idea for a mystery novel. Jot down each idea in the left column below. In the right column, transform it into a premise using suppose and what if

With a good idea and a premise in hand, you’re off and running.

Using Real Events and People

Some real events and real people are too bizarre for fiction. For instance, there’s a news story in my compost heap about a highway toll collector who received a call from a friend, warning her to be on the lookout for a 2003 white Chevy Silverado driven by a shooting suspect on the lam. Moments later (!) that Silverado drove through her toll lane. If you put that story in a book, readers would cry foul because it seems so unbelievable. But it really happened, says you. So what? says the reader. Reality is no excuse. Plenty of things happen in real life that don’t pass the sniff test in a work of fiction.

A well-constructed fictional world isn’t necessarily realistic, but it must be believable.

Considering Market-Driven Ideas

Does your idea have to be marketable? Sure, what you’re writing about has to be interesting to more than you and a few geeky professional colleagues. On the other hand, it’s hard to predict what readers will find interesting. Can you imagine a book about the physics of icebergs appealing to a large audience? That’s the focus of Peter Høeg’s best-selling suspense novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code combines an international murder mystery with a minute analysis of esoterica culled from two thousand years of Western history. B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger is loaded with gory details about how to make a painting look old. These authors make arcane content interesting by writing about it in a compelling way, and they tap into the mystery reader’s appetite for learning new things.

Should you try to follow trends and write what’s hot in the marketplace right now? I don’t recommend it. Readers are notoriously fickle, and what appeals to the crowd this year may be considered humdrum three years from now, when, if you’re lucky, your book hits the shelves. By then, readers will be looking for something new and fresh.

Because writing a novel is really hard and takes a long time, my advice to you is this: Write your passion. Write what you care deeply about. Write about what interests and intrigues you. You’ll be more likely to finish a novel if you care about what you’re writing, and only a finished novel stands a chance of being published.


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