Like most people, I love a good mystery. There's something appealing to collecting puzzle pieces and trying to fit them together to see what they make. And like many, I love a good thriller that keeps me up late at night to find out what happens next. So it only makes sense to collect some of the best advice from authors on the subject of writing mystery and thriller novels that readers love.
We've got advice on writing cozy mysteries, psychological thrillers, and crime fiction. Of course, there's great advice on building suspense, inserting humor, and handling little things like time of death. And it's entirely possible we'll add to this list over time.
But for now, be sure to enjoy the tips and quotes below and click on the links to read the full post that covers each topic in more depth.
23 Authors Share Tips on Writing Mystery and Thriller Novels That Readers Love
"One of the first things to consider when setting out, therefore, is what kinds of expectations your story creates, so you can go about gratifying readers in surprising ways."
—The Differences Between a Crime, Mystery, and Thriller Novel, by David Corbett
"No pressure, but the opening of your book is the gatekeeper in determining whether your novel will sell. If your opening is weak, it won’t matter if chapter two is a masterpiece. Editors and agents will stop reading before they get to it."
—How to Start Your Mystery Novel, by Hallie Ephron
On March 26 and March 28, our 7th Annual Mystery & Thriller Virtual Conference will provide expert insights from SEVEN award-winning and best-selling authors on the finer points of how to write within the mystery and thriller genres.
"The first place to fortify a thriller is its cast of characters. A critical mistake made here can undermine even the best story concept."
—The 5 C's of Writing a Great Thriller Novel, by James Scott Bell
"Put the villain on display and do it early in the narrative. Get your reader invested in the character and then betray the hell out of both of them."
—7 Tips for Writing Crime Fiction, by Dana Stabenow
"In a nutshell, suspense creates drama before the crisis event while mystery starts its thrill ride after the crisis event."
—9 Tricks to Writing Suspense Fiction, by Simon Wood
"Four factors are necessary for suspense—reader empathy, reader concern, impending danger and escalating tension."
—6 Secrets for Creating and Sustaining Suspense, by Steven James
"Writers are often told to write what they know, but the rise in domestic suspense has shown that booklovers want to read what they know."
"In life, you hope to meet many honest folks. In fiction, though, feel free to load up on people who speak the truth—slanted. Characters should not say what they mean or mean what they say."
—5 Tips on How to Write a Cunning but Cozy Mystery Novel, by Jennifer J. Chow
Discover how the seven core competencies of storytelling—concept, character, voice, plot, theme, scene construction, and style—combine to create compelling narrative.
"To keep your readers on the edge of their seats, you need to integrate surprises that lead slowly, inexorably and with deadly calm, to suspense. In order to do so, you need to understand what makes a surprise effective."
—Surprise vs. Suspense and How to Pair Them in Your Writing, by Jane Cleland
"Readers want to match wits with your detective. They’re betting they can identify the murderer before your police detective does. Give them a fighting chance. It’s very important that you introduce the body and all the key suspects—killer included—in the first third of the book."
—6 Tips for Writing a Great Police Procedural, by Carrie Smith
"Whenever we learn of an unspeakable crime, an incomprehensible act, there are questions. Chief among them: Why? What motivated this person? What was going on inside their head? How did they go from quiet and nerdy to hateful and violent? Were they isolated, disenfranchised, lost? Were they triggered or born a monster?"
—Inside the Mind of a Villain, by Dustin Grinnell
"If you think about the most endearing—and enduring—characters in the history of literature they are the ones that are not simply portrayed as black and white evil, but with shades of coloring."
—5 Ways to Get Into the Mind of a Psychopath, by Peter James
"A detective is responsible for the investigation of both misdemeanor and felony crimes. How each department carries out these investigations depends upon the size of the department."
—What a Detective Does, by Lee Lofland
"There are actually three different times of death."
—Time of Death: A Critical Part of the Timeline, by D.P. Lyle
"Some of the people reading your book will be from the medical profession, but most will have little or no medical background. Why is this important? Because you don’t want to talk over their heads. Tell them what they need to know about the medical aspects of your story without telling them more than they need to know. Don’t get so technical that your reader’s eyes begin to gloss over."
—6 Rules for Writing a Medical Thriller, by John Burley
"One definition that makes sense to me, and it’s not a new one, explains a psychological thriller as when evil creeps into a seemingly routine everyday life situation."
—5 Features for Writing Psychological Thrillers, by Sebastian Fitzek
"In the beginning, I couldn’t walk into my kitchen without looking at the butcher knife in a whole new way. I also had a difficult time getting to sleep at night."
"One of my Hollywood friends recently told me of a simple, much-used movie trick to create a mood of suspense in an interior shot: Leave a cupboard door open. This visual cue suggests that things are unsettled, not composed, in need of attention."
—21 Fast Hacks to Fuel Your Story With Suspense, by Elizabeth Sims
"I think a good thriller should reflect real life. In real life, we know funny people and we know serious people. We also derive humor from funny situations that happen to serious people. As a writer I try to find the right balance and use it where the story requires."
—5 Tips for Incorporating Humor Into Thriller Novels, by Andrew Mayne
"Nothing maintains the pace in a thriller like a ticking clock. Give the main characters a deadly deadline, a threat that hangs over their heads the entire story."
—6 Ways to Improve Your Romantic Thriller Novel, by Kendra Elliot
"I can begin by saying I know a lot of thriller writers, and, for the most part, they seem like pretty normal people. They have families and pets and hobbies. They take vacations and visit their parents."
—A Day in the Life of a Thriller Writer, by David Bell
"In writing a legal thriller, one often feels the urge to draw up the perpetrator, or villain, as completely evil, vile thorough and through. But what I have learned in my legal practice, to my surprise, was that no matter how abhorrent the acts my clients committed, I was always able to find a vein of humanity in them with which I could identify."
—Writing a Legal Thriller, by Ed Rucker
"You know you've read too many mystery novels when your first thought upon beginning genealogy research is, 'Maybe I'll uncover a murder.'"
—Genealogy Research and the Crime Novelist, by Kristen Lepionka