How to Write a Mystery Novel

In this post, learn how to write a mystery novel from beginning to end, including developing a fascinating premise, ways villains justify crimes, writing a mystery series, and more.
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In this post, learn how to write a mystery novel from beginning to end, including developing a fascinating premise, ways villains justify crimes, writing a mystery series, and more.

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Whether you want to write about a missing jewel or murdered uncle, there are a number of practical strategies for starting your novel, constructing your plot, and landing a satisfying finish. In this post, learn how to write a mystery novel using some of the best advice on WritersDigest.com.

(How to find a literary agent for your writing.)

Starting Your Mystery Novel

While a great opening will not guarantee a successful novel, a bad opening will usually guarantee a failed novel. That's because writers have a limited amount of time to hook their audience before they abandon a story and move on to something better. Fair or not, this reality places a great deal of emphasis on a compelling beginning.

(The differences between a crime novel, mystery novel, and thriller novel.)

As such, here are a few posts related to starting your novel:

  • Develop a Fascinating Premise for Your Mystery Novel, by Hallie Ephron. Ephron starts off by sharing an epiphany she had for an award-winning novel that was turned into a Lifetime movie before diving into how writers can turn their ideas (including real-life and market-driven ideas) into premises.
  • 4 Approaches for the First Chapter of Your Novel, by Jeff Gerke. In this article, Gerke shares the four primary approaches for beginning a successful novel: The prologue beginning, the hero action beginning, the in medias res beginning, and the frame device. Of course, there are other approaches, but these are the most common that tend to work time and time again.
  • 5 Great Tips for Starting a Novel Right, by Jessica Strawser. In this post, Strawser shares five great tips for starting your novel from bestselling novelists, including James Scott Bell, Karen Dionne, and Lee Child. For instance, Bell advises novelists create a "doorway of no return" for their protagonist in the first 1/5 of the book.
  • Famous First Lines of Novels and 7 Tips for Getting Started, by Zachary Petit and Jacob M. Appel. The first half of this post shares excellent opening lines from novels to use as inspiration and reference for your own. Then, the second half shares seven strategies for starting your novel on a sentence level.

If you need to start at an even earlier step in the process, check out Cheryl Pon's 5 Ways to Start Writing Your Novel Today, which is focused on the sometimes stifling step of just getting started.

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Do you love reading a good mystery? Have you always wanted to write one? During the Essentials of Mystery Writing workshop, you'll have the choice of creating a brand new mystery story from scratch or working with a story you already have in progress. Spend six weeks on your craft while receiving feedback from a published mystery author!

Click to continue.

How to Write Your Mystery Novel

Once you've worked through those first pages, most novelists find there's a lot more to the process of novel writing than an excellent opening scene and compelling protagonist. For mystery, this is just as true as any other genre, because there's a chance you're dealing with a mysterious murder or disappearance, along with introducing new characters, suspects, and suspicions.

Here are a few posts to help you through that process:

  • Writing a Mystery Novel: Creating a Villain & 5 Ways to Justify a Crime, by Hallie Ephron. Learn how to create a villain worth pursuing (and worth reading) along with five ways a villain could justify committing a crime.
  • 7 Tips on Writing Great Mystery and Suspense Novels, by Tony Lee Moral. Moral shares seven things for writers to consider when assembling their mystery novels, from delivering information to readers to keeping your story moving.
  • How to Do Excellent Research for Your Mystery Novel, by Peter James. Bestselling novelist Peter James shares five tips on completing the essential research needed for a mystery novel to really come to life and feel fully realistic.
  • 5 Tips for Building a House or Setting That Comes Alive for Readers, by D.M. Pulley. Sometimes a mystery novel is filled with colorful characters, but sometimes the setting itself becomes a character that factors into the storytelling itself. Pulley shares five ways to build such a location.
  • 7 Ways to Add Subplots to Your Novel, by Elizabeth Sims. While not specifically mystery, this post is applicable to all novel genres and the need for seamless subplots. Sims shares tactics, such as the isolated chunk, the swallowtail, the bridge character, and others.
  • How to Write Flawed Characters & Antiheroes, by David Corbett. While a great novel (in any genre) doesn't need to have a flawed protagonist, they can often make for a fun read and more convincing and endearing character. In this article, Corbett shares his advice on creating these characters in fiction.
  • How to Stay Sane When Writing About Dark Topics in Thriller and Mystery Novels, by T.R. Ragan. The bestselling author of the Lizzie Gardner series shares how she keeps her sanity in check even while diving into the depths of her antagonists' souls and motivations.
  • 4 Things You Should Know About Writing a Cozy Mystery Novel, by Zac Bissonnette. Not all mysteries are the same, and there are special rules and considerations for authors who wish to write the cozy variety.
  • The Dos and Don'ts of Novel Endings, by James V. Smith. In this piece, Smith shares very practical advice on how to successfully finish a novel (regardless of genre). These include dos like "resolve the central conflict" and "enmesh your reader deeply in outcome," as well as don'ts like "introduce any new characters or subplots" and "resort to gimmicks."
  • The Five Types of Novel Endings, by Scott Francis. In this brief post, Francis shares the five common novel endings available to writers, including "the lead sacrifices his objective for a greater good" and "the lead gains his objective but loses something more valuable."

How to Finish Your Mystery Novel (and Beyond)

Since I included the "The Dos and Don'ts of Novel Endings" above, you may have guessed that by finishing your mystery novel, I'm thinking more in the sense of finishing the writing process, which includes typing "The End" (even if not literally) and revising the manuscript. Plus, there's the whole possibility of turning your one mystery novel into a series of novels.

Improve Your Novel With a 2nd Draft Critique!

Ensure your manuscript skips the slush pile and lands on the desk of an acquisitions editor or literary agent and — get a 2nd Draft critique! When you send in at least 50 consecutive pages of your manuscript for review, you'll get an overall evaluation on your manuscript's strengths and weaknesses.

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Writing fiction? You'll receive comments on your plot, characterization, dialogue, and setting. You'll also get feedback on your proposed target market and audience. Plus, a professional critique editor will point out (but not correct for you) any consistent issues within your manuscript pertaining to grammar, mechanics, spelling, or style.

Click to continue.

Here are a few posts on finishing and beyond:

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New Agent Alert: Barb Roose of Books & Such Literary Management

New literary agent alerts (with this spotlight featuring Barb Roose of Books & Such Literary Management) are golden opportunities for new writers because each one is a literary agent who is likely building his or her client list.

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Evoking Emotion in Fiction: Seven Pragmatic Ways to Make Readers Give a Damn

Evoking emotion on the page begins with the man or woman at the keyboard. Dustin Grinnell serves up seven straightforward tactics for writing tear-jerking stories that make your readers empathize with your characters.

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Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 546

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a spooky poem.

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Learn Better World-Building Strategies Through World of Warcraft and the New Shadowlands Expansion

WD editor and fantasy writer Moriah Richard shares five unique ways in which writers can use World of Warcraft to better build their worlds—without playing the game.

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Seven Tips for Intuitive Writing: The Heart-Hand Connection

Award-winning author Jill G. Hall shares her top tips for how to dive into your latest project head-first.

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Bearing vs. Baring vs. Barring (Grammar Rules)

Learn when to use bearing vs. baring vs. barring on with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including a few examples of correct usages.

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15 Things a Writer Should Never Do

Former Writer's Digest managing editor Zachary Petit shares his list of 15 things a writer should never do, based on interviews with successful authors as well as his own occasional literary forays and flails.

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Evie Green: Imaginary Friends and Allowing Change

Author Evie Green explains why she was surprised to end writing a horror novel and how she learned to trust the editorial process.