If you want to write a mystery, there are certain hallmarks found in every great mystery novel that will keep the reader guessing until the very end. False clues, convincing characters, red herrings, dead ends, unexpected twists and a stunning conclusion: this is what we’ve come to expect from bestselling mystery stories.
But it’s easy to get it wrong. Too many clues, too much misdirection and an unsatisfying denouement – we’ve all read novels that start out well but, somewhere along the way, the tension dissipates and we’re left feeling flat. A thrilling tale drifts away as the story focuses on the wrong elements or the wrong suspect.
Never fear! In today’s blog, award-winning children’s fiction author Robin Stevens provides fantastic writing advice on how to write a mystery. Children’s fiction has always featured diligent sleuths – from amateur detective Nancy Drew to Robin’s own brilliant Murder Most Unladylike series starring Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong – and middle-grade kids make for very discerning readers. They want fascinating characters with strong character development, red herrings and high stakes just as much as adult readers do! The advice on how to write a mystery is the same, whichever genre you’re writing in.
Great mystery novels aren’t all in the mystery genre
Before we hand over to Robin, let’s talk quickly about genre and sub-genre.
You don’t have to be writing crime or detective fiction to be writing a mystery. Your novel might feature a serial killer, a dead body, and a detective intent on solving the case; it might be a classic police procedural following an expert sleuth or an amateur detective.
But there are plenty of historical mysteries, mystery books in a fantasy setting, and small-town cozy mysteries that pack a mystery story in their plotting. And, of course, not every mystery requires a murder.
You might be writing a story with romantic suspense and the mystery lies in the characters’ past. If your novel asks the question ‘what happened when...’ then you’re likely writing a mystery in some form.
No matter your genre, you’ll want to keep the reader hooked and turning the pages. Luckily, we have just the thing with these brilliant tips from Robin Stevens.
Robin Stevens’ 10 Mystery Writing Tips
- The setting is important
- Plan your crime carefully
- Know your victim
- Know your murderer
- Remember the suspects
- Put in some clues
- Use trickery
- Keep up the pace
- Don’t hate your detective
- Create a just denouement
1. The setting is important
I’m writing this immediately after finishing writing The Body in the Blitz, in the period of time when the next book is starting to float around in my brain. But even while everything else is still fluid and vague, I have one thing very clear in my head already: the setting.
For me, nothing can happen until I know where it’s happening, and so the setting is really my first character. I need to be able to move through it in my mind like I’m walking through a film set – I have to understand the feeling of being there before I know what could happen in it.
This is possibly something that’s specific to me and my way of writing, but I do think it’s true that in a good mystery, you need to really be able to imagine the location of the crime. You have to know that the library is next to the ballroom, and that there’s a tunnel that goes between the conservatory and the ice house. A mystery story is a very precise machine, and so you need to have a clear idea of the board before you begin to play.
2. Plan your crime carefully
Similarly, you must have a clear understanding of your crime before you start writing your first draft.
Every author works differently – some plan out the entire book, and some hardly plan at all, and that’s all equally valid, but you can always tell a mystery author who doesn’t have a handle on what actually happened during the crime. The book starts falling apart as you’re reading it – it’s a miserable experience as a reader, and it feels just as awful to write.
Of course, you can always come up with exceptions to this rule. Famously, Raymond Chandler didn’t ever know who committed one of the murders in The Big Sleep, something which is often touted as proof that you can just sail through the crime novel writing process on vibes alone.
I would argue, though, that you can immediately feel when you read The Big Sleep that Raymond Chandler didn’t know who committed that crime, and didn’t care either. In that book, it (mostly!) works, because that’s the point of the story: it’s about criminality as a soup we all swim in, something all-encompassing and unfixable. But if you don’t intend to leave your readers with a lingering sense of the futility of existence, you absolutely must know who killed your victims, and why, and how, and when, and where.
Make a plan, I beg you, because your readers will notice if you don’t.
3. Know your victim
I talk a lot in my writing workshops about the good victim. Good in this case doesn’t mean nice (I’m quoting myself here) – it means someone who other people would have a lot of reasons to want to get rid of. Now, you can accomplish this in different ways.
You can create a hideous grinding bounder who everyone wants to shoot on sight.
You can create someone who’s trying their hardest and just ends up doing the wrong thing at the wrong time.
You can create someone who was mean and thoughtless and sometimes cruel, the way we all are, and had their luck run out before they could make good again.
But you have to, in some way, invest your victim with a personality. You have to understand why this person, at this moment, ended up dead. They have to live in your head, so their death can be important enough in your book to make your detective decide to take the case. A murder mystery always starts with a murder, after all – so make yours count.
4. Know your murderer
This is sort of the mirror image of the last point – because the murderer is set up, in a crime novel, as the dark twin of the victim. They’re locked together in a strange sort of anti-romance plot – they’ve come together in a moment that’s the most important thing to happen in both their lives, and so you have to invest your murderer with the same amount of vivid humanity as your victim. You have to know who they are, and the answer can’t just be ‘the worst person your detective has ever met’. There has to be a spark of something else in there, otherwise, your readers will immediately work out whodunit – and the shock and betrayal are so much greater if your detective, and your readers, like the person who committed the crime. Because, after all, that’s just like life – the people you most admire are often the ones who also hurt you the most.
5. Remember the suspects
You know, at this point, what I’m going to say here. If your victim and criminal are people, then your other suspects have to be, too. They can’t be interchangeable – they all have to have their own fears and desires and secrets. The reader has to genuinely believe they could have done it, so you have to give them the agency and motive to be possible criminals.
One of the things that helps me is to think of each suspect as the hero of their own story. When I’m planning out my mysteries, I do quick sketch-like short stories about the lead-up to the crime for each person, making each of them briefly my protagonist. Once they’ve mattered to me, even for a short while, I can make them matter in the plot – even if they only get a few pages of dialogue in the final book, I know where they are, what they’re doing and how they’re feeling when they’re off-page. Never discount the other suspects!
6. Put in some clues
This sounds like a joke, but it’s something I always forget. In my first drafts, my detectives move wispily around their world, interacting with every suspect and having vague, alarming suspicions about them. No one is really ruled out, no one is obviously culpable, and the general experience is that of juggling several handfuls of butter in the rain.
And then my editor always suggests that perhaps, in the second draft, I might like to introduce some clues. It feels like being struck by lightning. Clues! Of course! Perhaps they uncover a diary entry, perhaps they smell something strange on the lip of a glass, perhaps they open a newspaper or a book or find a pebble in someone’s pocket that isn’t a pebble at all. Clues make a mystery real. Witness statements can mean anything, but a fingerprint or a footprint or a bloody stain can only have so many possibilities attached to them.
7. Use trickery
One of the greatest secrets of the genre is that a good detective novel is a magic trick. Agatha Christie did not, in fact, write 80 mysteries. She wrote about 20 plots, and then put different window dressings on them over and over again so no one would notice what she was up to.
The fact is that there aren’t that many ways that a person can kill another person without getting completely ridiculous. There are only about four different motives (money, revenge, passion and power), and two types of killer (someone who doesn’t know the victim and someone who does). What can you do with that?
If you’re clever, everything. Readers, and I am sorry to say this, are not very smart. Their eyes skim pages, they don’t read every word, they aren’t paying much attention and they will miss things. This doesn’t mean you should try to come up with an unbearably confusing plot, but it does mean that you need to think about writing a crime novel like you’re playing a magic trick on your readers. Wave the red handkerchief in your left hand while you’re changing the cards in your right. Be audacious! Have fun! Get really wicked! It’s all smoke and mirrors, and the audience is in it to get conned.
8. Keep up the pace
Funnily enough, one of the toughest things about writing crime fiction isn’t coming up with gruesome murders – it’s being absolutely ruthless with pace and content. If you write detective novels, you can’t afford to waffle, even for a moment. You cannot have a single scene in which nothing happens, and if you do, you need to delete it immediately.
Of course, as above, trickery is allowed (and even encouraged). You can definitely write a scene where the detective thinks nothing of import has been said or seen – but when the reader looks back on it later, it must be clear that there was a very important clue hiding in plain sight.
But you can’t have an interview with a suspect where they give the detective nothing. The detective cannot go to a scene and discover nothing, unless you are writing an extremely avant-garde plot (and even then, I’d advise against it). Things have to happen in a detective novel, because you are not writing the truth. You are writing a fantasy novel with no dragons or witchcraft, and in this world everything necessary to solve the case (and nothing more) must appear before the end of the book.
9. Don’t hate your detective
A good detective doesn’t have to be nice, but they do have to be someone you want to spend a lot of time with. Writing a book is, obviously, a lot of time – Murder Most Unladylike took me four years, even though these days, with practice, I can write a new book in about a year. Reading a book is also a significant outlay of time, especially in 2023 – and again, who’s going to want to spend 400 pages with someone they want to hurl through a wall?
But I’m also thinking bigger picture than just one book. Agatha Christie wrote 33 books about Hercule Poirot (and ended up hating him). Arthur Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes because he was so sick of him (and then had to bring him back anyway).
I’ve written 13 books featuring my detectives Daisy and Hazel so far, and I both love them and understand how Agatha Christie must have felt. A detective is not just another hero. They are the hero.
Detectives make sense of the universe, and so they’re trusted and beloved like almost no one else. When Poirot died, he got obituaries in real-world newspapers. So create a detective like you’re designing a friend for life.
10. Create a just denouement
This is, I think, the hardest one to get at, so I’ve left it until last. As I’ve said before, writing a mystery novel is writing fantasy without the elves, and a huge part of that is the fact that the role of justice in crime fiction bears very little resemblance to justice in real life. Not only must all fictional crimes be solved (apart from Raymond Chandler’s, of course), but they must be solved in a way that strikes the reader as morally as well as literally right.
What does it mean, to be punished for a crime? How can something as unfixable as murder be fixed? How do you make the world safe again, after so much horror?
I can’t answer these questions, even though they’ve been bothering me for years. Each book I write works on the problem all over again – because a good murder mystery novel isn’t really about murder at all. It’s about justice, about how we are bad, and how we can try to be better.
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