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How To Write A Mystery Novel In 5 Simple Steps

You are wondering how to write a mystery novel, but don’t know where to start? You are looking to intrigue the reader and avoid all the mistakes that mark a subpar mystery novel? Read on, and you’ll find answers to these and other questions!

The mystery novel is one of the most popular literary genres. Who hasn’t heard about Sherlock Holmes and his friend Doctor Watson, for instance: the characters introduced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who is considered one of the founders of the mystery novel genre in world literature? Unsurprisingly, each year hundreds and thousands of new mystery novels hit the bookstores, enthralling readers with new ways to solve riddles and find the guilty party. And yet all this proliferation does not quite answer the question of how to write a mystery novel that will become a bestseller.

How to write a mystery novel that will become a new bestseller

Many authors, famous and not, see how popular the mystery novel is and look to try themselves in the genre, hoping for quick recognition and profit. It seems the job is not hard at all. What does it take to write a good mystery novel? Well, come up with a protagonist, design a crime, describe it in detail (and add a few false clues, to make the plot unpredictable), and that’s it: take it easy and wait for the novel to become a bestseller. Alas, most such books will never find their readers, unless the author places the text for free in some forums where fellow writers hang out.

So, what’s the problem? And how to write a mystery novel that will make it big? Let’s dive right in!

How to plan a mystery novel

A good novel begins with a good draft.

Do you recall your literature teacher? That horrible Mr. or Mrs. Smith who made you write a plan for each of your essays? It’s time to relive the glory again!

The truth is: very few writers are able to improvise on the fly. The vast majority write many, many drafts which they change continuously: both in terms of what events will take place in the novel, and how the heroes will react. Plot twists are a separate category, and it requires planning as well.

How to write a good mystery plot

Creating a plot is a unique experience, largely because the public taste has so much variety. Some readers love a twisted story with a million turns and an unpredictable ending. The others will gladly settle for a simple story with a good hook and a perfect language where the murder was indeed committed by the butler.

One good piece of advice is: do not make the plot too elaborate, at least in your first novels. An overly twisted plot will confuse the reader as soon as she begins reading your story in the bookstore, so nobody will by the book, and you will remain unknown.

Do you know the main difference between good mystery novels and bad ones? The former take your imagination with them, involving it into solving the riddles along with the characters; and the latter only help to kill time. So, here is another golden rule: the reader must know as much about the mystery as the protagonist himself and draw conclusions as the plot unravels. Don’t hide anything, but avoid making the plot too easy: nobody will like thick hints at the solution.

Balancing originality with reality

You want to make your mystery novel original but you are afraid to break the rules? You could be making a big mistake! The book market is filled to the brim with banality, so truly original ideas will greatly increase your chances to become famous.

So, you want the action to take place in distant future, or on the Moon? Why not? Or perhaps move it all to the Middle ages? It’s all up to you and how daringly you’ll approach the question of how to write a mystery novel.

Avoid cheap cliché

Forget about catching the villain with the help of cigarette ash he dropped at the crime scene: at least one hundred thousand mystery novel authors have already tried it this way, and just about as many will do it in the next few years.

Instead, try to make your mystery novel look like a real investigation. Study some criminology, read articles on modern medicine and psychology: this will help with making your story and its twists more verisimilar. Sure, it takes some time and effort, but don’t you want to be known as a pro? Originality is key, but it mustn’t contradict reality.

Your hero’s footprint

Your hero could be using complex equipment that hasn’t been created yet, but should this kind of plot be taking place in the past? Try to explain how he got hold of it, or replace the equipment with something real. The same goes for super powers: there is a whole separate genre for these kinds of things, so don’t rely on magic unless required by the original idea (as in: the hero has been a vampire all along).

Now what we tackled the plot issues, it’s time to discuss the next main topic:

How to create a remarkable mystery hero

Let me repeat: do not be afraid to improvise, but don’t overdo it. Few people will be interested in following a regular police lieutenant who lives a boring life. On the other hand, a overly cool hero who solves a mystery during breakfast, catches the murdered by the lunchtime and wins Olympic gold before dinner (while being a teenager) will antagonize the audience: the reader must see him- or herself in the protagonist, and people like the hero described above simply don’t exist.

Remember: a mystery novel hero (as well as the other characters) is a human being with some positive and negative traits. But you are free to give your hero something special: this is what will make the book interesting and hard to put aside. Maybe the hero hums Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” while driving? Or does he not drink coffee unless it has four spoons of sugar in it?

Supporting characters

Don’t forget about supporting characters. What if the hero’s sidekick is a psychic who uses her abilities to solve mysteries, but gets distracted and follows the false trace? And what about the villain?

Don’t show all your cards too quickly: let the reader learn about the appearance and characters of the characters gradually. After all, we hardly every know another person upon the first encounter.

How to start writing a mystery novel

You have the plot and the characters: it’s time to start writing your mystery novel! Take another look at the plan. Soon the formerly disjointed bullet points will acquire tangible weight and become an actual novel! And the transformation is easy.

The core

Start by expanding on the original draft by adding more words and ideas to each sentence that you already have. The trick here is to get into as much detail as you can. This is where a straightforward “the hero wakes up in the middle of the night” becomes something like:

“It happened three months after the cruise, on a Saturday morning, late in the fall which was cold and stormy that year. The preceding Friday was completely boring: I went to work, came home, exercised, made dinner and ate it, read a book, browsed the Internet and went to bed around one am. In the middle of the night I woke up to go to the bathroom, drank some water and fell back asleep.
And then it began.”
Danil Rudoy – “Martina Flawd”

It may seem difficult at first, but it is much easier than to write complete passages from scratch. Just keep in mind that this is process is not quick and may take weeks and even months, depending on your talent, experience and the desire to succeed.

The embellishments and the overall style

When the skeleton of the plot is ready, it’s time for embellishments. Here it’s worthwhile to remember the platinum rule of writing:

less is more

A heavy, stilted style is hard to read, but a simple one could be too boring. You need to come up with your own unique style. Don’t worry, you have it: every writer does! Maybe for you it’ll be writing from the first person, or sprinkling the novel with scintillating humor. Whatever it is, find it, and you’ll find yourself as a writer. And every book you write, a mystery novel or not, will have that little something that will make people read it.

Once the novel is finished

Here you are, proudly holding your first published book. Do you recall bashfully asking “how to write a mystery novel” just a little while ago? And now you are ready to take on the world and its bookstores!

Getting initial feedback

Slow down! No matter how much effort and heart you’ve put into it, your mystery novel may not be received well. So, before you take the leap into the world of big literature, give your book to close friends and relatives: their opinion will help you look at your work more objectively.

If you are afraid that your audience will be too forgiving, make the process anonymous through some kind of online service. Another way here is to publish excerpts from your novel at writing blogs and websites. Naturally, the pivotal parts of your masterpiece should be spared. And don’t be discouraged by criticism: it will help you perceive your novel as it is, and very often you’ll become a better author as a result. Just remember: it’s all up to you, whatever dreams you allow yourself to dream about!