How to Write a Mystery Novel

how to write a mystery novelSome of the best and most captivating writing is that which keeps us on the edge of our seat, turning page after page, eager to find out what happens next. This is why mystery novels attract so many readers. These novels should excite, scare, thrill, and entice readers. They can be the best source of escape, allowing the reader to feel a part of the mystery, to be actively trying to decipher it as they read. According to Self-Publishing Relief, mystery novels (along with thrillers and crime novels) make up the second largest percentage of self-published books, after romance novels. What makes mystery novels so popular? Why do readers read them? In this blog, we’ll answer these questions and discuss how to write a mystery novel.

What Makes Mystery Novels So Popular?

Have you ever stayed up late into the night to finish a book? This is the effect that every mystery novel has. Because the very nature of the story is suspense, readers quickly become addicted, and the need to resolve the unknown is overpowering. The reader actively searches for clues, solving the case alongside the characters. Mystery novels, at their very core, are page turners, because the faster the book is read, the sooner the reader will see the whole picture. 

Resolution is a big part of why these novels are so popular. It’s the same reason cop and detective TV shows are so popular. Once the reader finishes the novel, there is a sense of relief and satisfaction to be released from the twisted, gripping world of the story. Yet there is also the need to read another. Mysteries hook the reader. Knowing how to craft a good mystery is essential when learning how to write a mystery novel.

How to Write a Mystery Novel Outline

An outline acts as a roadmap to guide the author. Self-published authors, when they set out to write a mystery novel, must first make a detailed outline. Figuring out how to write a mystery novel can be difficult, especially if the novel has many moving pieces and plot twists. Intricacy is important in mystery novels, but intricacy can be difficult to write.

Here are some tips for planning out your mystery novel.

  • Start with the end in mind. This way you’ll know what you’re writing toward and won’t get lost along the way.
  • Decide which details to write and which to not write. Don’t give everything away. Some things are better kept secret.
  • Decide where the tension comes in. Tension is the best way to up the mystery and suspense.
  • Do character sketches. Bring your characters to life – let them be complicated, messy, and unpredictable.

How to Write a Mystery Novel Plot

The first step in how to write a novel is to decide the central tension. A mystery novel needs to start with the inciting incident – a murder, a kidnapping, theft, a heist, treason, conspiracy, etc. Why is there a case to be solved? What are the facts? There can be no mystery novel without this.

Here’s what every mystery novel needs:

A hook

The crime can’t be just any run of the mill ordeal. There needs to be something unique about it – something that makes the reader insatiable for the ending.

Dynamic, intricate characters

Protagonist, sidekick, antagonist – these archetypes will all come into play in a mystery novel. However, to really up the tension, make these characters complicated. Allow your “good guy” to have serious character flaws. Give your “bad guy” a tragic backstory to incite sympathy in readers.


Allow smaller currents of storytelling to run through the bigger plot at hand. Whether this is subplots concerning your protagonist and his/hers relationships or other, smaller tensions the antagonist is dealing with. Bringing these together will give the story a distinct realness.

An active investigation that includes the reader

You want your reader to be involved in the crime-solving. Mystery novels are unique in this way. The reader should work as a detective. Include them in the story by dropping in some clues and subtle hints and then keeping other aspects of the story a secret. The more your reader feels involved in the story, the better.

Plot twists

Sometimes, it’s a good idea to lead your reader in one direction, then pull the rug out from under them. A good plot twist always keeps the pages turning.

The big reveal

Though your reader is actively working to uncover the truth of the novel, always hold something back, some complete surprise to reveal at the end. Don’t let them call the entire ending. If the reader believes they know the novel will end, why should they keep reading?


Don’t completely resolve the story. The specific case or mystery can be over, but maybe your narrator/protagonist has something else to deal with, something that isn’t over when the novel is. This keeps readers thinking about the book, and it’s a great way to make room for a sequel.

A mystery novel that takes the reader by surprise is one that is sure to become a bestseller. If the crime is intricate, nuanced, and twisted, and the characters are realistic, messy, and intriguing, readers won’t be able to put the book down.