Genre Tips: How to Write Mystery

Following closely on the heels of romance, mystery is one of the most popular fiction genres of all time. At its simplest, the genre is a puzzle for audiences and characters to figure out together. At its most complex, mystery offers a deep-dive into humanity’s most pressing existential questions and threats. Populated by manifold subgenres, mystery offers room for many expressions, but its intelligent and experienced audience expects specific details in its execution. Learning how to write mystery stories is, as it turns out, about so much more than “just the facts, ma’am.”

Mystery can be divided into several categories, including but not limited to:

  • Thriller (focusing on dangerous stakes for the characters caught up in needing to solve the mystery, such as The Fugitive)
the fugitive harrison ford

The Fugitive (1993), Warner Bros.

  • Procedural (focusing on the techniques used in solving the mystery, such as in CSI)

CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015), CBS.

  • Whodunit (focusing on the solving the puzzle, such as Sherlock Holmes)
sherlock holmes lessons for writers

Sherlock Holmes (2009), Warner Bros.

  • Crime (focusing on professionals from both sides of the crime, which may be a murder or may be another type of lawbreaking, such as in The Departed)

The Departed (2006), Warner Bros.

There are many other subgenres, and many of these can overlap or be included in other subgenres that are primarily focused on evoking a certain milieu or atmosphere, such as:

  • Cozy (focusing on a “cozy” setting, low-key stakes, little gore or violence, and usually a citizen “detective”, such as Miss Marple)

Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (2004-13), ITV.

  • Noir (focusing on a “dark” and gritty urban setting, such as The Maltese Falcon)
The 5 Secrets of Choosing the Right Setting for Your Story's Climax

The Maltese Falcon (1941), Warner Bros.

  • Comedy (focusing on a comedy of errors, again usually with little graphic violence and a bumbling hero who solves the case by happenstance as much as anything, such as The Man Who Knew Too Little)

The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997), Warner Bros.

Like romance, mystery often crops up as a subplot within stories that would primarily be classed as other genres. Or the story may be set entirely within the milieu of a different genre, even though it still follows the mystery structure. For example, mysteries may often take place in a fantasy setting, as with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series or Magic Lost, Trouble Found by Lisa Shearin.

Also popular are historical mysteries, such as Miss Scarlet and the Duke.

Miss Scarlet and the Duke (2020-), Alibi.

And we also see romantic thrillers and romantic suspense.

5 Tips for How to Write Mystery

Readers choose mysteries when wanting a puzzle to tease their brains. The best mysteries are those that pull off that most impressive trick of all: outsmarting their readers while playing fair. Mystery readers are a smart crowd, not only intelligent in their own right, but extremely familiar with all the tropes and tricks a mystery writer might think to pull. So in the interest of outsmarting readers, let’s talk about how to write mystery.

Foreshadowing: Mystery Is All About Setup and Payoff

When you think about it, mystery is really nothing more than foreshadowing. Or rather, a good mystery is all about foreshadowing. A little suspense and a big reveal in the end does not make a mystery. Although readers want to be fooled, they also want a fair shot at solving the case. A true mystery is one that lays out all the clues for its readers, hiding little to nothing of what the detective character learns.

But how can you show readers all the clues and expect them not to figure out what’s going on? No doubt you’ve done your own fair share of figuring out whodunit the moment the culprit shows up on screen. Particularly in short-form fiction, such as serial TV shows, it can be difficult for writers to cram in the necessary foreshadowing without being too obvious. In some instances, writers must convey murder, means, and motive all in 45 minutes (while probably sharing time with a personal subplot for at least one of the regular characters).

The true skill of a mystery master is showcased nowhere more obviously than in foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is made up of two parts: setup and payoff—the planting of the clue and the eventual deciphering of the clue. Somewhere in between, however, is where the real magic happens, thanks to another crucial piece: misdirection.

However, audiences these days are so smart they often recognize misdirection the minute a story puts more than casual emphasis on a piece. Instead of being distracted from the truth, they immediately think, Ah, well, that obviously isn’t the culprit! (Or, if the culprit’s identity isn’t the mystery, That can’t really be how it happened or why it happened!)

Finding exactly the right balance between foreshadowing and misdirection is literally an artform. One of the best secrets is simply that of getting your audience emotionally involved in the misdirection. Make it real. Build it from the inside-out—whether it’s just a small detail or a fleshed-out subplot. The secret to any successful plot twist (and really that’s all mystery is) is making sure readers are so satisfied with the twist that even if they guessed it ahead of time, they’d still enjoy getting there just as much. More than that, when you have an audience’s emotions involved, they are that much less likely to think about every little detail you present.

For Example: In State of Play, the real culprit is always the chief suspect, but the way the story weaves in the emotions of the protagonist, investigative journalist Cal McAffrey, and gets the audience to identify with his motives for seeing the story a certain way, prevents the unfolding of the mystery from feeling on-the-nose or rote, whether or not audiences guess the truth before Cal does.

State of Play (2009), Universal Pictures.

Story Structure in Mystery: Using Plot Beats to Create Revelation and Suspense

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

Structuring Your Novel (Amazon affiliate link)

The mystery genre follows classic structure, but uses plot beats to grip readers with the occasional revelation and to deepen the mystery. You can find many genre-specific resources that break down expected mystery beats much more specifically, but here is a quick rundown:

Hook: Mysteries sometimes open immediately with the dead body or whatever other crime is to be explored, but may also open with a character-centric scene in which the protagonist is introduced in a way that frames the larger stakes and theme with the character’s personal issues.

Inciting Event: If the crime hasn’t already taken place, this is where it happens. If it did take place earlier,  this is usually where the detective character will become aware of the case in some way—either by being assigned to it in a professional capacity or by being drawn into it for personal reasons (e.g., she is targeted or the victim was a friend).

First Plot Point: Symbolically, this is the Door of No Return. In a mystery, this means the stakes become personal and/or irrevocable for the protagonist. In some stories, this could be where the protagonist decides to keep investigating even after being warned off. In other stories, the killer might strike again, sometimes even striking very close to home for the protagonist. Either way, a major clue will be introduced.

First Pinch Point: Pinch points emphasize the antagonistic force’s threat and what is at stake for the main characters. In mysteries in which the killer is aware of the protagonist, this beat might include an attempt from the killer to warn the protagonist off the case. In other stories, the threat might be more existential, either because something is discovered that causes the protagonist to question himself or his own motives or methods, or because some horrible new clue escalates the stakes.

Midpoint: The Midpoint, or Second Plot Point, is always a Moment of Truth. In a mystery, this revelation can be quite literal. The protagonist discovers the biggest clue yet, something that completely changes the case. The protagonist’s understanding of this Truth is not yet complete, however; the Truth is still obscured by things the protagonist does not understand, both within the plot and the theme.

Second Pinch Point: The stakes ramp up still more. If the story includes personal stakes for the protagonist (e.g., her own safety, the safety of her loved ones, professional integrity, etc.), then those will be emphasized here. In stories with a more distant perspective, in which the protagonist is operating mostly on a professional level, the stakes will be primarily about the mystery: something happens that obstructs the investigation or seems to put the culprit out of reach.

Third Plot Point: Traditionally, this turning point into the Third Act is the moment when “All Is Lost.” Even relatively low-key mysteries may see the Third Plot Point turning them into comparatively dark territory (e.g., the protagonist or someone important is kidnapped). Often, another crime will be committed here, one just as dramatic or more so than the original crime. The detective will have personal doubts about being able to successfully solve the mystery. However, the events here will provide the clues necessary for the protagonist to find the culprit in subsequent scenes.

Climax: The protagonist will identify and probably come face to face with the culprit. In some stories, this can be quite exciting and violent. In others, it can unwind in the classic scene in which the detective gathers all the suspects into the same room and explains his investigation. In other stories, the actual apprehension of the culprit can be relatively low-key.

Resolution: If the story opened with a frame of the protagonist’s personal life, the Resolution will bring that full circle. If not, there may be a scene in which the victims of the crime are afforded a cathartic moment.

For Example: To see structural breakdowns of various mysteries, check out the Mystery Books and Mystery Movies sections in the Story Structure Database.

Learn how to write mystery by studying popular books and movies in the genre.

Theme in Mystery: Justice, Passion, and Death

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

Like all specific genres, mystery offers up its own inherent themes. Because mysteries are ultimately about figuring out a puzzle and seeing beyond the obvious, perspective is often a major theme (as John Truby notes in the introduction to his new book The Anatomy of Genres). Justice is another ubiquitous theme.

If the story features a murder or threat to life, then themes of death are often inevitable. Particularly in mysteries that deal realistically with murder and with the professions that both commit murders and “clean up” after them, the opportunity is there to go deep with existential questions about the truths of life and death and the ambivalent nature of man.

Passion, greed, and any number of other possible motivations for committing a crime can also be explored. Understanding the character arc of not just the protagonist, but also the culprit and the victim can give you solid ideas of integral themes you can explore in your own mystery.

For Example: Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River goes deep in exploring themes of friendship, loyalty, and guilt, in a story about three childhood friends—the father of a murdered daughter, the investigating cop, and the suspect who was himself the victim of a horrific crime when he was young.

Mystic River Sean Penn

Mystic River (2003), Warner Bros.

Characters in Mystery: The Characters Should Be Able to Stand Without the Mystery, Because the Mystery Can’t Stand Without the Characters

Although the puzzle is the point in a mystery story, it shouldn’t be the story. What audiences truly want from the experience of a mystery story is the opportunity to experience how realistic and entertaining characters engage with the puzzle, its catalyst, and its consequences.

For my money, the most important rule of thumb for how to write mystery is simple: the characters should be able to stand without the mystery.

In other words, your characters should be so interesting audiences would want to engage with them even if the mystery turns out to be easily solvable. This doesn’t mean the mystery should be relegated to a subplot in your characters’ personal lives. But it does mean the characters and their development should be strong enough to grip readers. Whether your story is funny and entertaining or dark and fascinating, readers should be hooked by your characters much more than the twists and turns of your foreshadowing’s setups and payoffs.

For Example: The recent Netflix romp Glass Onion dazzles audiences with interesting characters and entertaining scenarios that keep their attention regardless of how quickly they identify the true culprit.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022), Netflix.

Characters in Mystery: Character Arcs Can Be Either Change Arcs or Flat Arcs

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

A common question I receive about character arcs is, “What kind of character arc does [names specific detective character] have?” Usually in these instances, the confusion arises because the character in question isn’t arcing. This is because Flat Arcs are extremely common in the mystery genre.

However, this does not mean the story has no arc. A Flat Arc indicates a character who has already integrated and therefore acts upon the story’s primary Truth—and who impacts the world and characters around her via that Truth. Strictly speaking, this will be a thematic Truth (e.g., “justice is important but not always clear cut”). However, in mysteries that don’t go deep with their thematic exploration, this Truth might be conveyed simply in that the Flat-Arc protagonist has the strongest moral compass of anyone within the story.

Writing a mystery with a Flat-Arc protagonist is popular because it allows the story to focus most of its attention on the complications of the plot. However, it’s also entirely possible a mystery may feature a Change Arc, in which the protagonist’s personal view of the world alters dramatically by the end of the story. This might be a Positive Change Arc, in which the protagonist moves out of a more limited or “Lie-based” perspective into a more expansive Truth. Or it might be a Negative Change Arc, in which the protagonist moves into an even more constrained and limiting perspective of the world.

For Example: In Sir Terry Pratchett’s mystery-fantasy Feet of Clay, forthright police investigator Captain Carrot’s steadfast Flat-Arc belief in the rights of all sentient beings not only allows him to solve the mystery but to positively impact the prejudices of others about the golems who everyone believes are mindless killers.


In a way, all novels are mysteries, since the primary question all fiction wants readers to ask is, “What’s gonna happen?” The mystery genre takes it all up a notch by leading audiences on an intricate dance of clues, misdirection, and ultimately a deep exploration of the human psyche.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about Literary Fiction!

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written in the mystery genre? What are your thoughts on how to write mystery? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. This was a pleasant surprise in my Sunday podcast library. I definitely appreciate this column. I have never write a mystery, but this gives me the itch. I’m loving (ok, maybe not but having a very close friendship with) the idea of putting one of these together in a fantasy setting.

  2. I have generally stayed away from the mystery genre because I have thought myself incapable of writing a good mystery. However, my subconscious proved me wrong when I dreamed a full-on murder mystery a few years ago. I’m planning to someday write a story about it, so I’ll definitely be coming back to this. Thank you!

  3. This is right on time. Just yesterday I was making up a beat sheet for mysteries, and I wanted to tie it in to your beat sheets for the general 4 act structure. Should have just waited for this post.

    Mysteries are my first love, thanks to Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown. They were the first kind of stories I ever tried to write. And as you pointed out, they can be the undercarriage for stories in other genres. Harry Potter novels are structured as mysteries, as are several of Miles Vorkosigan’s adventures. My favorite type of romances are “romantic suspense,” usually of the old school Mary Higgins Clark / Mary Stewart / Phyllis A. Whitney variety. If I ever do write romance novels, that would be the variant I’d go with.

    I love the versatility of mysteries. And the popularity of it makes sense when you consider it’s a genre that men and women enjoy in equal measure. As opposed to action which tilts to men, and romance which tilts to women.

    What you say about the characters being able to stand apart from the mystery also makes sense. Elizabeth George gets a lot of mileage out of showing the POV of all of Inspector Lynley’s suspects, because as readers get acquainted with them, we start to understand why they might have committed the murder, and often hope that a favorite suspect or two is innocent because of what we’ve learned about them.
    Mystery is an excellent choice for writers wanting to explore the human heart and what makes it tick.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Elizabeth George’s Write Away was one of the first books I read about an outliner. I resonated so much with her process. She was the first person who gave me “permission” to use the writing process that I found best for me.

  4. My wife is absolutely infatuated with Miss Scarlet and the Duke, to the point we signed up for a PBS free 7-day trial so she can binge watch it! And, yes, I think the characters are intriguing. Considering I never figure anything out, I have to fall back on well-written characters.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve only recently caught a few episodes of it. I was very confused at first about why there was a duke in Scotland Yard. :p

  5. sanityisuseless says

    Another super common trope I see in mystery is justifying the murder as a way to add complexity.
    Usually this goes along the lines of how the murderer was a terrible person and generally deserved to die (A Study in Scarlet, Murder on the Orient Express) and the murderer was enacting justice in their own way. The idea is solid but the execution is generally weak.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s a recent trend (last decade or so) emphasizing bad guy motivations in general. On the one hand, it’s great because it brings moral complexity to both the character and the story. But, as you say, it’s very often poorly done and the emphasis on the antagonist ends up fragmenting the narrative and thematic throughline.

  6. Oh, something I forgot now that I’m reviewing my beat sheet — in mysteries in particular, the subplot is often integral the story’s theme. If you read mysteries a lot, you’ll notice how the subplot explores aspects of the sleuth’s personal life, and ties into the theme. Frequently, the climax of the subplot provides a eureka moment of insight for the sleuth in solving the crime. Don’t neglect the subplot in a mystery!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      At its core, mystery is perhaps the most plot-based of any the main genres, and if that’s all the story focuses on, it can sometimes come across as a dry plod from event to event. Relational and personal subplots are often what bring in the emotional weight and get audiences to invest on a deeper level than just the external plot. This is also important because, in mystery, if the audiences are able to figure out the solution before the characters do, they still need a reason to invest in the story all the way to its end.

  7. Victoria C Leo says

    Love this!! My latest SF novel has a mystery feel to it: who/which species is the traitor? Have to leave enough breadcrumbs to be fair, and build clues/suspense without letting the smart cookies say ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, it’s the , get a move on, dumb-ass!’ I know how hard it is because my first SF novel was a straight-forward mystery and really tough. So glad that I have these encouraging words as I tackle the who-dunnit genre again!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s delicate balance to be sure! Beta readers are such a valuable asset for analyzing whether or not you’ve erred on the side of too many clues or too little.

  8. Thank you for this article! I absolutely love this genre, but struggle to find a balance between foreshadowing, misdirection, and pacing. My last attempt was a whodunnit that is turning into a thriller to cut down on the number of pieces that were just overwhelming the story without moving it forward.

    Also, love so many of the series and authors your referenced!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, for all that mystery seems simple enough on the surface, it’s a very complex story type. Writing one well is an admirable feat!

  9. Great timing! I’m in the revision stage right now and puzzling over where this mystery fits in the sub-genre list. To me, it’s ‘A Mystery Novel’ because it’s more general and its theme is about deeper issues (hatred of father), more like a classic tragedy than divisions like police procedural, etc. Your thoughts?

  10. Wonderful post, K.M.! I love to read good mysteries. I also write mysteries. I know i’m biased, but I think it’s the most difficult genre to write because the author has to put together a clever puzzle that fits into a story about interesting characters. And, as you mention, it can’t be something that’s easily solved by the reader, but it has to be fair play so the reader can go back and put the clues together to see how it all works. It’s a lot like three-dimensional chess.

    in the first book of my series of The Watch Mysteries, the main character has a transformational arc. But in the following books, her arc is relatively flat and the secondary characters change over the course of the story.

    I’m printing your post to keep in my files!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree about the level of difficulty. In most genres, it doesn’t matter so much if audiences figure out what’s going to happen. In some genres, like romance, they *want* to know, in at least a general way. But mystery has to walk that oh-so-delicate balance between setting up reader expectations without giving away the ultimate solution.

  11. I loved this post because I am an AVID mystery reader/watcher – from the kitschy, Misomer Murders, to the sublime, Hercule Poirot. Oh, and Vera, dark! Right now I’ve dug into an oldish French series called The Paris Murders staring a prim forensic investigator called Chole. Why do I have such a THING for these mysteries? All the ones I most love are def character-driven – and the characters are complex, philosophical, usually with a mysterious past. I love getting two mysteries in one. Anyway, this post planted a seed that one day I may just try my pen at one of these. I am SUCH a memoir/creative non-fiction writer, unraveling the mystery of my own tangled life. BUT…would this be fun!? Thank, KM, for opening up this possibility.

  12. I just finished listening to the audiobook of Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone and it’s not only a great mystery novel, it’s also sort of a mystery writing procedural. The main character is a writer of how to write mystery books and he starts out with the rules of mystery writing and explains as he goes about how his telling of the story is keeping to the rules. A really fun and engrossing read, but also maybe helpful to you mystery writers out there!

  13. This was an excellent post. It gave me a new appreciation for the mystery genre, a genre I don’t usually read.
    Thanks, K. M.

  14. Enjoyable and thought provoking as always. I write cozy and traditional mysteries, and wondered about the characterization of cozies as having lower stakes. There isn’t the “save the world” element of a thriller or “save the town from a serial killer” idea. However, the stakes are crucial for the amateur sleuth and her world, and they could have an impact on a community, group of friends, family, etc. No high stakes, no readers. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, stakes are always relative. Sometimes what seem from the outside like the smallest of stakes (such as a child’s lost toy or something) can be used to create stories that are, in fact, more gripping than those with world-ending stakes.

  15. Mysteries are my favorite to read, but I’ve never written one. This is a nudge in that direction, and why not? I agree about the characters standing alone outside the mystery, and also the world. I love cozy mysteries, so the small village or isolated mansion setting is always for me.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I didn’t address setting specifically in this post, but it’s often a huge part of the mystery genre–a character of its own, really.

  16. This article is just what I need to finish my cyberpunk murder mystery. I haven’t worked on that for quite a while, but I want to get back to it as soon as I finish a draft of another project. My thanks to you.

  17. Abigail Welborn says

    I adore how Knives Out and Glass Onion both met and subverted so many expectations of mystery. I thoroughly enjoyed them both!

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