How to Write an Excellent Mystery Novel?

1. Stakes, danger and something to lose


An author can build empathy and identification by endowing the personality with a desire, conflict, dilemma or mountain to climb that appeals to audiences and resonates with them for a long time afterwards. Developing a character that audiences begin rooting for and identify with will bring them more deeply into the story. The character needs to be someone who the reader has empathy for and then through the narrative is brought into the external and personal internal struggle. The best fictional works have personalities that audiences would like to learn more about and then want to remain with on their journey throughout the novel.


As a writer you should ensure that audiences are connected and drawn into the protagonist’s journey and their dreams. An important element of this approach is developing a goal or objective for the character, something they have to either achieve or lose. Why has the character embarked on this journey what are the stakes for them? What do they stand to lose or sacrifice if they fail? This can be philosophical, spiritual, practical, financial or emotional. The more personal the heroes journey becomes the more powerful the storytelling. The stakes should be high enough that the character’s exhibited level of commitment to its fulfilment within the story is justified. Otherwise audiences may not be drawn into the themes.



2. Don’t tell the audience


Mystery builds apprehension. Introduce an element of intrigue and then hold back on the reveal until later. By making audiences aware that something important is happening and teasing that further revelations are on the horizon an author can inject suspense into their story. This is a crucial element in a mystery novel, the audience becomes gradually more aware that something is unravelling but can’t put their finger on what exactly it is. This method also applies to character development and the micro-scale of storytelling. A thought-provoking aspect of a character is a hidden mystery, perhaps form their past or background that remains obscured, that is slowly unveiled for the reader. By teasing the readers about later events you also build a strong sense of continuity into the narrative and the game-changing moments that happen in the novel become more dramatic to the audience.


If one mystery is solved earlier in the narrative then create another one. The most effective authors follow the strategy of burying at least some of the future plot twists firmly within the narrative. Then as soon as a mystery arch is concluded they introduce another mystery – thereby escalating the tension. If the novel takes a chapter out to discuss a meaningless side quest this can be very distracting for readers, why not adapt the chapter so that it matters to the central story. As already mentioned spending time on character development that’s fundamental to the storytelling is a valid approach and builds on the themes of the work. The subplot’s don’t all need to be action orientated or contain car chases and explosions.



3. Make every passage relevant


If the novel has spent several chapters building up a mystery or suspense element then it absolutely requires a pay off for the benefit of the reader. Don’t short change the audience by ducking out and failing to deliver on plot points that good time has been invested in establishing. Everything that is included in the narrative should serve a purpose and matter later on in the story, otherwise that content is unnecessary filler. An inventive author will plant all of the necessary details and spend time making sure they all become relevant by the conclusion. Don’t be too predictable either, the experience is more satisfying audience if what’s about to happen next isn’t immediately obvious.



4. Create limitations and ticking clocks


A decision that can make the world of difference for an author is how much should they reveal about the protagonist or central character’s decision making about the future. This can be a tough call in either approach. The novel could become just boring with a very predictable story that leaves nothing to the imagination. On other other hand, if the protagonist tells the audience what their intentions are and how they are setting about achieving them, this can generate more suspense. Deadlines, goals, ticking clocks, bombs that are about to explode all work by creating tension, and setting a pace for the unfolding events of the narrative. A breathless race against time can be constructed, and the unexpected plot developments and twists become more gripping and captivating. The secret is building anticipating in the audiences by escalating the stakes that are ahead of the protagonist on their journey. Again, the deadlines and limitations imposed could be philosophical, romantic, cultural or emotional – this does not just relate to murder mysteries and thrillers.



5. Establishing the personal journey and resolution


Establish the anxieties, fears and concerns of the characters earlier in the narrative. If the intention is to write a dramatic scene that genuinely tests the character or a psychological thriller that gets to the heart of the character, then establish the personality traits and then develop the obstacles and dilemmas the characters encounter directly from them. This form of psychological drama is much more effective when the audience a) can guess what’s coming, b) has delved into the character sufficiently to understand why this is so important. The more personal the experience for the protagonist the more profound and dramatic this will become. This resonates with audiences because we all have fears and concerns of our own, facing our fears is something that we can all relate with.