Genre tips / writers resources / writing

9 Tips for Mystery Writers

mysteryWho doesn’t love a good mystery? Pitting your wits against the master sleuth, seeing if you can out-think a Sherlock Homes wanna-be, figure out the answer before they do? Who needs Brain Games when a talented mystery writer is out there?

So when you go to the bookstore in search of a mystery to wile away the weekend hours, do you also check out thrillers? Aren’t they kinda sorta pretty much the same?

Truth: Mysteries often get confused with thrillers. They’re both plot-driven, action-oriented, fast-paced with a dramatic climax, but there are differences:

  • The generally accepted difference: In a mystery, you’re trying to solve a crime that’s been committed. In a thriller, you’re trying to prevent a crime from being committed.
  • In a thriller, you’re waiting for something significant to happen. In a mystery, you’re trying to figure out why it happened
  • According to Donald Maass, a thriller must have a believable plot that’s also incredible. Mysteries just need to be clever
  • According to Alfred Hitchcock, thrillers are about suspense and mysteries are about surprise (I’ve liberally rephrased his thoughts, but this is the essence)

If you want to write mysteries,  here are some tips for doing that well:

  1. problem solving is central to plot and characters
  2. many characters are suspects or have traits that are suspect
  3. clearly describe the setting, providing clues that are carried through the story
  4. details are critical. Subtle details are best
  5. sprinkle clues throughout the story
  6. have distractions from the primary plot
  7. the solution must be supported by clues provided throughout the story
  8. each character should have some flaw that makes them look guilty of murder
  9. own G.K. Chesterton’s oath required of each member in the British Detection Club: “Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow on them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, feminine Intuition, mumbo jumbo, Jiggery-pokery, coincidence, or Act of God?”

That’s it. I’d love to hear from mystery writers–what do you consider critical to creating compelling mystery novels?

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blog, IMS tech expert, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is the editor of a K-8 technology curriculumK-8 keyboard curriculumK-8 Digital Citizenship curriculum, and creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer.

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17 thoughts on “9 Tips for Mystery Writers

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  8. I think your tips for ‘mystery’ writers are good tips for ‘all’ writers. Just read an article by J. K. Rowlings where she says her new mystery book isn’t such a big change for her, even her Harry Potter series were really about a bunch of who-dunnits stories! thanks for your post!


  9. Great post. You’ve put thriller and mystery genres into their own slots, making them easy to identify. When I was a kid, I thought all books were mysteries. After all, you had no idea about how a book would end until you read the whole thing, so it was a mystery from the first page.


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