Post: How mysterious should a mystery be?


Numerous genres comprise the fiction industry. Perhaps you’ve tried your hand at a few. Then again, you might relate to many authors who discover their talent in a specific category, so they stick with that genre. Their goal is to be prolific and become known for that realm, (I.e. “best-selling romance novelist”). Whether you’ve dabbled in multiple story types or one, if you’re considering writing a mystery and have never done so in the past, there are several key issues to keep in mind. 

How mysterious should a great mystery novel be? What separates mediocrity from best-selling potential in this genre? The best mysteries are fully developed in three areas: characterization, plot and suspense. Your overall goal as a mystery writer is to engage readers so they feel as though they play a role in piecing together the puzzle or solving the dilemma in the story. 

Elements of a great mystery novel

As you strive to craft a great mystery novel, your top priority is to grab your readers’ attention right from the start. In the writing industry, this is known as a “hook.” There are four “firsts” that can help you accomplish your goal. These are: the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first page and the first chapter. Within these first four sections of your story, you should aim to accomplish the goals shown in the following list: 

  • Provide a glimpse of what lies ahead to gain readers’ attention and interest, so they want to keep reading. 
  • Ask a question or present an unknown to stir curiosity. 
  • Present a specific conflict, loss or revelation that creates dramatic effect and lets the reader know that the characters’ lives are about to take an unexpected turn for better or worse. 

When you accomplish these goals within the “first four” main sections of your book, you’ve laid the groundwork for a great mystery novel. But your work has only just begun!

Let the reader become a detective

The best mysteries enable readers to play active roles in discovering clues and solving the problem. In other words, you don’t just want to tell the story, you want readers to feel like they’re solving the mystery. Use these valuable tools to do so: 

  • Drop hints and clues that are neither too obvious nor obscure.
  • Make characters relatable, so that readers determine who they can trust.
  • Always provide numerous options and possibilities to add complexity and excitement to the suspense. 
  • Throw readers off-course with a red herring-intentionally misleading information or clues.

These elements help create a can’t-put-it-down-until-the-end type story. Mystery novels that are well-written are prime choices for book clubs because each reader gets to put on a detective hat and try to solve the mystery before the others! 

Finish with a suspenseful climax and clear resolution

Unless you’re writing a mystery series, you’ll want to avoid ending with a cliffhanger. By the time your reader puts down the book, all questions must be answered, and unknowns resolved. Every mystery builds to a climactic moment just before the resolution. You have two main choices in this area. Either the climax should make readers feel like they “knew it all along” or should completely take them off-guard—a surprise ending.

Editing and revisions are the keys to success when writing a mystery novel. When you feel like you have a solid manuscript, consider submitting it to a publisher, and don’t give up. If your dream is to become a mystery writer, keep working at it until you get it right.