10 Key Elements Every Mystery Story Needs

The Mystery genre has been a favourite of mine ever since I began reading the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series at a young age. And those covers! Wow, they would draw you in. I love writing mystery novels as well, and everyday people and places can offer the most amazing inspiration to spur on your story.

I wanted to share some advice and tips I picked up to future authors of mystery stories.

1. An enticing hook: Getting a reader to keep reading (and guessing) is essential for a mystery. A great mystery story needs to encourage the reader to solve the crime, even if they don’t know that they are being drawn in to do so. There should be just enough information that the reader knows there is a crime or that there is a crime about to happen. You want the reader to go on a crime solving and murder mystery busting adventure with you. Right to the end.

2. The right setting: Settings that offer a sense of mystery, suspense and an unsettling atmosphere give mystery genres the support the stories need to build the anticipation the reader is expecting. Simply put, Imagine Sherlock Holmes wandering the bright, sunny beach of Aruba with song birds whistling overhead as opposed to the dark, foggy alleys of London.

3. An unclear crime: It may seem obvious, but you want to have a crime. Theft, murder or deceit. It just needs to offer the reader a central conflict that spurs an investigation that takes the reader on a journey of clues and culprits. I will leave the particulars up to your imagination.

4. An investigator: Someone needs to solve the crime. Whether it is a police detective, a ‘Nancy Drew’ sleuth or an unsuspecting character in your story. Just make sure the person delving into solving the mystery has some personal investment in determining a motive and solving the crime. An intriguing investigator has a backstory as well. Think childhood trauma that may be at the heart of their quest. Your character needs to have depth and not just doing their job.

5. A bad guy: A crime is caused by a villain, or two, or many characters, as in Murder On The Orient Express. The reader may, or may not, know who the bad guy is in the story, it just depends on which direction you want the reader to follow. Either build up to capturing the villain or the story may follow the villain until he can no longer outrun his crime.

6. Constant Narrative: A fast pace is essential in building up the climax of the story. As you bring the reader closer to solving the crime, fall back a bit and cause a problem that will throw your main sleuth off track. But just enough to build intrigue, not to frustrate your reader.

7. Clues Clues Clues: Clues are essential in a mystery. Duh. Sprinkling drops of blood, an earring or a torn photograph invite the reader to figure out how or where they fit in. Your clues need to engage your reader and bring them deeper into the mystery so that they feel the only way out is to read until the end and solve the crime .

8. Foreshadowing: I find that it is a good idea to map out your mystery story so your foreshadowing scenes align and make sense to your ultimate ending. There is no point in referencing a hidden tattoo if you never revisit it again in your story. You risk leaving the reader feeling that there are unfinished plots or lines in your story. You want the reader to have that ‘ah ha’ moment when you tie everything together.

9. Take a wrong turn: A good mystery intentionally throws the reader off the straight track to solving the crime. This is essential to building the climax as you guide the reader towards the answer and the ultimate reveal of the mystery. False clues, confusing characters and vague characters can help build tension and lead your reader away from the real villain of your story. For example, place emphasis on a photo or a character that can distract them and make it seem more important than it is. Then when you are ready to reveal the true culprit, the reader feels you took them on a mysterious ride.

10. A creative and fulfilling ending: The end of your mystery brings the reader to the big answer. The reveal of the true culprit or cause of the crime. The ending also serves as a way to clear up any foreshadowing or wrong turns or clues you dropped throughout your story. The ending can also provide you, the author, with an opportunity to invite the reader into your next adventure with the sleuth or investigator you introduced them to in the beginning of your story.

I choose to feature Doctor Kerry Dearborne who is a coroner in the small northwestern Ontario town of Lake Pines. She is an outsider, not having been born and raised there, but has formed an attachment to the place and the people. The town itself has growing tensions with the seasonal residents that cottage in the area, adding tension to the story lines. The Canadian Mystery series began with Murder On The Water where old remains are mysteriously found in a cave and spark the reopening of a cold case and five lifelong friends soon realize it can link them all to the murder. The second book is Death At Deception Bay where a partially buried body is found on a popular hiking trail and the clues begin to point, uncomfortably, to one of the town’s residents as the killer. But, of course, not all is what it seems. I am currently working on the third book Murder Of Crows and look forward to sharing it with you soon.

Happy reading, writing and sleuthing.