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10 Mystery Writing Tips to Keep Your Readers in Suspense

From Agatha Christie to Parker Bilal, the best mystery writers know how to keep readers in suspense until the very end of the novel. If you are looking to write a bestselling mystery novel, here are 10 mystery writing tips to help you do the same:

1. Start off with a bang

Whether it is a corpse or a missing person, starting your mystery novel with a major crime is the best way to keep your readers in suspense. The first few chapters of your mystery should briefly introduce the protagonist while focusing on the crime that has taken place.

The two most important scenes of a mystery novel are the scene of the crime and the one in which the perpetrator is revealed. Beginning your novel with the scene of the crime is a great way to engage your reader immediately and reveal the level of depravity or horror that the protagonist must confront throughout the rest of the book.

2. Be creative with dying

If your mystery begins with a corpse, make it a creative death. Don't just have your killer stab a victim—let the stabbing pattern be a word or a symbol. If your victim is poisoned, consider a poison that is hard to find or impossible to detect. If the victim was buried alive, have an odd array of objects buried with them that offers trails of suspicion that the protagonist must then follow.

When the corpse is killed creatively, several things happen. First, not only do readers want to know who did it and why—they also want to know why it was done in that way. Creative deaths also provide clues to the killer and establishes greater character depth for your antagonist, particularly his or her intellectual level and motivation behind the killing.

3. Do your research on crime procedurals

However you choose to begin your mystery—whether with a corpse or a kidnapping—be sure that you do your research on crime procedurals. The details you include when you describe these important opening moments of your mystery will set the tone for how believable your story is and how engrossing it is for your audience.

Law enforcement handles crimes differently, depending on location and details of the crime. If you are writing an opening scene in which a small-town cop discovers a body, be sure that you've researched who will get involved at the crime scene besides the cop. Will there be other detectives who show up? Who takes the body in for an autopsy and where is this autopsy done? Do other government law enforcement agencies (like the FBI) get involved? The more realism you use to stage the finding of the corpse (or the moments after a kidnapping has taken place), the more likely you are to keep your audience turning pages.

Research crime procedures of law enforcement if you include them in your mystery
Photo by David von Diemar on Unsplash

4. Give your main character a life outside of the crime/mystery

You want your reader to feel empathy toward the main character as he or she is put in harm's way to find out who the killer or kidnapper is. The more empathy your reader feels toward your protagonist, the more invested they'll be in what happens to that character as the plot progresses.

This is the reason you need to show the life your main character has outside of the mystery. Whether it's their family life with their kids, or a romantic interaction with a love interest—showing the protagonist's life makes him or her seem real. It gives the character depth and allows you to use those relationships that happen outside of the mystery to add to the tension. For example, if the killer hunts down women and your protagonist is a man, his concern for his female significant other could play into the story and give him increased motivation to find the antagonist. Or if the protagonist has a family and children, the antagonist could threaten them, which serves to ramp up the tension and motivate the protagonist to solve the mystery quickly.

5. Your setting should be more than just a setting

If you've ever read a novel about a haunted house, then you understand the importance of setting in a mystery. In fact, choosing a setting for your story is one of the most important choices you will make in planning your novel, as it can either add to the tension or distract from it.

For example, a dark, tightly enclosed space can increase the fear your protagonist feels when hunting for the killer. Alleyways where someone can hide behind doors or trash bins, dark forests where no one can hear your characters scream, or naturally spooky locations like funeral homes or mortuaries are settings that help to ramp up the tension and feeling of foreboding that makes mysteries such exciting reads. Particularly if your mystery is a haunted house story, hidden rooms, cobweb-filled attic spaces, and basements where family secrets have been buried are great settings for maintaining tension in your story.

6. Build tension with cliffhanger chapter endings

Think back to a book you've read that was nearly impossible to put down. This ability to thoroughly captivate readers is the mark of a great mystery writer and a goal you should aspire to as you write your novel. While there are multiple methods to create this kind of story, ending each chapter with a cliffhanger is a great way to keep your plot moving forward and the tension heightened.

There are multiple ways to create cliffhanger chapter endings. It could be someone opening a door and the reader needs to start the next chapter to find out who it is. It could be one of the main characters seeing something that makes them immediately afraid but the reader needs to start the next chapter to find out what it is that they saw. Or maybe it's a scream in the distance that the main character hears but the reader needs to start the next chapter to find out who it is that's screaming.

7. Know the end before you start writing

As with other genres, and especially for mystery, you should have your plot worked out before beginning the first chapter. This means that you should know who committed the crime, how they did it, why they did it, and how they eventually get caught. If you know these details before you begin writing, you'll be able to scatter clues throughout the story to lead up to the big reveal.

8. Make all suspects liars

As with any great mystery novel, yours should have multiple suspects who could be guilty of the crime. Determining which of the suspects is guilty is part of the reason readers will want to keep turning pages, and there should be moments within your story that make each suspect seem like he or she is the guilty one.

The easiest way to do this is to ensure that all of your suspects are liars (to some extent). Have them lie about their whereabouts—where they were last night, who they were with, and why they were there—to make them seem unreliable. Obviously, the guilty suspect will be a liar to cover up his or her crime, so having all your suspects lie helps keep the tension taut as your detective tries to sift through the untruths to find the truth.

Make all your suspects liars when writing mystery
Photo by Aaron Mello on Unsplash

9. Throw your detective (and reader) off track with incorrect suspicion

Part of the thrill of reading a mystery is the guesswork involved with determining who did it, and why. Playing with this thrill is a great way to keep your readers invested in the story. Allow your protagonist to believe he or she has solved the crime, only to later find out it isn't solved at all. In most cases, this is best done with the most likely of suspects—the one readers believe is the culprit before the real killer is discovered. Playing with the emotions of your readers in this way maintains an element of unpredictability and tension mystery readers love to experience.

10. Scatter clues (as well as red herrings) throughout the book

Leaving clues throughout the story keeps your reader guessing, and following them is part of the fun of reading a mystery, but it's important to not reveal too much, too soon. In fact, the best mysteries are the ones that surprise the reader and end with a killer who seemed least likely to commit the crime.

Your protagonist should follow clues to find the killer and some of these clues should be red herrings. In order to maintain the shock value of an unlikely suspect, some of your clues should point to other potential suspects and lead the protagonist away from the trail of the one who is guilty. This distraction increases the tension in the plot and allows you to end with an "ah-ha" moment that completely catches the protagonist (and reader) by surprise.

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