Genre Breakdown: Mystery


Writing mysteries can be a blast. But with fun comes a challenge: how can you, the writer, work backwards from a crime’s resolution to its occurrence? How can you break it down into clues your protagonist, and your reader, won’t be able to piece together within the first chapter?

Weaving together a mystery is a challenge worth taking on if you know how to do it right. But first you need to know what the mystery genre is all about, and what makes a mystery different from all the other genres.

What makes a novel a mystery novel?

Mystery novels have a specific crime at the center of their plots, surrounded by all secondary events that usually lead to solving it. This crime, more often than not a murder, is confronted and resolved by the story’s protagonist, an investigator or detective. The reader follows the book’s protagonist along as various clues move the story from point A to point B.

We’ll cover the thriller genre a bit later, but the biggest difference you need to know to differentiate between a mystery and a thriller is that mysteries never reveal the “bad guy” right away. The whole point of a mystery novel is to put together pieces of a puzzle that lead to discovering, and hopefully capturing, who the “bad guy” (or gal) is.

Recent books and their authors 

Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman by Tessa Arlen

The Stockholm Castle Mystery by Joyce Elson Moore

Shooting for the Stars by R.G. Belsky

How to write successfully in this genre

What makes writing a straight mystery very different from writing a straight YA novel is that writing a mystery will require a lot of planning. What keeps readers interested in a mystery is wanting to see if they can figure out “whodunit” before the protagonist. Ironically, like the killer in your murder mystery, you have to plan carefully or you’ll end up, er, unsuccessful.

To really give your reader something to praise, you have to tap into the deepest, darkest depths of your creativity. More so than you usually do. Your protagonist’s back story, her reason for taking on the case, the logistics of the murder itself … you have to go where no mystery novelist has gone before. As long as it’s believable, to a certain extent. If it could never happen in real life, the excitement gets crushed underneath the obvious façade. 

If you know who killed whom but are up for the challenge of figuring out how—and how not to make it too obvious—grab your laptop and start outlining! Reading a mystery book is one thing: what can be confusing about the mystery vs. thriller explanation is that reading a mystery is, well, a major thrill.

Writing one will be quite an adventure. We wish you luck, and hope you’ll keep us updated on your progress in the comments. Just don’t give away the ending!

 Want more genres? Check out Genre Breakdown: Fantasy.

Image courtesy of Novelty Revisions.