From classic whodunits and cozy capers to hard-boiled crime novels and police procedurals, there's a lot of fun to be had in the mystery genre. Being able to give the reader the thrill of uncovering a mystery along with the protagonist is a special talent. And it all starts with the idea. So keep reading for special tips and a list of mystery writing prompts.
- What makes a good mystery?
- Examples of great mysteries to read.
- Mystery story ideas.
Table of contents
- Ingredients for a Good Mystery
- Great Mysteries to Read (Or Re-Read)
- Mystery Writing Prompts
- Getting Your Mystery Book in Front of the Right Readers
Ingredients for a Good Mystery
There are certain commonalities among mystery novels or short stories. And while you want to avoid doing a cookie-cutter version of another story, you will want to ensure certain tropes and story beats are present in your tale. Just make them your own!
The Crime is the Thing
Whether you're a discovery writer or someone who likes to plot everything out, it's essential to have some idea about the crime. Every mystery needs a crime as a catalyst for the story. And to avoid a lot of false starts or dead ends, it's good to know the who (the culprit/antagonist), and the why. With these two factors in mind, you can fill in the other things as you go along. Or “discover” them, as some like to say.
Plot-Driven but Character-Supported
Mysteries are known as plot-driven stories, but that doesn't mean you can have static or flat characters. Your protagonist, whether a hard-edged detective or a golden-years grandma, needs to be likable, complex, and imperfect. You’ll notice that many protagonists in mystery fiction are a bit of a mess. But they still have redeeming qualities that are usually apparent early in the story. This helps the reader get invested in the story.
Of course, we can’t forget about the bad guy (or gal). The antagonist should also be complex and possess a clear reason for committing the crime (even if that reason is unfathomable, as is the case with serial killers).
Only Tell the Reader What They Need to Know
Mystery readers like to put the pieces of the puzzle together as the story progresses. Even if there's no way for them to figure out who did it or why until the climax, they'll try anyway. So the last thing you want is to give the reader too much information too fast. If the clues are too obvious, the reader may be disappointed. And that's the last thing a mystery author should want!
Red Herrings Abound
A red herring, otherwise known as a false clue or a bit of misdirection, is an essential element of any mystery. Don't be afraid to point the finger at other characters in the story before the protagonist finds out who really did it. This is to be expected, and it's the bread and butter of many a mystery novel.
Increase the Stakes
Any well-written popular fiction book will consist of increasing and easing tension. And mystery stories are no different. As the protagonist gets closer and closer to solving the mystery, in fits and starts, the stakes should get continually higher. Much of the time, the stakes are life or death, but not always. As long as they increase to the point of ultimate danger at the climax, you should be good.
Write What You'd Like to Read
And, perhaps the single best writing tip anyone can heed: write the story you'd like to read. As an avid mystery reader, you will instinctively have a feel for a good mystery. You can refine and perfect it when you edit. But if you write a story that excites you, chances are a lot of other readers will feel the same!
Great Mysteries to Read (Or Re-Read)
To write a first-rate mystery, you have to have read many mysteries, both good and bad. The good so you know what to do, the bad so you know what not to do. Fortunately, the good will most likely outnumber the bad. And the recommendations below are all good.
- Anything by Agatha Christie
- Any Sherlock Holmes story
- Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
- The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler
- The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
- The Thin Man, Dashiell Hammett
- The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
Mystery Writing Prompts
There are a lot of sub-genres under the mystery umbrella, so I've split the following creative writing prompts into sections. Use them as story starters or simply for inspiration. Make them your own or use them as-is. And remember: the more you write, the more inspiration will come to you.
Cozy Mystery Writing Prompts
Cozy mysteries are lighthearted in both tone and description. Although usually having to deal with murder, these stories focus more on the quirky characters than the brutal crime. And usually, the murder victim is a bit of a stinker (so the audience doesn’t feel too bad about their death).
1. A local baker is found murdered in her home just as the town baking contest approaches. All signs point to her arch-rival, old Mr. Dillard. But did he really do it? It falls to Mr. Dillard's understudy to find out.
2. The irate butcher in a small town winds up dead from a heart attack. But as life goes on and cuts of his meat sell, town citizens discover clues in their dinners. And it quickly becomes apparent that the butcher was murdered – and he left clues leading to the culprit.
3. Sue and John's marriage is on the rocks. They just don't have the spark anymore. But when they're thrust into the middle of a murder mystery, they soon find that their love is stronger than ever.
4. While taking a long ferry ride from the mainland to their hometown on an island, a small group discovers the body of a crotchety old man dead in the engine room. One of the people on the ferry did the deed, but which one?
5. A woman goes chasing after her dog one night, only to literally stumble across a stranger's dead body in a ditch. Afraid she'll be implicated in the crime, she must solve it before the bumbling local police get involved. Luckily, her dog is a bit of a sleuth.
6. When a man comes home to his small town for a reunion, he has a bit too much to drink. He wakes up to find a gun on his person, but he has no idea where it came from. Turns out, it's a murder weapon, and the victim is none other than his old rival.
7. When a snowstorm strands a group of strangers in a ski chalet, one of the guests ends up dead. Most everyone (but the main character) denies knowing the murder victim, but it quickly becomes clear that all the guests know each other in one way or another.
8. A lowly zoo janitor must solve a murder with the help of the zoo animals when her terrible boss turns up dead in the gorilla cage.
9. The quirky characters attending an office party suddenly become murder suspects when the company president turns up dead.
10. When the town psychiatrist turns up dead, everyone is a suspect. The psychiatrist knew everyone's deepest secrets, and it turns out she was using them for nefarious purposes.
Crime Mystery Writing Ideas
Gritty crime novels don't skimp on the gory details. They often feature a deeply flawed detective who's just holding on by a thread. But they can also feature ordinary characters who find themselves in extraordinary situations. Use the following plot ideas to get your creative juices flowing.
11. A detective nearing the end of his career starts receiving strange texts. He soon learns that the texts reference murders that are happening around the city. He must rally to catch the murderer.
12. A young woman enlists the help of a brand new detective to solve her sister's disappearance. But they soon find that there's much more happening than one girl's abduction.
13. A kid sneaking into an abandoned building to sleep for the night stumbles on a murder scene. He sees a man shoot the victim. The murderer sees his face and chases him, but the kid gets away. The only problem is, the kid saw a badge on the murderer's belt. He's a cop.
14. A new crime lord is moving into the city. He's ruthless and not afraid to go after cops. But there's one cop who won't look the other way.
15. When a serial killer starts targeting teachers at the local college, a campus police officer must move fast to find the killer.
16. Everyone suspects the young man of killing his father at sea for the inheritance money, but no one can prove it. No one but your main character – the suspect's own brother.
17. Part of the murder was caught on social media, but the murderer was wearing a mask. It's up to one new officer to solve the case.
18. A teenage girl is kidnapped, but there's no ransom note. The girl herself calls and tells the police to leave her alone. But her parents are a mess and the detective promises he'll get the girl back.
19. A newly married woman finds clues suggesting her husband isn't at all who he says he is. As she searches for the truth, she finds there's a massive criminal conspiracy at play.
20. After finding a bunch of tapes at a garage sale, one young woman sees some startling images in one of the videos. She must track down where the tapes came from so justice can be done.
Mystery Thriller Writing Prompts
Mystery/thriller stories have steadily been among the most popular out there. But this subgenre isn't always about unraveling the mystery. Much of the time, the reader already knows who the antagonist is. The suspense comes from wondering whether the main character will prevail in the end. If you enjoy thrillers, choose a creative writing prompt below and see where it takes you.
21. A retired black-ops special operator finds that his friends keep turning up dead. And at each murder scene, there are clues that point to top-secret missions only a handful of people could possibly know about.
22. While staying at an exclusive resort in the South Pacific, your main character stumbles upon a human trafficking operation. She tries to go to the police, but they're on the take. It's up to her to bring the bad guys down.
23. Your protagonist starts seeing a half-familiar face around town. But every time he looks closer, the person is gone without a trace. The problem is, your protagonist has a murky past. And the face he keeps seeing belongs to someone he killed many years ago.
24. A drifter catches a ride on a bus, headed nowhere in particular. But when he hears half of a phone conversation from the woman behind him, he can't help but try and help her out of her predicament. The thing is, she doesn't want his help. And the half of the conversation he heard is far from the whole story.
25. People are spontaneously combusting in one detective's city. But a killer soon starts taking credit for the strange deaths. The detective and an arson investigator must team up to get to the bottom of the mystery.
26. An ex-soldier comes home to find his sister in deep with a local drug dealer. When he tries to get the dealer off his sister's back, he accidentally kills the guy. Pretty soon, he's wanted by the police and the drug organization. And he has to find a way to make things right.
27. An undercover narcotics officer finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy to kill a high-ranking state politician. The only problem is, they're holding his girlfriend hostage to make him do what they want.
28. With his dying breath, an old man admits that he's not your main character's father. This sends the protagonist on a journey to find out where she really comes from. And the truth is stranger than she ever could've thought.
29. The story opens with a SWAT team breaking through the windows and arresting your protagonist. They've found his DNA all over a murdered CEO's body. But your protagonist has never met the CEO in his life. He must break out of jail and uncover the truth.
30. When involved in a minor fender-bender, your protagonist gets out of the car and finds that the other driver is dying. He says he's been poisoned and whispers the name of the person who did it just before he dies.
Random Mystery Writing Prompts
Here's a mix of historical, science fiction, and even horror mystery writing prompts to use for your creative writing exercises. Whether you're writing a short story or drafting a novel, it all starts with an idea and a word on the page!
31. A serial killer is using the cover of the German invasion of France to kill people. It's up to one detective to find the murderer – while also being involved in the resistance movement.
32. Using special deepfake technology, one killer beats the cameras in the futuristic society to commit his – or her – murders.
33. A dark underground society preys on those in poverty-stricken areas, recruiting and tricking people to use as human sacrifices. When a found-again Christian learns about this, he knows he must stop it, but he's unsure of how far he should go to face such evil.
34. Navigating the South during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, one detective must bring to justice the Klansmen who are responsible for several deaths. But given the protection these men get from those in their close-knit community, it will be much harder than he ever expected.
35. A woman survives a car accident that kills her partner. She blames herself until she starts having strange dreams that suggest something much more sinister is at play.
Getting Your Mystery Book in Front of the Right Readers
There's no better way to increase your writing skill than by practicing with story prompts. But what about when you're ready to put your finished book out into the world? You'll need to bring several factors together to give your mystery novel the best chance of success. These factors include cover design, categories, keywords, and marketing.
The problem is, getting these things right can be difficult and time-consuming. That's why we made Publisher Rocket. This self-publishing tool can help you bring all the factors mentioned above together to help your book succeed. It does this by pulling and aggregating information directly from Amazon. You can do it all manually, but it takes hours and hours. With Publisher Rocket, you can do it in minutes.
- See the book covers of the top-selling books in various mystery categories. You can use the similarities to inform your designer about what you want.
- Decide on the right categories with the category search function. It can help you find the sweet spot with categories that have high demand but low or medium competition.
- You need to put 7 keywords in your book's metadata on Amazon. Publisher Rocket can help you decide which keywords are best.
- Using the AMS Keyword search, you can get a list of appropriate keywords to use in your Amazon Ads campaigns, which help you get visibility and sales.
Check out Publisher Rocket here to learn more!
Looking for more prompts? We've got more to choose from: