Mystery Writing Basics: Characters & Plot

goldmindsToday we’re welcoming Staci Troilo, past Amazing Racer and talented author! Staci is the author of the mystery series, Mystery Ink, which takes place in a CURSED TOWN. Why do I tell you this? Because I love curses–always have, always will (only in fiction, of course!)

Staci is tackling some Mystery terminology for us, helping out with the basics of what a strong mystery needs.  When you’re done reading, make sure to track her down on Twitter, Facebook and her blog, because she’s a great gal to connect with!

Whodunit? I Did. With These Techniques. At My Computer.

Ah, the mystery novel. The whodunit. The sleuth story. Sherlock and Miss Marple have nothing on us, or so we tell ourselves as we race through the pages, determined to find the answers before they do, rewarding ourselves if we’re right. Castigating ourselves when we’re wrong. Again.

The mystery genre is a relatively young one at 200 years, and it’s undergone a lot of changes since its inception, but two things have remained consistent: there’s got to be a crime and it’s got to be solved. The rest is (almost) up to the writer.

Do you want to:

  • reveal the identity of criminal (usually a murderer) in the beginning?
  • write in multiple points of view?
  • have the sleuth be someone other than a detective?
  • mix a little romance in your whodunit?

These days, you can.

There are purists who insist the villain’s identity can’t be revealed until the end, that the story must be in the sleuth’s POV and that sleuth must be a professional detective of some kind, and that there definitely must not be any romance in the book. And there are books like that out there for the purists. But for the reader who has moved past Doyle’s idea of a murder mystery, there are so many more options out there. Romance, suspense, thrills… even some horror and gore.

So what has to be there?

Writers today are always told that their work will be either character- or plot-driven. I say they’re both. Without a strong plot, you just have interesting characters gamboling about. Without strong characters, you’ve got people you couldn’t give a flying fig about doing spectacular things. Develop both, and you’ve made magic.

Characters in a Mystery


This is the person who will ultimately solve the crime. Male, female; brilliant (Sherlock Holmes), bumbling (Columbo). This is your hero. This person has to be likeable enough for your readers to root for and smart enough that it’s believable when he or she solves the crime.


This person is the foil for the sleuth. The sleuth will bounce ideas off the sidekick, and sometimes the sidekick will either discover the missing piece of the puzzle or jumpstart the discussion or discovery that leads to a breakthrough. The sidekick can be a love interest, but often it’s better if the love interest is a third party, often one who finds him or herself in danger.


This is the person who the sleuth is chasing. He or she is either mentioned or around throughout the novel, but doesn’t seem guilty until near the end. Clues will have to be left, though, so that, if the reader re-reads the book, the guilt is apparent.

Red Herring

The red herring is the distraction. The sleuth mistakenly pursues this person early on, and doesn’t discover the red herring’s innocence until late. It’s especially poignant if the red herring can be made to be sympathetic, particularly if he or she can be made loveable and then can maybe be framed and eliminated by the villain.

Plot Elements in a Mystery


The most important part of writing mysteries is misdirecting the reader. All the clues need to be given, but in a way so that the reader may not notice them until the time is right. A great way to do that is to list several items found on a bookcase or desk, and bury the important one in the middle of the list before moving on to a different part of the room. The clue has been given, but neither the sleuth nor the reader has realized the significance yet.


We’ve all heard of Chekhov’s gun. Nowhere is it more poignant than in mysteries. If something is called attention to in the beginning of the book, it’s a significant clue. Make use of it by the end.


Clues introduced right before action scenes might be missed by the reader. That’s a good way to bury something you want the reader to know but temporarily forget. They’ll be so caught up in the action, they might not remember the clue you’ve introduced.

Reveal and Recap

Clues need to be spaced out throughout the novel. If they all came at the beginning, there would be no novel to read. The sleuth would solve it immediately. If they all came at the end, what would the sleuth do for 300+ pages? Space the clues out, and have the sleuth recap his knowledge once and a while (definitely before the villain is revealed) so the reader can regroup with him.


Mysteries come in all shapes and sizes, and they are in fact character and plot driven. With the right pacing and proper mystery-telling technique, even an old school whodunit fan will be searching out the clues in your story.

18277412MYSTERY INK: Mystery Heir

In a town whose residents believe they’re cursed, the murder of a councilman and business paragon is a harbinger of more doom to come. The police have just one suspect, but robberies, a kidnapping, and attempted arson all lead amateur sleuth Naomi Dotson to a different conclusion. She convinces her twin Penelope to help discover the real truth—before anyone else gets hurt.

Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? If you like, sneak over HERE to add this book to your goodreads list, or zoom right over to Amazon!

AND if you’ve got a spare minute or two, slip over to A Place on the Bookshelf to read an interview with Becca about her writing origins, the birth of The Bookshelf Muse, and other useless but entertaining trivia ;). Also, Angela is posting about how to Make Your Hero Complex By Choosing The Right Flaws at Adventures in YA Publishing.


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Guest Post, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Mystery Writing Basics: Characters & Plot

  1. Pingback: #NaNoWriMo diary | Amber Unmasked

  2. I just love this. I’ve added it to a mystery file 🙂

  3. I love this breakdown of the elements of mystery writing. As someone who’s never attempted it, I appreciate the basic-ness :).

    • Staci Troilo says:

      Thanks, Becca. I tried to keep the elements in their most basic forms so even genre novices could work with them. Maybe you’ll be inspired to work with them in your next project!

  4. Rosi says:

    My favorite things about mysteries are the red herrings writers think up. I would love to read this one. Mystery is a genre I hope to try one of these days. This is a very helpful post and I’m going to bookmark it. Thanks!

    • Staci Troilo says:

      I like the red herrings, too, Rosi. I always try to figure out which clues are the ones the author tried to hide and which ones are the red herrings the author wants me to chase. As a reader, it’s satisfying when I guess correctly. As a writer, I appreciate a mystery so well crafted that I don’t fall for it and I’m surprised by the ending. That might be why I love the genre. Either way, I can enjoy the story.

  5. Ruby Johnson says:

    What a great post. You made it clear and succinct. Thanks for sharing your expertise.

  6. Tamara Meyers says:

    I enjoyed your post, even though I don’t usually read mysteries. But then, I guess it’s like romance, there is a bit of both in most novels – Will he get the girl? Will she find true love? Will the explorer find the treasure or a pit of vipers? These are the things that keep us turning pages (and skipping to the end when we just can’t wait to find out!)

    • Staci Troilo says:

      I’m glad you were able to find something useful in the post, Tamara. I’m an avid romance reader, myself. In fact, I’m writing one right now. And I’m using these elements in this new novel just as I did in my mystery novel. Many of the commenters have touched on this earlier, and they’re right: these elements are universal to writing a good story, regardless of the genre.

      • Gwyn Huff says:

        Thanks to both of you! I wasn’t a big mystery fan until the past few years. The points are in a true romance do have the plot points if the heroine is to be “surprised” by the hero’s depth of love for her–and for action-adventure and survival stories!

  7. Anne Peterson says:


    Had to come over and see what you were up to over here. Great post. Really gave us a nice overview of what mystery writers have to know. As far as me and mysteries. I still remember reading Nancy Drew a LONG time ago. I did enjoy them. Loved the breakdown you gave, Staci. Nice job.

  8. Marvellous. Another load of tips to add to my Word docs folder of writing tips. Thanks heaven for generous writers, excellent blogs, and copy and paste. 🙂

  9. I love all things mystery, so thanks so much for joining us today, Staci! I think this post is something everyone can apply to their books, no matter what the genre, because mystery has to be one of the most (if not THE most) common elements in all genres. We are always keeping information from readers, and characters are always pursuing their need to know within the scope of the plot. Every book has an aspect of mystery, I think!

  10. Julie Catherine says:

    Ooooh, I would love to win a copy of this book – I adore mysteries! I grew up reading Ellery Queen (okay, I’m really dating myself, lol), devoured Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys … and have always wanted to have Jessica Fletcher’s life! I’ve published one book of poetry, am working on my second collection; and on two books: a Contemporary Romance, and a middle-grade adventure/mystery … woot! 🙂

    • Staci Troilo says:

      Congrats, Julie! It sounds like you already knew these points.

      I, too, grew up a big fan of Ellery Queen, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys… Here’s a blast from the past: Trixie Belden. I think that was the line that got me started as a mystery fan.

  11. Thanks so much for this timely post. I’m working on a middle grade mystery and this helps as a check-list to use when revising.

  12. Hi Staci and Angela,

    I met D.E. Johnson at the Backspace Writers Conference and so wanted to read one of his books, even though adult mysteries aren’t normally something I read. I read the Detroit Electric Scheme–a historical fiction mystery. Even though it was heavy on car talk, it was character- and plot-driven enough to keep me turning the pages.

    Congrats on Mystery Inc!

    • Staci Troilo says:

      Thank you, Kim.

      You know, sometimes I read novels outside of my “preferred” genre, just to kind of get a fresh perspective. You never know what gems you’ll find out there. If a story is rich in character and plot development, you may find a new favorite, regardless of genre.

    • Reading outside genre for me always yields surprises, and helps me grow a bit as a writer. I’m glad you were able to read one of his!

  13. Staci Troilo says:

    Thanks for letting me visit with you and your readers today, Angela and Becca.

  14. Pingback: Guesting at WritersHelpingWriters.Net | Staci Troilo

  15. Lisanne Cooper says:

    As a writer who is having her first mystery edited as we speak, I LOVE mysteries. Deciding on the clues and then planting them along with the red herrings is the most fun.

    I enjoyed this article tremendously. If I win the book, I’ll read it and then write a review. If I don’t win, I’ll purchase it and still write a review! Looking forward to a good read.

    • Staci Troilo says:

      Congratulations on completing your first mystery novel, Lisanne! What an accomplishment! Good luck to you. And I do appreciate an honest review… as we all know, that’s how authors are recognized on Amazon, Goodreads, B&N, etc. Thanks.

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