3 Keys to a Good Mystery Plot

This post begins a series on writing mystery novels. It’s only fair to warn you, this is not an in depth series. We could discuss this topic every day for a year and not cover everything.

Don’t get me wrong. I love mysteries and I love talking about and reading about what makes a good mystery novel good.

But for this series, I’m going to touch on a few basics. Tips you can implement in your current mystery novel. Tips that are relatively easy to use and will make a big difference.

Mystery vs. Suspense

The thing that makes a mystery novel a mystery novel is the mystery. No surprise there.

The thing that separates a mystery novel from a suspense novel is also quite basic. The mystery novel is like a maze. The lead character and the readers walk through the maze together and hopefully reach the right conclusion at about the same time. The reader doesn’t know any more than the detective knows.

In a suspense, the reader is aware of things the lead character doesn’t know. The mystery is more about escaping something than discovering something. If a mystery novel is like a maze, then a suspense novel is like a vice that gets tighter and tighter and tighter as the story progresses.

The Blue Ribbon

I like to think of the main story line of a mystery story like a blue ribbon. The ribbon has been thrown in a heap on the floor or ground. It’s a tangled mess.

As a mystery writer, it’s your job to tangle the blue ribbon in a way that makes it look impossible to untangle. Impossible enough to baffle your readers for the entire book but not so impossible looking that they give up.


Photo of blue ribbon.

The reader begins with a hook and follows the thread of plot through the story to the end. This is true with all novels, but is especially true for mystery stories.

For a lot of mystery fans, the more tangled the ribbon of plot, the better. Throw in an extra plot ribbon or two and that’s even better.

So what goes into a good mystery plot? Let’s take a look at three of the usual suspects today.

The Usual Suspects
And maybe one or two unusual suspects. There is no set number of suspects, but you will need more than one or there won’t be much mystery. Keep the number manageable, too. You don’t want to overwhelm your reader.

Your suspects should also have a real reason for being in the story in the first place. They become suspects because they’re already there. They should not be there because you need suspects.

Ironclad Alibis
Every suspect should have what appears to be a solid alibi. Some reason they couldn’t possibly have committed the crime. Clearly, one of those alibis will be false, but make all of them realistic and give them the appearance of being bullet-proof.

Reasonable Cause
Each of your suspects must also have a legitimate reason for wanting to commit the crime. Motive will differ from character to character, but each one of your suspects must have a real reason for being a suspect.

In short, what you are looking for is a strong, almost equal balance between alibi and motive for each suspect. Something that has the reader thinking, “He could have done it, except for….”


There are other aspects of writing a good mystery. Setting, character, and voice all play an important role. But these three are among the most important and, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, among the easiest to implement. Get them right and you’re well on your way to a successful mystery.

Next week, I’ll share three more easy-to-implement tips for making your mystery novel more mysterious. I hope you’ll join me.

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