3 More Keys to a Good Mystery Plot

3 Keys Graphic

Welcome back to our mystery writing series. If you missed the first post, which included three keys to a writing a good mystery novel, you can read it here.

A Recap

Remember the blue ribbon? In the first post, I likened the main story line of a mystery novel to a long, blue ribbon that had been left in a heap. When you write a mystery novel, your job is to tangle the blue ribbon well enough that it appears to be unsolvable without making it so unsolvable your readers give up in despair.

Three keys to successfully tangling your blue ribbon are

  1. a collection of suspects
  2. ironclad alibis
  3. reasonable cause

Those three things are the foundation upon which the rest of the mystery is built. If you’re lacking any of these or if any of them are weak, adding or improving them is a great first step in making your novel stronger.

This week, we’ll take a look at three more keys.

3 More Keys

Unsuspected Twists
Keep the reader guessing. There is nothing plainer and less interesting than a mystery plot that is a straight line. Even a mystery plot that has twists and turns that are sharp but are also predictable will turn your reader off.

If you remember nothing else about plot twists, remember this:

Ideally, each suspect should come right up to the brink of being proven guilty before that unexpected plot twist reveals why they couldn’t possibly be the culprit.

Suit plot twists to each suspect. Keep them original and individual.

Also make sure your suspect has a believable reason for being in the story. He or she should be a suspect because they’re already there, at the scene of the crime. They should not be in the story because you need another suspect and for no other reason.

Red Herrings
Otherwise known as false clues, rabbit trails, blind alleys, or dead ends.

Think of the way magicians use misdirection and sleight of hand to make their tricks appear believable. Do the same thing with your plot. A character doing something simple and unexpected can turn into a red herring if handled correctly.

It can also be the key that reveals everything to your erstwhile detective!

Satisfying Solutions
The best written and developed plot in the world will fall flat if the solution is half-baked or unsatisfactory. Readers want to be immersed in plot twists, red herrings, and all the rest, but they also want all the loose ends tied up and all the questions answered. Always, always, always solve the primary mystery in each book.

They also want to the good guys to win and the bad guys to be caught. The wise mystery novelist will keep all these things in mind when writing the end of their novel.

Even if you’re writing a series of novels, make sure the primary mystery is wrapped up nicely in each novel. You can have an overarching theme or question that develops from one story to the next, but it should be in the background in every novel except the one in which it’s solved.


There is a lot more to writing a good mystery than we’ve talked about here. Characters, pace, timing, voice, and point of view, for example, are all important to every good novel. So is storytelling.

If you have a question about writing a successful mystery novel, leave your question in the comment box below. Who knows? It just might turn into another mystery writing clinic post.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at tying up the loose ends.

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