Toolbox 7: Elements of a Mystery

This post was written for the Author Toolbox Blog Hop where we share our new discoveries on the craft of writing, editing, querying, marketing, publishing, and blogging tips. Posted every third Wednesday of the month. For rules and sign-up click here.


What I’m focusing on is my favorite genre.

Elements of writing Mysteries are broken down into: victim, suspects, villain, hero(es)/police, support cast + series potential, clues/red herrings, violence + sex, and setting + cross genre.

Here’s what I try to do with them.

I work out who will die and how my hero will become involved in the crime. Here I determine how/why the person died.

The victim, suspects and villain must have a connection. They’ve all crossed paths and each has left marks on the others. Strong emotions  and unresolved issues flow between them, leaving room for confessions, unpleasant truths and/or discoveries. At first everyone has a motive, opportunity and an alibi (several false).

NOTE: I write out the incidents that left the marks and use these as the source of motives.

My crime solving cast will be the hero, best friend, information source, tech guy, nosy neighbor/mother/pain in the neck, possible lover. Now I mix and match and put several of the people together  in one character depending on what I need . I usually have three: Hero, best friend (pain in the butt) and information source.

When I’m putting together, my crew of crime solvers I also consider series potential each and every time. They need their own ARCs—goals and hardships—as they assist/hinder the hero.

I include romance and love interests but I choose to close the door on sex and violence. It happens off stage–mostly.

Setting brings with it a possibility of crossing genres. I’ve written fantasy, contemporary paranormal, science fiction, and am trying my hand at magical realism. The core of the story is always a mystery, with a touch of romance.

I’m still striving to improve my craft. While I’m learning and growing, I’m enjoying the journey.

what’s your favorite genre and why?

Here are some of my favorite sites:

55 responses to “Toolbox 7: Elements of a Mystery

  1. Cool process. I love mysteries and would love to try writing one sometime. I usually write fantasy. 🙂

  2. Romance is my favorite–I’m all about my HEA, but mystery/cozy is a close second. (Which is probably why romantic suspense is my favorite to write.)

  3. “I work out who will die and how my hero will become involved in the crime.“

    That had me laughing, especially the first part. That’s the way to do it. *insert evil laugh*

  4. I hope to explore different genres in the future – reading and writing. This was a very interesting insight into your craft, Anna! My only genre of writing has been non-fiction (memoir at the moment), so I guess that is my favorite for the time being. 🙂

  5. Very comprehensive! I also write in the mystery genre, and I always start with the dead person. Although maybe it would be interesting to start with the killer and ask, “who should I kill today.” Ha Ha. Not much sex and graphic violence on my pages, either, because I do not find that entertaining.

  6. I think one of the most insightful things I heard about mysteries was the concept that they’re essentially a puzzle, except instead of solving the puzzle, the detective has to figure out how someone else already has.

    I like a good mystery, but much like suspense/thriller/horror, I feel like there’s the pitfall that once the question(s) are answered, there isn’t much left to hook the audience, unless the villain did something truly ingenious.

    I’m curious, what are your thoughts on connections between the players in the crime, and the detective(s)? Do you like to keep your detectives objective, or give them personal connections, or personal issues that mirror/relate to the case?

    For example, I’m currently watching The Alienist, and I’m really enjoying how the investigation is indirectly stirring up old wounds for most of the main characters.

    • I’m not sure an objective detective is who we want solving crimes. They need to care about justice for the victim. Be passionate about righting a wrong as best they can.

      In my latest WIP, both of the investigative team has their whole world on the line. It makes them dig deeper to find a villain… but is it the right villain?

  7. I love mystery as well, and always include some element of mystery in my books. I guess psychological thriller/suspense/horror would be my favourite genre, because I enjoy delving into what makes people tick and telling spooky stories that hopefully make my readers think.

  8. What a great article! And a great review for me as a mystery writer. I’m not sure if I’m doing it right, but we shall see. 🙂

  9. Interesting approach. I love mystery novels, too. My favorite authors are Michael Connelly, John Hart, and John Grisham, so I’m into crime and suspense. Recently traveled to hear John Hart speak at a conference. Worth the trip.

  10. “I work out who will die and how my hero will become involved in the crime. Here I determine how/why the person died.” Love it 🙂

  11. I like how you begin plotting the murder and all the suspects from the beginning. Great post today Anna. I am excited to hear more about your Magical Realism. It’s my favorite Genre 🙂

  12. I learned awhile back about combining characters’ roles into less characters, and it really my opened my eyes. Like, instead of having a tech person AND a best friend, have them be one and the same. It adds complexity and layers to the story.

  13. As someone who doesn’t write mystery, it’s cool to see how the typical ‘layout’ works and what the elements are. Very cool. Great post!

  14. I love when an author includes mystery with other elements. I’ll be checking out some of those websites.
    sherry @ fundinmental

  15. I love that you build in connectivity from the get-go and consider the series potential for your characters. I completely agree with you that every character should have an arc of their own. Great post and amazing insight into writing mystery. Thanks, Anna.

  16. I love peeking at other writers’ processes. Particularly those who have the ability to plot. Thanks for sharing.

  17. These are great reasons to love mystery. Personally, I love me some fantasy adventure stories, with a particular fondness for the sword and sorcery and dark fantasy subgenres, because I love exploring entirely new worlds.

  18. I write mysteries because I love to read them. It’s fun seeing your process. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Best friend is pain in the butt – LOL!

    I couldn’t write a mystery but it’s fascinating to see the process.

  20. Excellent post! I love the breakdown of your process! I’ll have to see if I can use it on the mystery I’m working on.

    I love all sorts of genres. My favorite to write lately has been paranormal.

  21. I love mysteries, having grown up on a diet of Nancy Drew, Hercule Poirot, and the likes. However, I know I would never be able to write a mystery worth a damn. No, really, I’m the girl who has to clench her teeth on the rein in order to not give away the plot. Secrets between my romantic couples frustrate me to no end even though I’m making them keep said secrets because, hello, humans.
    My favorite genre is romance; I’d read anything if a little romance is sprinkled on it.

  22. Victoria Marie Lees

    You have a great logical system to write mystery, Anna. That is fabulous. As for me, I like adventure and suspense/mystery. I write mostly YA adventure stories, though. Every good writer continues to learn the craft of story writing. Thanks for sharing.

  23. Hi, Anna,

    Love how you outline your works. I wish I could prepare like that! Since I’m a pantser I go with the flow and just see what happens. Lol. But I do appreciate your thought process…. Thanks so much for sharing…

    My fav genres….. Fantasy, Contemporary, and fine, classic 19th Cent English lit…

  24. That was a very well constructed and informative article. I have never tried mysteries yet, but if I ever find the motivation, I’ll know where to look for help :3

  25. I have a few mystery story ideas filed away I’ve yet to look at as a writing project. They also have romance and supernatural elements.

  26. Starting with the end result is an excellent strategy. I also like mixing up the different categories. That makes for a more interesting story.

  27. Well, I do love a good mystery – both reading them and writing them. It’s lots of fun to create suspects and mess them about in the plot.

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