How to Write a Mystery Short Story: 8 Steps with Examples

Last Updated on January 16, 2023 by Dr Sharon Baisil MD

A great mystery novel gets readers involved as amateur sleuths from the crime scene to the clues to the perpetrator. Mystery tales have particular aspects that drive their plots and keep readers engaged, using literary techniques that deliver an interactive experience and create maximum anticipation. A principal character is on a mission to solve a crime in the center of mystery tales. A mystery is a tale that pits the reader against the antagonist, who is only revealed after the narrative. Readers are invited to participate in the mystery by mystery writers who distribute clues along the plot.

You’ve come to the right place if you want to write a mystery short story. This post will provide eight steps to help you write a quality mystery story. We’ll also give you an example to illustrate each step. So, let’s start with the essentials of a mystery genre without any further ado!

What type of story is a mystery?

For hundreds of years, readers have been enthralled by the mystery genre. Edgar Allan Poe, with works such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” from 1841, was an expert in mystery writing. A good mystery incorporates certain literary elements to heighten the mystery and build up to a significant conclusion. These elements include:

1 – An atmospheric environment

To heighten the dread of an unknown adversary lurking in the darkness, stories in this genre should establish an unsettling, uneasy mood. Picture Sherlock Holmes sliding through the London fog in pursuit of a murderer, as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described. Placing hints and red herrings in mysteries is also possible.

2 – A compelling hook

A great mystery should entice the reader to want to figure out the crime, and a fantastic beginning is essential for capturing their attention. The first paragraph of a mystery should contain enough information about the crime to pique interest. The opening chapter should hook the reader into the plot, putting them in the shoes of the principal detective on their investigation.

3 – Involve sleuth

The principal character, committed to discovering the crime, is at the center of every mystery. Mystery novelist Raymond Chandler created private investigator Philip Marlowe as a detective who solves crimes. The sleuth’s backstory, which ties them to the crime or the murderer, and their motivation for solving it are critical elements of their character development.

4 – Crime conflict

In a mystery book, a crime is an occurrence that fuels the story. The main character is sent on their quest by a crime, which fuels the narrative arc and creates the central conflict that begins the investigation.

5 – Foreshadowing

Hints about future events are frequently dropped in Mysteries. This is known as foreshadowing. With a little hint or via character dialogue, a writer may imply the possibility of a future occurrence. With foreshadowing, writers may be more or less blunt, either lightly implying future occurrences or plainly announcing what will happen.

6 – Villain

Since the perpetrator is unknown until they are apprehended, a mystery is often referred to as a whodunit. The plot advances thanks to their activities, which are depicted in the story. The protagonist and the reader discover the criminal’s identity near the story’s conclusion.

7 – Narrative flow

Because of a cat-and-mouse narrative thread, a mystery plot is in constant motion. As the plot approaches the climax and the main character gets closer to solving the crime, the pace will quicken.

8 – Clues throughout the plot

The detective follows a trail of clues as an amateur sleuth to figure out who the perpetrator is. To manage what clues they’re generating, when they arrive, and who knows what while writing mysteries, an author must have a well-organized writing process.

9 – Red herrings

The reader is thrown off course by a good mystery. In mysteries, red herrings are a required component. This misleading evidence generates new suspects, distracting the investigator and diverting him or her from the actual perpetrator, thus increasing the tension. By emphasizing an item, event, or character that draws a reader’s interest and making it seem more important than it is to the plot, a writer creates red herrings.

10 – A satisfactory end!

The big reveal is the sleuth’s discovery of the culprit after great mystery books. To strengthen the identification of the actual killer and eliminate uncertainty, a conclusion should also provide an alibi for all other suspects.

What makes a good mystery novel theme?

The basic premise of the mystery is straightforward to understand. A dead body, a precious item, or a riddle invites attention among the earliest finds. The reader knows that questions will have been resolved after the story, which is reassurance in any murder case.

Here are some story ideas you can take clues from to continue your mystery pieces!

1 – The remains of murder victims, like those in Viking culture, are discovered buried with some of their worldly goods.

2 – Two guests at the wedding party have been slain, and the ceremony will be held at a beautiful place.

3 – Someone replaced the lady’s contact lens solution with a harmful liquid.

4 – A detective tracks down a thief who has stolen something that doesn’t seem to be worth anything for a high fee.

5 – An abandoned bunker with security cameras and a generator is discovered in the middle of a wilderness.

6 – Since every unmarried lady at the ball wished to dance with him, it’s a pity the duke was discovered stabbed in the garden.

7 – This investigative reporter’s death seems a little too convenient.

8 – A lady gets a headache upon awakening and goes to work but soon discovers she’s been gone for a month.

9 – On the phone with the inspector, his friend is murdered.

10 – His new, considerably younger wife was the only one on board who even knew him when he was slain aboard a cruise ship on his honeymoon.

11 – At the distillery, the victim was discovered drowned in a whiskey barrel.

12 – A wife sets up a romantic “scavenger hunt” for her spouse, but some of the clues are changed by someone else.

13 – The wrong body is in the casket during the visitation. Nobody knows who the other body belongs to or where it is.

14 – The killings were human-caused, but they resembled animal assaults in several ways.

15 – Although she believes she has never met the author of the book she is reading, it appears to be telling her own story.

The ultimate 8 steps to writing a mystery short story

Fascinating characters, dramatic suspense, and a puzzle that makes you want to keep reading are all hallmarks of a good mystery tale. However, creating an exciting mystery tale may be challenging, especially if you’ve never attempted it. You may build a page-turning thriller of your own with the appropriate planning, brainstorming, and outlining.

Step 1: Prepare yourself to write and identify the characters.

The difference between the mystery and thriller genres is first essential to understand. The majority of mysteries start with a death. Who perpetrated the crime is the most critical question is a mystery. Thrillers often start with a catastrophic occurrence, such as an assassination, a bank heist, a nuclear meltdown, or another catastrophe. In a thriller, the primary issue is whether or not the protagonist can stop the disaster from occurring.

Try reading some of the outstanding mystery tales available to get a feel for a well-plotted, well-developed mystery. Some of the renowned examples include:

  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Chandler is a master of the private investigator genre, with his novels about Philip Marlowe’s difficulties and tribulations being some of the best. P.I. Marlowe is a hard-boiled, cynical investigator. A General, his daughter, and a blackmailing photographer embroiled him in a conspiracy. Sharp dialogue, fast pacing, and a fascinating protagonist in Marlowe are all qualities of Chandler’s writing.

  • A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne

In the 1970s, suburban Washington is the setting for this story. The murder of a small child is the focus of the story. Berne manages to make the narrative anything but plain or dull by mixing a coming-of-age tale with the mystery of the death of a young boy in drab, dull suburbia.

  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

One of the most well-known investigators in the genre, along with his equally well-known sleuthing colleague Watson, solves a series of mysteries and crimes in this collection of tales. Throughout the route, Holmes and Watson inject their individual character traits.

Consider how the author introduces and characterizes the main character.

Step 2: Consider the plot and check for any obstacles.

Consider when and where the narrative takes place. Marlowe, for example, puts the reader in the period and setting in the second paragraph of The Big Sleep’s first page: “The main hallway of the Sternwood home was two floors high.”

What crime is the protagonist investigating or dealing with? A suspicious suicide, a dead body, or murder might be the case. A good mystery will keep readers engaged by presenting complications or obstacles to the significant character’s goal (to solve the crime). Also, consider how the plot concludes after the tale. The answer to the enigma should not be too self-evident or pushed, yet it should not be too out of the left field or unbelievable.

Step 3: Create your sleuth and analyze the setting

Your primary character may be a private individual or an innocent bystander who gets embroiled in trying to figure out a mystery. What distinguishes your character from the others? Creating a primary character who stands out to your reader and is interesting enough to keep several pages of a narrative or book is critical. What does your character like and dislike?

Maybe your female detective is secretly bashful and strange at parties because she loves reptiles. Perhaps your detective isn’t strong or intelligent, but he is a klutz.

Set the narrative in a familiar place, such as your hometown or school, if possible. Alternatively, research if you’re unfamiliar with a specific time or place. Focus on specific settings, such as a 1970s California home or a 1940s British boarding house, if you use a setting you haven’t experienced firsthand.

Step 4: Create, complicate, and entertain the mystery

A murder or significant crime is not required for all mysteries. The higher the stakes in the narrative are, generally, when a more significant crime is committed. High stakes are essential since they pique a reader’s interest and provide him or her with a reason to continue reading. By making it difficult for your main character to solve the puzzle or mystery, you may build up tension in the narrative. Other people, suspects, false leads, misleading clues, and other crimes are all examples of obstacles you can use.

A cliffhanger is a scenario in which the primary character finds themselves in a predicament that binds or puts them in jeopardy. Cliffhangers keep readers interested and propel the narrative forward, which is crucial in a mystery.

Step 5: Create an ending followed by a story outline

Finish the narrative by solving the puzzle’s solution. The main character’s viewpoint shifts or improves after most mysteries. Create a clear plot outline after reviewing all of your story’s elements. Before you start writing the tale, it’s vital to figure out how the puzzle will be solved in great detail; otherwise, there may be inconsistencies in the puzzle. Your story’s events or plot points should be listed in the order they occur.

Step 6: Start writing the mystery story.

One of the best ways to create a setting or atmosphere is by focusing on the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Descriptions of sensory details may also create the backstory for your character. On the early pages, skip lengthy paragraphs about location or character description. Starting your story in motion, as your main character does, is an effective way to hook your reader.

If you tell someone “the detective was cool,” the person will have to believe you. However, describing the detective’s attire and mannerisms as she enters a room may demonstrate how calm she is to your reader. Showing your reader particular facts is far more forceful than merely informing him what to believe.

Step 7: Don’t confuse your readers

The resolution of a mystery shouldn’t feel sudden or cheap when it’s being created. Rather than bewilder your reader, always strive to play fair and surprise him. Even though there might be red herrings and false leads, the hints provided in the tale should lead to the answer in a logical and transparent manner. If you make your reader think, “It’s so evident; I should have recognized!” he or she will enjoy the conclusion.

Step 8: Revise the draft

Look for critical aspects, such as story, characters, turns, and pace, once you’ve produced the first draft of your mystery tale. Make sure your tale begins, progresses, and finishes according to the outline. After the tale, you should check your central character’s changes or shifts.

The pace at which the story’s events unfold is referred to as pacing. Good pacing will go unnoticed by the reader. If the story seems too quick, the scenes last longer, allowing the characters’ emotions to develop.

The twist might ruin an excellent mystery tale, or it might improve. While there is no obligation to do so, many of the greatest stories have a surprise twist. Make sure that the twist isn’t “cheesy.” It’s easier to write a more unique twist.

Final Words

Mystery is one of the most popular genres among readers. As a result, it’s no surprise that this literary form has received a lot of attention in recent years.

We hope you enjoyed reading about how to write a mystery short story and will start writing your own stories soon! In case you want more tips or need some editing help on your work, don’t hesitate to leave a message in the comments section below.


How to write a murder mystery short story?

When planning to write a murder mystery short story, it is essential to start by thinking about the main characters. Who are they, and what kind of person would do such a heinous thing? Once you have determined who the murderer is, it’s time to develop the plot. How did they find out about incriminating evidence? What was their motive? So, how are they going to execute their evil plan?
It’s time to flesh out your scenes after you’ve answered these questions. Where does the victim live and work? What are local landmarks that could possibly be used for cover purposes?) Is there anyone nearby who may be suspect?) Are any of those people friends or relatives of yours?) How well do you know them?). And finally, what happens during each scene – from inside the victim’s home until after they’ve been killed)?
All of these details need to be meticulously planned in order not only to make sense as a written piece but also to provide clues that will lead readers towards discovering the whodunit before it’s even revealed!

Where can I find examples of other people’s works and learn from them to improve my own work?

One of the most significant ways to improve your work is to take inspiration from other people’s work. This can be accomplished by looking at examples of their work online or visiting a library and reading their manuscripts. You may also communicate with them through social media and provide feedback. By doing this, you will gain valuable insights that will help you improve the quality of your own work.

Any tips for writing a short mystery story?

One of the best ways to improve your writing skills is by participating in online forums and submitting short mystery stories. By doing this, you will get feedback from other writers and learn from their mistakes. Additionally, read critically and make sure that every scene contributes to the overall narrative.
Don’t give too much away early in the tale while building suspense. Build slowly, then in a climactic moment, everything falls into place all at once.

How many words should the first book be?

Generally speaking, a first book should be between 50,000 and 100,000 words in length. This may seem like a lot, but it will go faster if you write consistently and avoid shortcuts or filler content. Make sure to research writing styles before beginning (e.g., fiction vs. nonfiction), keep an eye on grammar rules, pay attention to pacing issues, etc., so that your manuscript flows smoothly from start to finish.
Remember: Quantity does not necessarily equate to quality! So don’t be discouraged if your 1st draft isn’t perfect – there’s always time for revisions later down the road!

How long should it be?  How many pages should it be?  What genre is best for my mystery short story?

Sticking to the genre guidelines when writing a mystery short story is essential. This means that your story should be set in the contemporary period, have a plot with suspense and thrills, and be written from the first-person point of view. Additionally, ensure that your protagonist is engaging and likable so that readers will want to discover what happens next. Your ending should also resolve the mysteries while leaving enough room for future stories in this series or further exploration of this character’s backstory.


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