Mystery Factory


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How to write mysteries


Writing mystery plots can seem complicated but it becomes simple when you break the structure down to a ‘step by step’ process.

For over 30 years I have had to come up with mystery plots, complete with clues, on short notice. During that time, I created a series of diagrams to help me do this. The MYSTERY BONES diagrams help me keep track of the character details, make sure there are no loose ends, and provide me with a way to make sure all the clues and red herrings are in place.

Along the way, I read and analyzed all the Agatha Christie novels, a lot of Rex Stout, and many other fairplay mysteries. I drew diagrams like crazy, with plenty of arrows and equal signs, doodles and underscores, before a system started to show itself. My aim was always to simplify the process, to make things clear.

Here’s some of what I’ve learned:

Overview of the Mystery Structure

A MYSTERY STRUCTURE can be divided into seven parts.

What happens?

Who is involved?

Why did it happen?

How did it happen?

When did it happen?

Where did it happen?

What is the solution?

Where do I start?

The seven elements are where you start. Any one of them can be an entry point for your writing. Any of them can be the inspiration that gets you started … and excited. If you are excited about what you are writing, then your readers will feel that excitement when they read or watch your mystery.

Many considerations will come up as you write. If you try and tackle them all at once, you can easily become overwhelmed and confused.

Taking the process STEP by STEP will keep you clear and on track. There are plenty of decisions you (and your characters) will make along the way, which turns your mystery unique -like you!

There is no particular order in which to begin your mystery because writing the plot is not a linear process. The setting, the characters and their motives and the crime itself are all intricately tied together.  If you are writing a script for live entertainment, then the parametres you follow are going to be narrower than if you are writing a story for a book or film.

Do you have an idea about …

What happens – an overview of a captivating situation?

Who is involved – any particular type of nefarious or super character?

Why something happened – a motive that gets your blood boiling?

How it happened – intrigued by a challenging murder method?

When – passionate about time travel or a certain time of day?

Where – curious about historic, futuristic or exotic locations?

The Clues – in love with strategy and puzzles?

Some Things to Keep in Mind


Mysterys are circular by nature. Their construction is circles within circles. Because of the shape of a mystery there are many different points of entry when devising a cluetrail.

In the centre of the circle is the crime. Around the circumference are the suspects. Orbiting between the centre and the circumference are the motive, method, opportunity.

Mysteries are incredibly flexible. They can bend and twist to fit any circumstances or situation. If you are writing an interactive mystery event, you just have to know what you have to work with in the beginning to save yourself the work of adjusting elements later on.

If you are writing a book, you have much more freedom – but you still need to know where you are going to end up. One of the great joys of being a writer is being able to lay the infrastructure so that it supports all the twists and turns you are going to pull your reader through on their way to solving the crime.

This does not mean you are married to a rigid outline or structure. Yes, you do have to make one, but if along the way a better idea pops up, follow it as far as you reasonable can. If this bright new idea is asking you to rearrange just about everything – it’s probably a different book. If you can easily tweak existing ideas to support the new twist – by all means follow it if it improves the story.


One story is  What Appeared to Happen, and the second story, which everyone is trying to figure out, is What Really Happened.

What Actually Happened is the story. What Appeared to Happen is the mystery.

    • Hello Mystery Lover!
      A mystery has two components; ‘what actually happened’ and ‘what appeared to have happened’. You tell the story of ‘what appeared to have happened’ and your detective or protagonist figures out ‘what actually happened’. This is often accomplished by telling the story out of chronological sequence. Know what actually happened before you start, break it down into pieces and then toss them out there for your sleuth to find and put back together.
      A mystery doesn’t have to be a murder, in fact it doesn’t even have to be a crime. A ‘whodunnit’ simply means that an unknown person performed an action – no matter if the action is a murder, a theft, or the baking of a cake. Basically you want to have your theft have the motive, the method and the opportunity (The Mystery Bones) to have committed the theft and then create the clues to prove that he had, indeed, each of those three things. You will also need to create clues to show that other people also had one or two of the Bones (motive, method or opportunity) otherwise there is nothing to solve. You can get a bit of help with the clues here.
      Put the crime, or a piece of intrigue leading up to the crime, at the beginning of the story. You want to grab the reader and have them asking questions right away. Keep the action going right up until the end. ‘Give hope. Take hope away. Give hope. Take hope away.’ Let your detective make wrong assumptions and then figure out what a clue really means at the last minute. If you enjoy writing your mystery then others will enjoy reading it.