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Writing top tips: Mystery

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By Joanne Owen— author of the atmospheric new novel for older children, Puppet Master

Inspire your class to write atmospheric mystery tales with these top tips

Misty graveyard

Who did it? Why did they do it? And what exactly happened? The desire to discover the answers to these kinds of questions is what gives mystery stories their magnetism: it’s what makes them so terrifically tantalising as the reader becomes tangled in the unfolding tale, and it’s also what makes them so satisfying when all is revealed. Here are some tips to set you on the path to creating your very own masterpiece of mystery!


  1. What is a mystery story?
  2. Finding inspiration
  3. People, place and plot
  4. A twist in the tale

1. What is a mystery story?

A mystery is something that’s not easily explained, and mystery stories take readers on a journey that explores and unravels a puzzle or secret. Your story might involve a spot of detective work: perhaps someone or something has gone missing and the main character must crack the crime and catch the criminal. Or, it might be a menacing mystery in which fears must be fought to uncover the terrible truths behind ghoulish goings on.

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2. Finding inspiration

Writing a mystery story involves you using your imagination to draw readers into a world of your invention. The spark of a story can come from anything – an overheard conversation, a painting, finding an abandoned hat on a park bench – whatever catches your imagination. A good way to begin a mystery story is to think of a way to make the ordinary extraordinary. For example, meek Mrs Merryworth from the end of the road could turn out to be harbouring an unimaginably shocking secret!

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3. People, place and plot

Story writing involves making decisions about people, place and plot:

  • Characters: Think about what your characters look like, and how they behave. Do they have any suspicious habits that might incriminate them? Your main character might be trying to solve the mystery, or perhaps they’re the one with something to hide. Writing from an unexpected point of view can give a story an extra element of intrigue.
  • Where and when?: You could set your story somewhere strange, and the mystery could derive from that place. Or, you could set it somewhere that appears to be very ordinary, lulling your readers into a false sense of security. A stranger could come to a quiet town and throw the townsfolk’s humdrum lives into turmoil. Shocking revelations and strange occurrences are great devices for keeping readers hooked!

You can also choose when to set your story – in the present, the distant future, or way back in the past in a period of history that interests them. The whole world, and time, is in your hands!

  • Plot and pace: It’s a good idea to work out a story’s plot and structure. Pace is an important ingredient to any story, too. You need to build tension to keep readers on the edge of their seats. It might help to draw a chart to plot how long you’ll spend on each part of the story, from setting the scene and introducing characters, to the point where things fall into place.

The key to creating a clever mystery is to scatter clues throughout, so when readers reach the end they realise that a seemingly offhand phrase or description actually held the key to unlocking the mystery. You could also be a bit mischievous and include a few red herrings along the way.

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4. A twist in the tale

An unexpected final twist keeps readers intrigued and asking questions long after they’ve finished a story. Perhaps everything’s pointed to one particularly dubious character being the wrong doer, but the last line could hint that someone else was responsible. Above all, never really let the mystery end…

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More mystery reads

Take a look at Joanne’s reviews of some other great mystery books.

No Such Thing As Dragons


  1. kev lynch
    on 11 October 2015

    Great starter

    thanks – this is a great start point for kids developing a good mystery structure ;)

    4out of 5