A Mystery Novel Template / Cheatsheet / Outline
Thrillers and mysteries are one of the most popular genres. Mystery readers gobble them up and are hungry for more. So if you want to write novels, this is a great genre to get into. And writing a mystery can be hugely satisfying.
But it’s hard.
There are clues to seed, tension to ratchet up, characters to be suspicious and threads to weave together and pull from a tangled mess to a neat bow in the end.
So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the idea of writing a mystery, then you’re not alone.
Luckily we’ve put together a few resources for you, to help you on your way.
The first is a checklist of 6 things that you should master, if you’re going to be effective at writing a mystery or thriller.
The second is a mystery novel template. This lays out the major beats that can be found in most mystery novels, from introducing the sleuth, to raising the stakes, to the confrontation with the perpetrator. Using this scaffolding will help ensure your novel doesn’t collapse under its own instability.
We also have links to other useful information to help you become skilled and confident in your mystery writing endeavour.
- How to write a mystery novel (coming soon)
- How to write a Thriller
- The Roadmap – a 15 step guide to writing a novel
6 Point Checklist for Writing a Mystery
- Be constantly raising and answering questions – this will keep your reader engaged and guessing
- Give everyone a dark or dirty secret – this means they will all be acting suspiciously and it will be easier for the real villain to hide among them
- Use cliffhangers skilfully – cliffhangers are a great way to keep people turning the pages
- Become a master of sleight of hand – a good mystery writer is like magician, keeping the audience focussed elsewhere while the trick is done right under their noses
- Keep the time pressure on – even quite mundane events can become more exciting when there is a limited time to do them, and horrifying consequences of not doing them in time
- Constantly drop clues and hints – the best mysteries are ones where in the denouement, you realise that lots of things you skimmed over were actually important clues, and the answer was right in front of you the whole time
A Mystery Novel Template / Cheatsheet / Outline
This outline is designed to distil the major beats and stages that happen in most mystery and thriller novels.
If you read a mystery or thriller with this checklist in hand, then you should see most, if not all, of these beats played out in a variety of ways. In fact, doing that is a great exercise to improve your skills and learn the craft of crime writing.
But do bear in mind that this is a template – no more, and no less. So it can be incredibly powerful in helping you understand the mechanics of what’s going on – but it should not be followed dogmatically, at the expense of the creativity of your story.
Tools, not rules.
Also, note that this template is available fully integrated into the Novel Factory, which means you can complete it using convenient digital index cards. The Novel Factory is completely free to try for 30 days, so you could use it to complete your mystery plot template, and then if you don’t want to use the software after that, simply export your work and continue in your preferred writing app.
Click here to claim your free 30 day trial (no credit card details required)
Present the crime
Mysteries and crime thrillers often begin with a prologue in which the inciting crime takes place. The first crime is very likely to be a murder or kidnapping. This is from a POV that is not the main protagonist, it may be from the point of view of the victim, the killer, or an omniscient narrator.
Introduce the sleuth
Next we meet the sleuth, who is the protagonist. This person is often a professional detective, but not always. Sometimes they are a normal person thrust into a situation which gives them no choice but to take action – usually because someone they love is missing or threatened.
Offer plausible suspects
Arguably the most important objective of the murder or crime thriller is to keep the reader guessing who the perpetrator is. In order to do this, there must be several candidates, preferably all acting suspiciously. It will turn out that they’re all acting suspiciously because they do all have something to hide, just not the murder. The actual murderer will ideally not even make it to the reader’s suspect list. During the course of the initial investigations, the sleuth will meet these people as well as gathering early clues and red herrings.
Introduce crime complications
Around this point another body may turn up, and there may be hints that this is all part of a larger conspiracy.
Introduce private life subplot
While hunting down the external criminal demons, the sleuth is also battling their own inner demons.
Investigation and interrogations reveal clues
Pressure should begin to build. If the sleuth is a professional detective, then they may feel pressure from their boss and colleagues. If they are a civilian, then they will get the sense that time is running out to find / save their loved one.
They pick up the pace, following every lead and interrogating anyone who might know anything. Their efforts yield some results (including red herrings).
Disappearance of one suspect
Optionally, one of the key suspects will suddenly vanish, or turn up dead. This indicates that the murderer knows they are being investigated, and that the investigations are getting closer. The sleuth may then look even more closely into the dead suspect, discovering clues that the murderer was hoping to silence.
Raise the stakes
The sleuth gets the clear message that the more they dig, the more they are putting themselves at personal risk from the murderer.
Development of sub-plot
Something about the case antagonises the sleuth’s inner demons and they start to go off the rails while trying to hold it together.
Reveal hidden motives of stakeholders
Most of the suspects will have their secrets revealed, showing them to be flawed, but not murderers.
Unsatisfying solution reached
There may be a false ending, where the case is closed. It may be that powers above have shut down the case, or that it’s believed that the perpetrator has been caught.
Return to overlooked clue from act one
However, the sleuth can’t help thinking that something just doesn’t sit right. They pore over the case, trying to figure out what’s wrong, and they stumble back onto a clue from right at the very beginning of Act I, which finally makes all the pieces fall into place.
Confrontation with perpetrator
The sleuth races to find the real perpetrator and confront them with their evidence. There is a big showdown, and the positive resolution is not certain until the very last moment.
Resolution of subplot
The sleuth returns to their normal life, and buoyed by their successful heroism, they find the inner strength to confront their own demons. They return to everyday life more fulfilled, complete and optimistic.