Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Outline For A Mystery Novel

I tend to work from outlines, even with my fiction writing. It flows, but I need to have some kind of foundation to get a grip on what I am writing, In the first chapter I look at introducing the main character, and setting the tone for the story – I am working on a mystery, so I set the plot for the mystery itself, and what needs to be solved. The time and place of the mystery itself needs to be clearly set. This can get tricky, because often a mystery that occurs in the present is based on actions in the past.

In the second chapter, I start setting out clues … some of which may be real, some of which may be false. There needs to be a few twists and turns in this story, after all! Secondary characters may also start appearing as soon as the second chapter. A little “back story” on my characters – I do a complete identity sketch on each of my characters: their name, where they are from, what their physical characteristics are, what they do for a living, where they live, what they wear, what their beliefs are, what their goals are. This helps me to keep things straight, and to keep each character and their relationship with the other characters authentic.

In the third chapter I want my characters to start following leads. To start trying to solve the mystery. Odd facts start popping up, some leads end up nowhere, other leads bring out information that sheds new light on people and events. This is the chapter that I introduce a sub-plot … something for the reader to follow that has nothing to do with the mystery being solved. The sub-plot for me has to be two things: interesting and relevant.

In the fourth chapter the plot thickens! Clues start coming together, and suspects start revealing themselves. Clues may disappear, or people may disappear. Suddenly there is more of a sense of urgency to get this mystery solved, before something else happens, or someone else gets hurt.

In the fifth chapter evidence that is coming out of the investigation starts to point at a specific suspect, or group of suspects. A solution begins to reveal itself … although this may not be the right solution, or at least not the complete solution.

In the sixth chapter the sub-plot takes precedence. This generally has to do with the main character, and addresses what makes them tick, what drives them, that little something in their own background that has them taking the actions that they have taken.

In the seventh chapter  things start to get a nit sticky. Hidden motives, and hidden relationships start to reveal themselves.

In the eighth chapter the main character in some way reveals the results of their investigation. I try to put things together in a way that makes sense, but that does not reveal the solution to the mystery.

In the ninth chapter my main character is going over their actions, the clues that they have revealed, and the information they have gathered. Basically, they are looking to see what they may have missed. At this point, I will bring out critical evidence that has somehow been missed up until now.

In the tenth chapter I bring things together, and the mystery is solved. I love dramatic resolution, and I love justice for all!

This is my basic outline for mystery writing. Things can be adjusted, more chapters can be added, but the basic ingredients need to be there: there needs to be a crime, the crime needs to be investigated,  there has to be tension and drama, and my primary character needs to be deeply involved.

Here’s to a good mystery!

© 2000 – 2013 Bonnie Cehovet
Reproduction prohibited in any venue without the written permission of the author.


  1. Bonnie, this is useful. Great outline and probably will help other writers. Here's to your good mystery !

    Jean Maurie


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