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Keys to Start Your Mystery Novel

outstretched hand with keys

Plunge Into the Unknown

A new book is full of unknowns for a reader. When a reader starts your mystery, you can help them get involved by giving them the keys to what will follow. Your reader will know right away this is the story for them.

Everything about your story is unknown to your reader. Give them a time, a place, a sleuth to love, and a murder to solve. Get your reader into the story.

For new novelists, getting to the point is throttled by all the ideas you have in your head and all the things you know about the story. Your main goal at the beginning of the book is to engage the reader.  

Everything is an unknown to a reader as they start your mystery, except that they are beginning a mystery novel. Reassure the reader that the story you promised feels like the genre they want, gets your protagonist in action right away, and delivers a dilemma that keeps them reading for more. 

Give Your Reader the Keys to Your Story

You can help your reader get into your story by including certain mystery trope requirements right at the beginning. Give them the basics. 

Where Am I?

In the first scene, tell your reader where the story takes place. A well-known big city, a future landscape, a period village. Ground your reader with a place.

Who’s My Hero?

Your reader wants to see your hero sleuth in action right away. Not drinking a morning coffee and wondering what she will do today. Give your sleuth a dilemma and demonstrate a skill she will use later to solve the mystery. Show one personality trait. 

Your sleuth protagonist is the reader’s guide to solving the mystery puzzle. Your reader wants to know who they are and whether they want to follow this character on a discovery adventure. 

What Time Is It?

Is it today? Yesterday? Some time in the future? Along with a place, let your reader know when the story takes place. If your story takes place in current time, you don’t need to emphasize the time. The surroundings will tell your reader this is now. But for historical mysteries and futuristic or sci-fi mysteries, you need to set the time so readers don’t expect it to be now and come up short when they discover later it’s not now. Anytime you bring your reader up short, they can put down the book and never open it again. 

Where’s The Action?

The beginning is not the place to describe your hero’s clothing in minute detail, save those details for later. Or to go into long, descriptive setting narrative. Give your sleuth a problem. It could be an opponent trying to trip him up, or a neighbor’s lost dog, or a burglar in his home, or a street confrontation as he tries to save someone’s life. 

Whatever your action, bring it front and center right at the beginning. Your reader gets to learn about your sleuth hero from the way he solves the problem. He may be a fighter or a thinker, but the goal for you is to show your sleuth in action. 

How Does It Feel?

Your writing tone tells the reader this is the type of story they like to read. Is it humorous? Noir? Traditional? Witty dialogue repartee? Action and more action? Set the tone of your narrative at the beginning. Reassure the reader that the genre you promised is what is in the story. You are introducing your storytelling skill to the reader. 

Beware the Story Stoppers 

Story stoppers are narratives that keep your story from starting off. You will keep your reader from getting to the important ingredients that make them want to read your story.

  • Minimize descriptive details at the beginning. No laundry lists of features either of the protagonist or the setting. Sprinkle details as the story progresses.
  • A gratuitous hook that is there just for excitement but is not part of the story–often a sex scene.
  • Backstory—the protagonist thinking or dreaming about what happened before.
  • Adjective and adverb heavy sentences. ​

From Unknown to Story Excitement

Your story goal at the beginning is to make the reader want to keep reading. Giving your reader the basics at the beginning assures them this is a story they want to read. The beginning is your promise to deliver a splendid story. Then deliver on the promise. 

Photo by Sylvie Tittel on Unsplash

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