The joy of mystery writing is the license for creativity that it allows. Why then, you might wonder, would you need a selection of mystery writing prompts?
Well, even if you’d prefer to come up with a premise all by yourself, there are still a number of elements a novel must have in order to truly be classed as a “mystery”.
The list of mystery writing prompts that we’ve listed are as much about structure as they are about content.
So if you’re looking for inspiration and want to make sure that your mystery novel contains all the features expected of the genre, this collection of mystery writing prompts is for you.
1. “The Crime Scene”
5:26 PM. Two investigators pore over an abandoned, trash-filled parking lot while the nearby coroner zips up a body bag. Inside: a short, pudgy woman in her mid-forties, sharply dressed in a grey business suit.
Who is the woman in the bag? Apart from clues, what are the investigators looking for?
This prompt has a number of the basic elements necessary to construct a mystery: a protagonist (one or both of the investigators), mysterious incident/crime (the death of the sharply dressed woman), and a few potential clues (the suit, the scene, the time etc.).
The next step is to create a circle of suspects with credible motives and opportunity, and to decide on a satisfying resolution. With that, you’ll have the basic outline of a solid mystery plot – and plenty of room to flesh out the juicy details.
2. “The Missing Person”
A man returns home from work to find a strange truck parked in his driveway. On entering his house, he finds the door is unlocked and his wife is missing.
To whom does the truck belong? Where is the man’s wife? What’s the significance of the unlocked door?
Have fun with this one – the protagonist, mystery and clues are all purposely ill-defined and open-ended to allow you to really flex your creative muscles.
It also highlights another common feature of mystery fiction: an intriguing beginning. The inciting incident often occurs very early in mystery novels so as to engage the reader and ensure that they don’t yet have the knowledge necessary for solving the central puzzle.
3. “The Amnesiac”
Your protagonist awakes in a strange apartment next to a dead body that they don’t recognise. When the police arrive, they are blamed for the murder but have no memory of committing it—despite every piece of evidence appearing to suggest that they did.
Who was the victim? Why can’t the protagonist remember anything? Did they really kill the victim? And if not, who did?
This is a slightly more subversive framework in that it merges the roles of protagonist and prime suspect into one.
This provides you with a few interesting opportunities: Perhaps your protagonist is an unreliable narrator? Or maybe there could be a trail of red herrings which wrongly suggest that your character is the murderer? As always, the possible resolutions are endless.
4. “The Long-lost Friend”
Your protagonist receives a letter at their workplace from an old school friend who they haven’t heard from in years. The letter is sent from prison, and the old school friend asks a favour of your protagonist that only they can carry out.
Why have the two characters not spoken in such a long time? Why is the old school friend in prison? What is the favour they’re asking? Does your protagonist agree to help?
Not every mystery necessarily has to revolve around death. It’s often enough to simply create a scenario intriguing enough to pique a reader’s curiosity.
In this case, the situation outlined here raises a number of interesting questions from the outset. Sometimes as a writer, stripping a genre down to its most primitive elements (e.g. characters and a mystery) offers greater freedom and scope for creativity.
5. The Message from the Grave
Your main character, newly married, is informed via post that their partner has been killed on duty while in military service. A short while later, the widowed character begins to receive letters containing information which indicates that they could only have been sent by their deceased husband/wife.
Is the protagonist’s spouse really dead? If so, who is sending the letters? If not, why was your character told that they were killed?
This is a neat little mystery writing prompt in that it gives you the opportunity to keep your readers guessing with the simple “Yes/No” question of whether the protagonist’s partner is dead or alive.
Either answer raises a number of further compelling questions. In a manner similar to “the amnesiac” example, this prompt also blurs character roles – but this time it’s the parts of “victim” and “suspect” which are being obscured.
Pro Tip – Suzanne Lieurance
“As a writing coach, I often see writers get stuck midway through writing a mystery because they didn’t bother to get to know their characters well enough. To get unstuck, I usually suggest they conduct some character interviews.
A character interview is different from a character profile. In a profile, you generally just list different things about your character – age, hair and eye color, favorite foods, etc. But with a character interview you ask questions and answer those questions as if you were the character.
I know it sounds a bit strange. But character interviews can be so helpful because you’ll understand how each character would react in different situations. And this can get your plot moving along again when you’re stuck.
To conduct a character interview, sit down with pen and paper and create some in-depth questions to ask your characters. Ask questions about their background – where they grew up, who raised them, what jobs they had in high school, etc.
You’ll probably be surprised at what you discover and even more surprised at how helpful this information is to you as you’re writing your mystery.”
Mystery writing prompts – Puzzle over
A final tip: remember that you should always have your conclusion in mind when coming up with all of the other elements for your mystery story.
There’s no sense in creating compelling clues and scenarios if your resolution doesn’t then logically follow on from these plot points. Convenient plotting can detract from an enjoyable reading experience, avoid creating a mystery that relies on contrivances to resolve.
The writing of a mystery novel can be as enjoyable as it is challenging. Hopefully the mystery writing prompts we’ve given you here will help to make your writing experience more of the former than the latter.
What do you think of the prompts we’ve listed? Have you got any mystery writing prompts of your own? Feel free to have a go at creating some and share them with us in the comments below!
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