Ten Tips for the Mystery Writing Pantser

Mystery Writer Wondering What Happens Next

Intro: Pantser, Plotter, Plantser

A “pantser” writes the story as it comes to her. A “plotter” drafts an outline of the entire story and then fills in the meaty stuff. I’m more of a “plantser.” I know what’s going to happen in the first few scenes when I start the book. At the end of each writing session, I sketch out what should happen next. The next day, I tackle those, and so on. Here are some tricks I’ve learned over the years:

Tip Number One: Mysteries Have Structure

Before we sit down at the keyboard, we already know there is going to be a dead body (or two, maybe even three), a sleuth, probably a sidekick, a nemesis, an investigation, a twist or two, a building of tension towards the end (often a chase scene), an apprehension of the villain, and a denouement.  All we need to do is fill in the blanks with characters and setting. No problem!

Kinda makes you feel sorry for those literary types who have nothing more than “think I’ll write about a painting,” doesn’t it?

My go-to manual is Writing & Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron. I re-read it before I start every new book. If you write mystery, this book should be on your shelf.

Tip Number Two: What’s Next?

If I get stuck, it’s in the second act. This is when I turn to Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. She teaches you how to get inside the head of your protagonist, the person the reader will identify with, and root out her motivations and the things that drive the story. Motivation leads to action, right? You have your next scene!

Tip Number Three: Plot Twists (Secrets and Lies)

Plot twists terrified me when I first started writing until I learned that a plot twist is essentially the revelation of a secret or lie. Early in my story, I’ll write out a separate document, usually on a legal pad, with a list of my characters, all their secrets and all the lies they’re willing to tell and things they’re willing to do to protect their secrets. Voila! When the story feels sluggish, I consult my list for inspiration.

Tip Number Four: Every Scene Needs to Move the Story Along

When I started writing short fiction, I learned that every sentence should move the story along or develop the character, and it’s best to do both. That means if I’m describing a setting, it’s not just to paint a pretty picture — that description as told through the character’s eyes, tells us something about the story and/or the character. Again, best if it’s both.

Tip Number Five: Write Drunk, Edit Sober

Seriously, don’t do that. You’ll end up with a headache, a load of empty calories to burn off, and passage that isn’t as funny as it seemed or perhaps incomprehensible.

Write “drunk”: But do write when you are on fire. Also write when you’re not on fire. When I go back for the second draft, I can’t tell when I was on fire or not.

Edit “sober”: Do give yourself time between the first draft and the second draft to cool off. Tinker on another book. Write a short story or two. For me, there’s always some major project around the house. When you come back to read your manuscript, your head is out of writer mode. It’s so much easier to see where the problems are.

Tip Number Six: Whodunit?

Who cares?

When I’m writing my first draft, I have a number of suspects. I make another list naming them, why they’d do it, the evidence against them, and their alibis (a wonderful opportunity for secrets and lies. Watch any Midsomer Murder episode and you’ll see what I mean.)

I read somewhere that Agatha Christie wrote the entire story first and then at the end picked the least likely suspect for the killer (something that was referenced obliquely in a Magpie Murder episode recently). She’d then go back and salt in some more clues to make the mystery fair play for the reader.

Tip Number Seven:  Do You Have to Play Fair?

The concept of “fair play” means that you have provided enough clues for reader to figure out who the killer is. It became a standard element of mystery writing when The Detection Club adopted their commandments in the 1930’s.

If you don’t want to play fair, you don’t have to and you can still write genuine crime fiction. In that case, it’s technically not a mystery, but it might be thriller or suspense. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd didn’t play fair. It’s really suspense. And Then There Were None didn’t play fair. It’s a psychological thriller.

Tip Number Eight: End the Scene with a Question

In an early draft of my first book, every scene ended with a statement that had a question mark. That got tiresome, as I discovered when I gave it a rest and went back for a read. Now I try to suggest a question that the reader might ask. Most of the time, all I have to do is cut off the question my character asked. If my character thought of it, the reader will too.

Tip Number Nine: The Cold Read

As I mentioned above, it’s best to let the book rest before you come back to edit or write another draft. Before you start editing or writing, read the whole thing on paper, sitting in a different spot than where you wrote. I read my manuscripts in the chair where I read books. It’s also helpful to print the manuscript in a font you usually don’t use. For instance, I usually write in Calibri. I might print in Times New Roman or Arial. I’m sure there’s a long neuropsychological explanation for why this works, but I’m not going to bother looking it up – I just know it helps me see the story with fresh eyes.

Tip Number Ten: Read Aloud

You’ll often hear reading aloud suggested. That’s great except for two things: my voice wears out pretty fast and my mind gets tired so I start smoothing over things without realizing it.

No problem! The Word program has a “Read Aloud” function. You can choose whether you want your book read to you in a female or male voice. To find “Read Aloud,” go to the search window and type in “Read Aloud.” Click the option that looks like: A))) Read Aloud.

A window will appear in the upper right-hand corner of your document with arrows that look like a tape deck. You can start and pause, go back and fast forward. There is also a setting button. Click that for speed and voice.

It’s painfully slow. I can only do about ten pages an hour in “Read Aloud” because I’m constantly editing and going over every passage until it sounds right. But it’s worth it. I drafted my first book eighteen times. I drafted my last book three times.

It’s Your Turn

Do you have any tips you want to share? Please do! Put them in the comments below.


Keenan Powell


Keenan Powell is the Agatha, Lefty, and Silver Falchion nominated author of the Maeve Malloy Mystery series, Deadly Solution, Hemlock Needle, Hell and High Water.

While still in high school, she was one of the illustrators of the original Dungeons and Dragons. Art seemed an impractical pursuit – not an heiress, wouldn’t marry well, hated teaching – so she went to law school instead. When not writing or practicing law, Keenan can be found oil painting, studying the Irish language, or hanging out with her friends at mystery conventions.

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  1. Wow, Keenan, I feel like a goof off. You really have your process in place and I don’t even have a process. When I’m writing a book I feel like I’m inside a plastic bubble punching in all directions trying to find a way out, a way forward. It’s exhausting.
    I hope to start my next NYPD Detective Chiara Corelli mystery soon and I might try to adopt parts of your process. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This was a great read! I’d never thought about the nuances between mystery/suspense/crime/thriller quite the way you put them in #7. I have a feeling the “play fair” idea will still in my head for a long time, and will help me hone my projects going forward. Thank you!

  3. Keenan, I have that book by Hallie Ephron and recommend it all the time.

    I’m a sucker for your #3–it’s saved my butt many a time when I think I’m floundering!

  4. Great post, Keenan. Every tip is helpful. I especially like end every chapter with a question. If I could learn to do that while drafting my life would be much easier. And I’ve been advocating for writers to have their work read aloud for years. Macs had that years before Word added it, but now I just use Word because the icon is right there in my toolbar.
    Anyway, can’t wait to see what you’re writing!

  5. I like to visit cities I haven’t been to for a while [That way I don’t get lost, but I can still find surprises] and take pictures of interesting buildings, cafes, alleys.
    I can take my camera phone to CVS and use their print maker & post them on my home bulletin board or make a notebook.
    It’s a great way to get ideas for description. If you’re really into it, you can make a home murder board.
    Regards, Jay W. Leavitt

  6. Great post!! Definitely going to give more thought to my characters’ secrets and lies in the future. I too am a plantser. I brainstorm a list of about 20 plot points before I start the first draft. Then I ignore the list until I get stuck somewhere in the murky middle. Then I go back to that list for inspiration.

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