Universal Class: Over 500 Online Certificate Courses
Elements of Mystery Writing: Realism
Elements of Mystery Writing: Realism
Want to learn more? Take an online course in Mystery Writing.
Without a sense of realism, a mystery story is redundant. This article aims to help writers convey a sense of the real world by helping them identify and banish any unrealistic, overly contrived elements in their mystery. A contrived, unrealistic storyline will make the reader disbelieve the story, and thus take away the effect it is designed to achieve.

You Live in Reality!

Unlike foreign locations and historic eras, reality is something you have thoroughly experienced. This doesn't necessarily make it easy to keep your story real, so here are some tips to help you research reality and find ways of making your mystery story seem viable and realistic to every reader that picks it up.

Researching Reality


If the events that take place in your mystery are not events that could actually take place in reality, the reader will automatically feel your story is a fantasy. Events that could be possible, but are extremely unlikely and implausible, are equally likely to distance a reader and make them feel cheated, or that the story they are reading should not be taken seriously. You don't want your reader to be waiting for the punch-line, feeling that your story is a joke or a parody where you have exaggerated the features of a good mystery for comic effect. So, how do you make sure the events that make up your mystery story plot are realistic and won't irritate your readers? Ask yourself the following questions about each event that takes place in your story:

1. If I read about this event in a newspaper would I disbelieve it? If yes, then this event needs to be cut from the story or altered.

2. If this event happened to a friend and I witnessed it, would people around me believe me when I told them about it later? If you feel it would be hard to get people to believe totally in your story, then you need to change it in your mystery to be more readily believable.

3. Is there any way I could make this more real for my reader? Think about giving the reader some insight, such as research you have completed,or references to similar things happening elsewhere? Perhaps your sleuth could refer to a similar case that could help in solving this one?


Believable characters are crucial to any story and mysteries are no exception. The characters must seem real enough to allow the reader to relate to them, or they will simply not care enough about the characters to want justice to be done, This will result in readers that don't truly care whether the mystery is resolved or not, and therefore, they will be disinterested and apathetic readers. Suspense will have little effect on these readers. So, to make sure your characters "pop" and seem real, try the following techniques…

1. Research real-life characters – listen to how people talk, how they react to things, and what they seem to want. Note what motivates people; the parent who would do anything for his or her children, the businessman who rants about how much money he earns. Note character types around you and use elements of real people to make your characters more realistic.

2. Avoid stereotypes; try not to write characters that strike the reader as "stock" characters who could populate any other mystery. Think about the characters you read about often and give any of your characters that threaten to be clichéd a little makeover; give them another dimension. If you feel your villain is too clichéd -- perhaps he murdered for insurance money and seems heartless and remorseless -- how about giving him a whole other dimension to his character? Perhaps he plays the bassoon in an orchestra; perhaps he volunteers at a hospital. What makes him different? There are no true clichés walking around; everyone has some idiosyncrasy that makes them original and unique.


Think about how your characters should react to events that take place in your mystery story. Often new writers in the mystery or detective genre focus too heavily on the storyline and keeping it moving to properly allow for all the realism of true emotion in their story. Think about how you would feel if the events in your story happened to you or someone close to you. Put yourself in the shoes of each character and think about how they would react as individuals. This way your reader will be given realistic insights into the world of the mystery story and will feel more inclined to believe it.


One of the biggest rookie mistakes when writing any kind of fiction, but perhaps particularly mystery stories, is unrealistic dialogue. Listen to how people really talk and mimic real voices in your story. One key piece of advice it is essential to remember: When dialogue seems stunted and difficult to write, DO NOT cut the dialogue out, REDRAFT IT! Think about how people really talk, and how sometimes it can be difficult to articulate what one means. Articulate characters sometimes do not strike the reader as real, despite the fact that their character traits have been very well-written. Dialogue is crucial to the realism of the story and the one way you can check for realism is to read your dialogue aloud and listen to how it sounds, then redraft, redraft, redraft!


A policeman entering the last scene of your mystery story and taking away the criminal just isn't realistic enough for the modern reader. There must be a sense of procedure, a feeling that the process of solving the mystery must somehow be balanced with the process of legal and lawful proceedings. Modeling your story on Victorian mysteries is all very well, but you must have enough legal knowledge to make your story realistic in terms of crime and punishment. You have to be careful to know the laws and procedures of the time your story is set in or some knowledgeable reader will notice the anachronism.

Mysterious Elements: Revelation

Solving the mystery: When should you do it? How should you do it? This is one of the elements of writing a mystery that writers often grapple with. It is difficult to decide, and every story is different, but thissectionoffers some great advice on how to resolve the mystery and satisfy your readers.

The revelation of your mystery will be the climax of your story, so it is important to think of the rest of the story as building up to this moment. This climax is sometimes referred to as the denouement.

Leave It As Long As Possible

The mystery should be revealed as far on as you are happy to take it. Keep the reader hooked, don't give in to those reader-sleuths who want to know the solutions too early, keep them interested and keep them guessing.

Mistakes in Denouement

When you are new to the genre, and even when you aren't, there are certain pitfalls many writers fall into when reaching the climax or revelation of their mystery. The following advice should help you avoid common mistakes and improve the climax of your mystery story for yourself and your readers.

1. Take your time over the climax; it is tempting to basically just recap the mystery, give the answers and move on to winding things up. This is frustrating for the reader, as it seems to make little of the work that has gone into actually forming the mystery in the first place. When you have gone to all the trouble of crafting a clever mystery, with all the subplots and details that you will no doubt have put a lot of effort into, it is a shame to rush the climax of the piece. Take your time over the revelation and your reader will thank you for it.

2. Make it dramatic. The reader doesn't want the characters to sit down and talk through their issues; instead, they want the conflict that has been set throughout the piece to escalate to the point that the drama is heightened to its very peak. In the same way that no one wants to watch a film about a family who get on a plane, land safely, have a happy vacation, and go home happy without a single setback, no-one wants a mystery that is easily resolved. An easy resolution takes away from the mystery in general.

3. Let your sleuth solve it! It may seem obvious, but novice mystery writers sometimes bring in an out-of-town detective or long-lost relative of a character to solve the mystery. This is annoying! The reader has been rooting for the sleuth and his team, as well as the victims and their relatives and friends. Bringing in a stranger the reader has never heard of to solve the mystery in the end is a very frustrating end to the story and will isolate the reader. If this seems like the only way to resolve your own mystery story, the best way to deal with the problem is to write the new character in early on and have him be part of the mystery. Perhaps he has disappeared, or has been incapacitated? This way the reader won't feel disappointed because the sleuth can be the one to resolve the mystery.

4. For similar reasons, don't have an answer that is:

  • Illogical - The resolution of the mystery must make sense; it shouldn't be mysterious, itself! The reader must understand the truth when it is finally revealed.
  • A dream - If a character wakes up to find the whole thing was a dream, not only will you isolate your readers, but they are unlikely to read past the word "dream" and they won't ever read anything by you again! That's assuming you get published, which is unlikely. It is hard to overstate how much people dislike being told "it was all a dream." It leads to the reader feeling cheated and the whole mystery being cheapened. Avoid this at all costs!
  • Supernaturally resolved - As lovely as it would be for a mysterious supernatural being to resolve all problems, if it happens in a mystery story, it makes the whole process of writing the mystery a waste of time. Why create a mystery, have a real character seeking a solution and then resolve everything with magic? If this was possible, why wasn't the whole thing resolved as soon as it happened, or why did it happen in the first place? Like finding it was all a dream, the reader will feel cheated by this solution.

5. Don't tell the reader everything - show it! Many mysteries are resolved by the sleuth announcing the truth. This is fine, to a degree. The reader should have been guided through the story thus far by a mixture of telling and showing, like any good story. For the reader now to be simply told the solution feels like a cheat. Show the sleuth figuring things out so the reader can accompany him on that journey.

6. Tie up all the loose ends as neatly as you can, leaving the reader hanging will be frustrating for them. Of course, a well-written ending can afford to leave a little bit of mystery -- something that perhaps the sleuth and the reader can learn from, but never fully understand. This is up to you, but keep the feelings of the reader in mind.

Popular Courses
Learn More! Take an Online Course...
Follow Us Online
  • Follow us on Google Plus Follow us on FaceBook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on YouTube
© Copyright 1999-2019 Universal Class™ All rights reserved.