How To Plan The Crime In Your Mystery Novel [Mystery Month]

We’ve talked about this before, but I think it’s always good to revisit old chats. In fact, this is the third time I’m revising this post!

If you know me, you know that I prefer to outline my novels before writing them. While freewriting is fun, I like to know where I’m going with my story. I don’t like to get stuck, I just like to write. Sometimes it changes, but I have a basic idea.

When it comes to writing a mystery novel, when there is a crime and something has to be solved, it’s easy to know what exactly is going to happen ahead of time. Otherwise, you may end up with a baffling case – in and out of the story.

How To Plan A Crime In Your Mystery Novel | Mystery Month

Even if you don’t like to outline, planning out the crime in your story is always a good idea. When you read books or watch movies, what are some things that the detectives look for?

The Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.


There are a lot of people involved in a crime. Make a list of all the necessary characters who will be involved in the case.

  • Who is the victim?
  • Who is the culprit?
  • Who are the witnesses?
  • Who are the suspects?
  • Who are the accomplices?
  • Who are the detective or police officers?
  • Who discovered the crime(s)?
  • Who are the family members and close friends of the victims?
  • Who are the family members and close friends of the culprits?

When it comes to writing a mystery, each character in the story should be tied in with the case somehow. If they don’t have anything to do directly with the case, then they may not be needed.


The “what” can be used as a general term for the crime.

  • What happened? (What’s the problem – murder, robbery, etc.)
  • What are the key items? (Murder weapon, stolen item, etc.)
  • What was the motive?
  • What was the victim and/or culprit doing right before the crime occurred? What happened after?


Time is everywhere. It’s important and it’s essential to a mystery novel, especially if there’s a dead person involved.

  • When did the crime take place?
  • When was the crime discovered?
  • When were the authorities called/brought to the scene?
  • When does the investigator find his first, second, third clues, etc.?
  • When does the investigator solve the crime?
  • When does the culprit(s) get caught/confess?
  • When do the interrogations begin/end?


Set the scene for the crime, the clues, and the overall story. Paint a big picture, allow your readers to be there with the detective to help solve the crime.

  • Where does the overall story take place?
  • Where does the crime take place?
  • Where was the victim(s) when the crime took place?
  • Where was the weapon(s)/stolen item or person?
  • Where was the culprit(s) hiding?
  • Where were the witnesses when the crime occurred?


Knowing the why of everything that occurs tells the whole story. Without the “why,” there would be no story.

  • Why did the culprit commit the crime?
  • Why did the culprit choose that particular victim?
  • Why was your investigator the best one to solve the case? Why does your investigator take on the case in the first place?
  • Why did the crime take a long (or short) time to solve?


Knowing the “how” is crucial to anything. You want to make your crime as realistic as possible so that all the clues are filled in and your readers end the book with a nicely tied bow at the top. Reasons for why things happen and how will help guide your readers into believing your story and getting into it.

  • How long was the overall investigation?
  • How did the culprit pull off their crime?
  • How was the culprit caught?
  • How did other potential victims get away?
  • How did the culprit get away?
  • How did other characters react to the crime?
  • How did the investigator figure it out? (How did they finally piece it all together?)

Unless it’s true crime, mysteries are typically fictional. Still, when it comes to investigating a case and finding a dead body that’s been cold for a while, you should be accurate. Get your clues and facts straight and maybe your readers won’t notice that you’re just a humble mystery writer.

What are some other questions you can think of? Is this how you plan out your crimes when writing mystery? Let me know in the comments below!

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11 thoughts on “How To Plan The Crime In Your Mystery Novel [Mystery Month]

  1. I was at a crime writing workshop yesterday facilitated by writer Kalpana Swaminathan and she spoke about these too. But she added one question: What if?

  2. Just finished THE LAST JUROR, Grisham. Well woven crime tale. A suggestion I would add to your list is ALWAYS get your facts right. One of the characters in the story runs to Canada during Vietnam Era because he had a high draft number. The way it was is that each day of the year was drawn in lottery to be given a draft number 1-365. No Mr. Grisham. If you got a high draft number you had almost no chance of being drafted. It was the LOW draft number that kept’s us in fear. I remember. My birth date June 18 was well into the 300’s. Whew. I got to finish college and became a teacher for 33 years.

    • Wow! I didn’t know any of that. But you’re absolutely right-fact checking is a must when you’re going to write about true to life things like that. Thanks for sharing!

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