How to Write a Mystery Novel: A Five Act Structure

Ever wondered how to write a mystery novel? In How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, best-selling novelist and writing teacher, James N. Frey explains how to write a mystery covering everything from germinating that first idea, the different types of character archetypes common to mystery stories, structuring a plot and getting your manuscript ready for publication.

With rare exception, all mystery stories have a five act structure based on the classic theory of mythic narrative structure, the Hero’s Journey. Writing a mystery means understanding this narrative formula and designing your plot around its structure.



How to Write a Mystery Novel with a Five Act Structure

Act 1 –The Hero Accepts the Mission to Catch the Villain and Solves the Case

The first act of the mystery story starts at the point of action and ends with the hero accepting the case, committing to solve the mystery. In the mythic narrative paradigm, this is where the hero leaves the world of the everyday and enters the alternate world of the as yet unsolved crime.

In the first act, the mystery writer needs to establish the story questions that are going to keep the reader turning pages. The characters enter their first dramatic conflict and the chain reaction of events that make up the entire story begins. The reader’s emotions are touched, particularly sympathy for the hero

Frey covers some typical approaches for setting all of this up including: the discovery of the body or showing the crime being committed with or without revealing the villain’s identity.

Act 2 –The Hero Is Tested and Changes. Dies and Is Reborn in the Pivotal Scene

The mythic structure calls this the invitation. In the second act, the hero detective is tested by the new rules of this new alternate world. The villain puts the hero through a series of trials, some of which are passed, others failed. In all of these trials, the hero learns new skills and develops as a character.

About half way through the mystery novel, a pivotal scene occurs. In this scene, something happens that changes everything and the game shifts towards the hero’s advantage. The hero’s character arc reaches its apex, where the hero symbolically dies and is reborn as the new and improved person who has what it takes to solve the case.

This typically dramatic event informs the rest of the story and leads to the resolution.

Act 3 – The Hero Is Tested Again and Succeeds

In the third act, the cat and mouse game continues but the hero is taking on the task with a renewal and the advantage of everything they learned from the pivotal scene. Act Three ends with the discovery of the villain.

Act 4 – How the Hero Traps the Villain

Now the villain has been discovered, can he or she be brought to justice? In this act, the hero is returning to the normal world, resetting the rules set up by the villain by bringing him or her to justice. The reader should be offered the satisfaction of seeing the crime solved and villain brought into the world of the hero’s rules.

Act 5 – Shows How the Events of the Story Have Impacted the Major Characters

A mystery story typically ends with a brief section after the villain is caught showing what happens to the characters after these events. At the end of the story, we see how the changes in the characters will carry on into their everyday.

Examining mystery novels, movies and TV shows, it’s not hard to see this five act narrative structure at work. It’s effective and compelling and has been proven to work countless times.

To find out more about how to write a mystery novel, be sure to take a look at Frey’s comprehensive guide, How to Write a Damn Good Mystery: A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript.

Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on
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2 Responses to “How to Write a Mystery Novel: A Five Act Structure

  • Thanks for these tips! I’ve been struggling with a mystery novel for a while now, and even have a book on the subject (Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, which has a lot of worksheets), but this helps narrow down my thinking quite a bit.

    • Kate Krake
      1 year ago

      Excellent! I’m happy to have helped. Good luck with your novel. 🙂

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