Writing a Mystery Without an Outline

Indie ECon

I used to be a panster. Then I started doing basic outlines, but often ended up not following them. Around the time I started writing my first mystery novel, I was a planster, with no big ties to either camp. Having never written a mystery before, I wasn’t sure how to do it. But I decided to try something kind of different. I knew the basics I wanted for the mystery itself, but not how it would all turn out in the end or who it would get solved. And I was okay with that.

So I started writing. No outline. No idea what would happen. No idea how the bad guy would get caught or how involved he was in what. I kept writing. I started the rough draft on July 1st, 2015 as part of Camp NaNoWriMo. My goal was 50,000 words that month. And I was writing it by hand because that’s what I like to do when I can.

I exceeded my goal. I wrote 60,000 words in 32 days (I finished on August 1). I was shocked I had gotten so much done in so little time. I have never written anything that fast since, either. I set the story aside to concentrate on publishing my next book that October. But when I picked it up again to edit it, I knew my method had worked. At least for that book and for me.

I don’t necessarily recommend not outlining your mystery novel. I just wanted to let you know that it worked at least for one book that is out there. I think it brought a little sense of the mystery to it by keeping the plot a mystery to me as well. I hope the twists and turns were as surprising to the reader as they were to me when I first wrote it.

There isn’t really a right or wrong way to do a mystery novel. Just as some people write better books when they outline and other authors are better at it when they don’t outline. Each person needs to figure out what method works best for them. If that means figuring out exactly how Professor Moriarty planned his crime before you start writing, that is perfect for you. Or perhaps it means you, Watson, and Sherlock get to figure it all out as you examine the evidence.

The important thing is to write a cohesive story that you have fun writing. If you don’t enjoy it, neither will your readers. One caution I will say: If you are writing about a very complicated crime, I recommend you do something to keep all the facts of the case straight. If you don’t, you might end up saying there was a footprint outside the window at the end of the story when at the beginning you mention there isn’t a window in the room at all. Little details like that.

No matter how you write your story, I wish you luck and may your mystery surprise you in some fun way.


The Indie E-Con is still happening. Please go see the other articles and events happening over on Giraffe Crafts: https://kendrasgiraffecrafts.blogspot.com/p/indie-e-con.html

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6 thoughts on “Writing a Mystery Without an Outline

  1. sarahtps says:

    As a pantser/plantser, it’s really encouraging to hear that it is possible to write a mystery without an outline (or at least without a detailed one). Thanks muchly!

  2. It’s always a good reminder to know that there’s no “right” way of doing things in the writing world. Everyone has their style and strengths.

  3. Katja L. says:

    I like your take on mysteries, Faith! Lol. I’m doing a 100-for-100 right now – writing only 100 words or thereabouts for 100 days straight. I took a random mystery idea I had and went off with it. I know my villain and a tiny bit what he does – but that’s basically it. I’m totally pantsting. šŸ˜‰

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