Jennifer Latham: Building a Mystery–Plotting the Perfect Whodunnit for Older Readers and GIVEAWAY

So you’ve read Robin Newman’s great piece on plotting mysteries for younger readers, and you’re good to go on the basics of setting up your mystery—scattering clues and red herrings, wrapping things up with a big, satisfying bang.

But what if you’re aiming for an audience that craves the juicy stuff – you know…sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll (or maybe just first kisses, frappucinos, and Spotify). For older readers, your plot will need substantial complexity, your character development should have a long arc, and your sleuths will need to find themselves in sticky situations where the stakes are intense – maybe even life and death.

So where do you start?

First, you need a solid premise and an intriguing character or two to draw readers in. For Scarlett Undercover, I went with:

  • Wisecracking Muslim girl detective in classic hardboiled mold
  • Vulnerable little girl client presents case that’s not so simple as it seems—a suicide that was actually a murder

Latham book coverOnce I have my primary mystery in place, I decide “whodunnut” and what will need to be revealed for the mystery to come full circle. It’s kind of like doing a Google Maps search, where you have to know the beginning and end points before you can start driving. For the most part, the route in between is going to look like the mountain climber plot chart we all know and love. But here’s the trick: when you’re writing a mystery, your plot chart and your clues are interdependent, but need to be strong enough to stand on their own. In other words, clues aren’t plot, but your plot can’t advance without intriguing clues.

I make up most of my clues as I go. But before I start writing, I settle on 3-4 major pieces of information that my detective will need to discover. For example, in Scarlett, one of my major bits of info was that the boy who died had joined a cult. Scarlett learned this over the course of several scenes, through suspect interviews and texts she retrieved from the dead boy’s phone. In other words, multiple clues revealed the important fact that the dead boy had joined a cult.

Once I decide on my beginning, end, and 3-4 major clues, my pre-writing is basically done. I’m not an outliner; if I try to map out specific chapters ahead of time, I WILL sink into a grumpy puddle of rumination and stagnation. If outlines are your thing, though, bravo! Map out your story, seed in those clues, and figure out exactly how your main characters are going to grow and change over the course of the novel. But be warned: teenage characters are moody little suckers with a tendency to do things you don’t expect. So give yourself permission to stray from the outline as you go, and to make as many new versions as you need.

As for me, once my figurative Google Map is set up (Starting Point + Desitation + A Few Must See Stops Along the Way), I hit the road. That means I build the plot scene by scene, keeping in mind that every chapter and sub-chapter needs a good balance of the following elements to keep things humming along:

  • Action that advances the plot
  • Dialogue that advances the plot
  • Character development shown through my characters’ actions and decisions, not through exposition.
  • Clues or the precursors to clues (e.g., find the key that opens the safe deposit box that contains the map that will lead to the old warehouse with the hidden room where the antique locket with the picture of the murderer’s grandmother is hidden…)

This is the process that works for me. I like it when my characters force me to take detours and back roads instead of doing 75 on a major interstate all the way to my climactic scene. That said, quirky side trips and back roads cannot, cannot, cannot drag down your plot or bore your readers. So to be sure I’m keeping things moving, I like to stop every once in a while and re-read what I’ve written, rating each chapter on a 1-10 scale for “excitement.” And by “excitement” I mean that a big clue is revealed, an action sequence takes place, a character faces a major psychological challenge, etc. It’s subjective, but I know excitement it when I see it. And so long as slower chapters (ones I rate a 4 to a 5) are interspersed with more exciting ones (6s-8s), and so long as I have a 9 or 10 in the middle of the book and a 10+ at the climax, I figure things are on track. If I find 1s, 2s, or 3s, I re-work them until they’re at least a 4.

Finally, I can’t stress enough how important it is to be willing to revise as you go. Mysteries are tricky. A clue that seemed subtle when you wrote it into chapter 3 might seem ham-handed and obvious when you get to your climax. Clues you thought you’d practically written in neon might not be obvious to your readers at all. So when you think you’ve got your first draft done (or when you get stuck halfway through and need to recharge), I suggest re-reading what you’ve written and building a new outline based on what’s actually there. Even if you pre-outlined, this can be a really eye-opening exercise.

So to sum up, when you’re building your own MG or YA mystery, try the following:

  1. Set up the basic mystery and decide on what you think it’s resolution will be.
  2. Establish 3-4 major pieces of information your detective will need to learn. How you reveal this information (i.e., through actual clues) can be decided ahead of time, or you can decide as your story and characters develop.
  3. Allow some clues and plot elements to emerge as you write. Your work will feel more spontaneous and organic this way.
  4. Revise as you go. Clues and plot points may need to be moved around as your manuscript progresses.
  5. Be flexible. A particular scene or clue you were POSITIVE you had to include may end up being a dud. Re-write, re-organize, re-think when you need to.

Rest assured that to build a good mystery for teens, you’ll have to tie your brain up in knots of your own devising. But if you can created a story complicated enough to keep readers guessing but not so gnarled that they get lost in the details, you’ll have pulled off something pretty great. And when you do, let me know…I love a good whodunnit.

Recommended Activity
This isn’t so much an exercise as a homework assignment. Pick three mysteries that you’ve enjoyed and/or think are particularly well done. These can be adult, MG, or YA, your choice. I suggest a traditional detective story for teens (Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Hardy Boys), a traditional adult mystery (Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie) and a more contemporary MG or YA mystery. For this, I highly recommend The Westing Game.

Take your time reading each book, creating an outline of the story as you go. List clues as they’re revealed (you may even have to re-read to find them all). Highlight clues in one color on your outline, major plot points in another. See how the author has distributed clues and balanced them with major plot elements. You’ll likely find a fairly tight, well-constructed underlying structure, even though the reader experiences the story as a flowing, organic thing.



Jennifer Latham is an army brat who moved so much as a kid that books were always her best friends. She’s worked as a school psychologist, yoga teacher, Montessori guide, autopsy assistant, and plenty of other things, too. Her debut mystery, Scarlett Undercover, was published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in 2015. Her second, Dreamland Burning, is scheduled for Winter 2017. To learn more about her, you can visit her blog or find her on Facebook or Twitter (@jenandapen)

Jennifer is giving away a signed copy of Scarlett Undercover. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Jennifer’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.