[Zetta’s Reference Desk] – How to Write a Mystery by Larry Beinhart

Title: How to Write a Mystery

Author(s):  Larry Beinhart

Year Published: 1996

Pages: 225


I’m continuing with the genre reference theme with a how-to book about mystery writing. I love reading mysteries from cosy to thrillers because I like trying to solve them. Even if the person “whodunit” is known early in the story, it’s still fun to see how they will be punished in the end.


Larry Beinhart is an Edgar Award-winning author and his book How to Write a Mystery is quite comprehensive when it comes to discussing the nuts and bolts of constructing a mystery story, but also other elements such as dealing with sex and violence that these stories can contain.


Narrative Drive

This is the first element Beinhart addresses because it affects the entire story. “Narrative drive is what sells books,” he says. So what is it and how do you apply it?

“The best way to discover narrative drive is to read material you can’t put down, but you don’t know why.”

In addition to making the reader want to read, narrative drive inspires action by forcing the character(s) to act, thereby advancing the plot. It is the action and reaction to obstacles faced by the characters as they try to reach their goal.



In my opinion, coming up with a story and then plotting it out in an intriguing way to keep the reader’s attention. There’s a plethora of books about plotting a story or novel. In How to Write a Mystery, Beinhart breaks it down into two types: the Journey and the Contest.

Using some helpful illustrations help convey these ideas. The Journey being perhaps the easiest structure because it is goal oriented and involves a character getting from Point A to Point B, dealing with obstacles in between; whereas the Contest sets up two people or forces in opposition and can present a more complex scenario. There’s a strike/counterstrike feel and Beinhart uses a sporting event as an example where one team tries to advance while trying to anticipate what the opposite team will do next.

Beinhart suggests an exercise where you take your favorite mystery and break it down into an event-by-event outline.



Like I mention above, coming up with a story isn’t always easy for me. Beinhart suggests four resources: “ourselves, the news, other people, and previous books.”

“The truth is stranger than fiction.” I think that’s a good thing because if it’s based on truth, it’ll be hard for someone to say it is impossible. Take a current or historical news event and steer it in a new direction and see what happens.

Unlike writers of erotica who are often asked if they write from personal experience (see How to Write Erotic Fiction), most of us have never committed a (serious) crime. So how is it possible to write what you know—if you don’t know it? Beinhart suggests looking deep within yourself and playing up on those parts of yourself that’s both good and bad. Basically, you should allow yourself to develop your alter ego(s) and have fun with it.

When it comes to looking at other people as a source of inspiration,

“You take someone you know and put him or her in radically different circumstances.”

How many times have we, as writers, hear that when it comes to writing a story, “It’s all been done before.” Perhaps. But Beinhart encourages you to read those mystery authors you enjoy and learn from their example. And don’t let the idea discourage you from your dreams of literary greatness.

“These will be called, if you ever become a literary figure, your influences.”

So how do you “steal” from the great writers of the genre without being accused of plagiarism? Beinhart asked himself this question when trying to translate a classic tale of mystery into a contemporary piece:

“…how would the times have made things different?”

He then goes to show how he took a current event and framed it around a classic noir mystery.



I think that, with few exceptions, you can write sex into anything. The important questions are whether or not it fits within the story and the characters involved. It can’t be forced or contrived. Then there’s the heat level of the sex act itself. Is it soft and romantic or rough and hard?

In addition to revealing how other writers deal with sex in their stories, Beinhart shares his personal opinions about sex (or the lack of sex) in mysteries, including an experience where he really wants a certain sex scene that his editor wanted watered down.

Since this how-to book was published in the mid ’90s, things may have changed somewhat, but to be honest, I don’t really think so. You will get purists from all sides, writers, readers, editors, and publishers who do not want sex in their mysteries. To each, his/her own. But for Beinhart, when it comes to sex in general and with regard to mysteries,

“There is, without doubt, a new puritanism, a group mind that sees sex as one of the forces of evil, to be feared.”



Beinhart divides violence into three categories: good fun, satisfying revenge, repulsive/threatening.

“In fun violence, the bad guys are…one-dimensional, soulless. Satisfying violence [we] take pleasure in the fact violence is taking place, it’s who it’s done to that makes us happy…Repulsive and/or threatening violence is what is done to good people. It has two functions. One is to upset the reader…The other is to motivate action.”

I think it’s the last bit—having bad things happen to good people—that many writers (myself included) can struggle with. It can be hard to do when you’ve given birth to a character and nurtured it in the world. But then again, life is hard. If you’re not going to challenge your characters in any way, why should anyone read your story? Let them get beat up, physically and/or emotionally. You can treat them to an ice cream when it’s over…if they’re still alive.


Again, I have only touched on some of the highlights in the book. I’m not trying to write a thesis paper. Other topics inside include:

  • Scene Construction
  • How to Make Characters
  • Research & Details
  • Clarity
  • Procedure
  • Dialogue – (see what he says about characters hissing and moaning)
  • Heroes & Heroines – “They are good and bad in the terms you—the writer—set in your universe.”

Although I have a few other books on how to write mystery, Beinhart’s book is the one I refer to the most.


©2015. Zetta Brown. All Rights Reserved.

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