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Recipe for a mystery: Engage students in writing this fall with a mystery mini-unit

Football, apple cider, corn mazes, and… mysteries!

While you might be cracking open the spine on your own Stephen King novel, fall is also the perfect time to teach your students how to write a mystery.

Mystery writing is the perfect mini-unit to slide between two bigger grade level writing units to give students a little mental break and some fun.

While upper elementary students might be familiar with reading mysteries, chances are they haven’t had many opportunities to write one, so I like to give students a recipe for mystery writing.

Recipe for a Mystery


Start with your mystery ingredients. These are the classic elements of mysteries that you want students to include in their writing. You want to clearly define these terms and make sure students understand the role they play in a mystery.

Some ingredients you could choose to include are:

  • Detective: the character trying to solve the crime
  • Suspect: a character the detective is suspicious of
  • Culprit: the character who committed the crime
  • Crime: the problem in the mystery
  • Clues: the hints the author gives about who the culprit is
  • Evidence: proof the culprit committed the crime

What’s in your cupboard?

Once students understand the important components to include in a mystery, you can provide them some possible ideas to get their mystery started.

I like to think of this part as the items in their cupboard they could choose to include in their mystery recipe or they could leave out.

These could be separated into ideas for characters, settings, crimes, and clues.

Some possible items in your cupboard could be:


  • an eccentric inventor
  • a doll collector
  • a ten year old with a bad habit of lying


  • the woods behind a school
  • 2 am
  • a street with only two houses


  • a stolen family portrait
  • cryptic messages left on a doorstep
  • a priceless item that’s been replaced with a fake


  • feather or animal hair on clothing
  • a bad alibi
  • shirt seen by a witness

Students can mix and match elements that jump out to them as they get ideas for an intriguing mystery.


This kind of writing requires a lot of preplanning. Students benefit from clear steps for writing a mystery in the form of a recipe.

Step One Decide on characters, setting, and crime and jot them down in an organizer.

Step Two Decide on the culprit and their motive.

Step Three Determine what clues to include and when to introduce them.

Step Four Write from the beginning, weaving in the mystery elements throughout.

Step Five End with a solution that reveals the culprit and motive.

Give students some spooky paper and watch as they catch that mystery writing bug.

If you want a more complete mystery recipe with even more ideas for your students, check out my recipe for a mystery writing mini-unit!

With this mini-unit you’ll be kicking back with a pumpkin spice latte and a stack of student-written mysteries in no time!

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