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How To Write A Mystery Screenplay

Adam Scott

This article will discuss how to write a mystery screenplay, highlighting the importance of character and action sequences, while also discussing the subject of ratings.

Writing a mystery screenplay is, perhaps, one of the most daunting tasks for aspiring screenwriters. After all, it’s fairly uncommon to hear of a major film studio casting a mystery script into development, and even if you were to manage to snag one of these jobs, the reality of actually getting your movie made is another matter entirely.

Like any genre of film, mystery scripts have their own specific structure, with some of the core questions that they need to answer – and answer right – being much more ambiguous and detailed than others.

Below, I’ll attempt to explain the process of writing a mystery screenplay, as well as the key elements that you need to concentrate on if you want your screenplay to stand out from the crowd.

The plotShooting for the I Promise Music Video

At the very least, you should have your hero, heroine, antagonist and the “crisis” that will bring them together in the first act. Ideally, this will be in the form of a character. But, if you’re writing a detective story, we can usually safely assume that your detective has more to do with your plot than your protagonist does.

The hero, or detective in your case, will be the driving force of the story. Whether your hero is called Billy St. James or Hugh Beaumont, whether they’re investigating a case with their friend Professor Ulfric or a mysterious murder at a monastery, your main character’s goal is ultimately the same: to solve the mystery and figure out who or what killed the person that they’re after.

The antagonist in the first act is also key to the pacing of your story. There are many ways to plot your story, but you don’t want to give too much away and set the entire plot in motion only for your antagonist to reveal themselves a third of the way through.

So, unless your antagonist is particularly complex and clever, it’s usually a good idea to develop this character throughout your story. And, while the protagonist should be the only character your audience identifies with, the antagonist will need to be someone that audiences can care about – and take to the screen – as a potential audience member.

When writing a mystery script, it’s also vital that you spend time focusing on your hero’s journey. For an audience to empathize with your protagonist, they need to have their own story arc as well.

In other words, your main character must have had a point of view at some point that the audience can empathize with.

And that’s where your central character comes in. They should be the only character that audiences can empathize with.

The hero’s journey is probably the best example of how this principle works in practice. The main character has a series of specific goals that they must achieve in order to get what they want.

In order to successfully complete these goals, however, they will face obstacles. And these obstacles will force them to develop as characters and challenge them on a deeper level than they thought possible.

It is only at this point that the audience can really empathize with the hero, and come to care about their journey. But, before you can have that character arc, you need to introduce your protagonist at the start of your screenplay – preferably as early as possible.

The idea is to let the audience get to know your hero as they’re seeing them through their journey, as if they were an audience member. It’s a way of ensuring that the audience can sympathize with the character in a similar way to how they might empathize with the protagonist of a film.

Then, once the main character’s story has been introduced, you’ll need to introduce your antagonist. And, unless you’re writing a high fantasy story in which the protagonists kill the protagonists, you need to introduce the antagonist fairly early on in the story.

Why? Because you want the audience to have a range of reactions to your villain. By giving them a clearer picture of your antagonist earlier on in your story, you give them a better chance of being invested in them as characters, and cheering for them to take over the story at the end.

Basically, your antagonist is your audience’s foil in the story. They represent the protagonist’s nemesis – the thing that’s stopping them from getting what they want. But the good news is that your audience will generally like your protagonist just as much as they’ll like the antagonist, which means that they’ll have a much more invested interest in the villain than in your protagonist.

So, by introducing your antagonist earlier in the story, you give the audience a clear idea of what they’re up against early on. The primary goal of the villain is to prevent your protagonist from achieving their goals.

So, in essence, the antagonist needs to have a significant emotional impact on the audience, so that they will cheer for your villain’s success.

However, because audiences will have already come to empathize with your protagonist by this point in the story, they will not want the antagonist to succeed, so it’s crucial that you introduce the antagonist at the same time as you introduce your protagonist.

Because it’s vital that you develop your characters before you start writing your screenplay, you’ll need to spend a lot of time thinking about your characters. But you don’t need to do that until you’ve planned out your story and know the beginning, the end, and the middle of your story.

At this point, you can take one of two approachesIsolation Place

The first is to create your characters as you write your story. The story starts out with the protagonist in a situation that’s typical of the situation the character finds themselves in.

So, for instance, a soap opera might start with a character already facing some adversity, who then has to face an external threat to their life, and then face some internal difficulties before the end.

This is the approach I took with my film, When The Smoke Clears. However, the other approach is to design your characters before you write your screenplay.

Here’s an example of this, in a screenplay called Warhead.

The protagonist is a young man who works as a mechanic in a garage, with one of his regular customers being a hard-nosed business man. The business man is due to visit the garage to discuss a business deal.

A problem arises when the business man calls for an extra mechanic to help out.


I personally have always loved mystery movies, especially from the '50s, and have always believed that there is a place for psychological, existential, psychological thriller as well as psychological thrillers.

And that is the core of the discussion here, and the starting point, I have decided to make that my identity for the next few blog posts, as I will use this angle to look at the mystery genre, going from the genre where it has most promise (psychological thriller), to the one that it has the most potential (psychological thriller).

It's a controversial topic, I know, but I feel that it is important to deal with it, to evaluate it, and to discuss what works and what doesn't in the mystery genre, and, most importantly, how you can make your films more effective by exploring the more psychological aspect of it.

For me, a mystery film has to have one of the following attributes:

I'm going to go over each of these points, and go on to the psychological aspect of it, but let me just tell you right now that I am still strongly rooted in the psychological thriller genre.

I love the psychological aspects of psychological thrillers, and I will go into those in more detail in future posts, but for now, here is my take on what makes a good psychological thriller film:

  • It does not start with a punch in the face.
  • This is the film opening of many classic psychological thrillers.
  • It has to be at least a bit mysterious, which is not easy.

Psychological thrillers are usually psychologically based, which makes the initial setup easier for them to go in terms of what the audience knows and what they don't, but it is difficult to establish a mystery through a series of silly moves that do not appear to be hiding much of a big secret.

This is the premise of many psychological thrillers, and it is a tough one to crack, even when you get to the reveal of the central theme.


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