Mystery Writing for Kids: A Case for Reading First

For great mystery writing, read first. As kids explore short passages, explain how to map the clues. Then, put the skill to use. As a culmination to your unit, encourage them to map and write their own detective stories.

Ms. Sneed Culminates Her Mystery Unit

Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, was ready to wrap up her mystery unit. “Whew! Our students have read short mysteries, done a ton of fun activities, and read a novel,” she said to her co-teacher. “Now on to writing!”

“I’d like my kids to write full-blown detective stories,” said Mr. Frank.

“Okay, let’s get started.”

Begin by Mapping Stories

“We’ve already taught them how to map a mystery,” Mr. Frank continued. “So they understand the elements:

  • something missing, a crime, or another unknown
  • solid clues that lead the reader to the solution
  • red herrings (false clues) that make the story ambiguous, or unclear
  • a main character who is not the suspect
  • suspects who have motives, or reasons to have done it, as well as opportunity”

“Yep. They’ve had plenty of practice finding clues and write them on an organizer.”

Before your students write mysteries, ask them to map short stories. This way, your fourth and fifth grade students will understand elements and use of a flow chart when planning writing.

Are you feeling “pinspired”? Feel free to pin images from this post.

“That prepared them to write their own mysteries,” said Ms. Sneed. “I can’t imagine jumping into this project without plenty of practice first.”

Brainstorm Mystery Writing Ideas

Mr. Frank pulled some pages from his bag. “I’d like to use this writing unit. For a mapped mystery, students first brainstorm. One of my students let me keep her paper from last year.” He slid it across the table to Ms. Sneed.

“Oh, this corresponds to the reading passages and detective activities we’ve already done,” she said.

When writing mysteries, have your fourth and fifth grade students brainstorm writing ideas.

Plan Mystery Writing

Mr. Frank handed his teaching partner another page. “After brainstorming, it’s time for each child to map and write his/her own mystery story. It’s narrative writing at its best!

“First, kids explore ideas for writing. What problem, mystery, or crime will be the focus of the story?

“Second, they choose a setting. I ask then to consider clues that might be positioned in the setting.

“Third, they develop characters. Of course, they must include multiple suspects with motive and opportunity.

“Fourth, they map the mystery. I ask them to include at least three clues and a red herring.

“Just like reading mysteries, writing them requires critical thinking. Do the clues clearly lead to the solution? Do the red herrings provide just the right amount of obscurity? Does the dialogue provide insight to the characters and move the plot along? I’ve found that my students grow as thinkers and writers with this activity.”

To plan mystery writing, use a flow chart. Ask your fourth grade and fifth grade students to plot the problem, clues, red herring, and solution.

“Very impressive!” said Ms. Sneed. “This mystery writing activity is challenging. But the graphic organizers will help my students get there. I’m in!”

Try Mystery Writing with Paper Bags

Later, Ms. Sneed paged through the mystery writing unit. She read the description of a second activity:

Do you want something a little more lively? Try paper bag mysteries. Here’s how it works: Kids pull character, setting, and situation cards from paper bags. Then they concoct a mystery story around those elements. This writing activity is a real crowd pleaser!

“Hmm,” she thought. “A few of my students may have trouble with the full-blown mapped mystery. I think I’ll use this fun project for differentiation.”

For a quick mystery writing activity, use paper bags! Cut up settings, characters, and situations. Then let your fourth and fifth grade students have fun writing!

For Simple Mystery Writing, Make Puzzle Pictures

As she continued to peruse the unit, she found something else: puzzle pictures. This activity would take minimal class time, encourage critical thinking, and would fill that empty bulletin board in her classroom. Ms. Sneed jotted down the steps.

  1. Select a photo. (It can be cut from a magazine or printed.)
  2. Paste the photo on the top of a sheet of paper.
  3. Write or type clues about the person, place, or thing in the photo on the bottom of the paper.
  4. Cut construction paper to cover the photo but not the clues.
  5. Cut a small peep hole in the construction paper to show a little of the photo.
  6. Staple the construction paper to the top of the paper.
  7. Hang on the classroom wall or in the hall. In just a few minutes, kids will be drawn like magnets to the mystery pictures!

Yessir, Ms. Sneed’s class would be doing this activity the next day!

To improve observation, try puzzle pictures. First, find an image. Cut a hole in a piece of construction paper so only a small amount of the picture shows. Then write a few clues. Staple the paper on top of the picture so the clues show at the bottom.

Once again, that happy little teacher smile spread across her face. Activities like this sure made teaching fun.

Enjoy Teaching

Over the course of her career, Ms. Sneed realized that there were 6 steps to enjoy teaching. In order to survive, she had to organize, plan, and simplify. Then, to thrive, Ms. Sneed needed to learn, engage, and finally – dive in! Follow the Fabulous Teaching Adventures of Ms. Sneed and learn how you can enjoy teaching too.

To support distance learning, editable Google Slides are now included in Read, Write, and Think Like a Detective.

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