Robin Newman: Plotting a Mystery for Young Children: Leave a Crumb Trail of Clues and GIVEAWAY

You’ve tuned into Dragnet. The opening music begins, da da dum dum, and the narrator sets the stage with the introduction:

“Ladies and gentlemen, the story you’re about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.”[1]

After the introduction, Sgt. Joe Friday jumps right into the scene with that wonderful deadpan monologue.

“This is the city. Los Angeles, California. I work here. I’m a cop. It was Tuesday, April 7th. It was cold in Los Angeles. We were working the day watch out of accident investigation division, hit and run felony unit. My partner is Frank Smith . . .”[2]

newman1Television, more than any other medium, has created expectations for viewers and readers of mysteries. Dragnet viewers know exactly what’s going to happen next because the structure of the story and how it unfolds never change. Writing a mystery for young children isn’t very different when it boils down to plot. A children’s mystery is generally going to follow the tried and true formula used in adult mysteries.

Plot is the roadmap of your story. It’s the events that take place and the order in which they occur. As a mystery writer, your goal is to guide your junior investigators onto a path that will help them crack the case. To do so, you need to plan out your story from beginning to end. Often, in adult mystery novels, a classic 12-chapter approach is used. If you’re writing a transitional reader or early chapter book, this needs to be condensed into six to eight short chapters.

[1] Dragnet 1951 (posted on YouTube by Mill Creek Entertainment).

[2] Id.

Introduction and Chapter 1

Open up a Case File

At the outset, introduce your investigators and establish the crime. Who are your investigators? Are they hardboiled mouse detectives? Or, are they more like Nate the Great or Jack and Annie from The Magic Tree House? What’s their relationship? As you delve into the story, you’ll develop your investigators’ roles and characters.

Likewise, from the get-go you need to find out what happened at the crime scene. “Get the facts and just the facts . . . . ” For example:

“Wilcox, here. Headquarters.”

“Hello, this is Miss Rabbit.”

“How can I help you?” I asked.

“My cake is gone.”

“What cake?” I asked.

“The cake I baked for my party tomorrow!”

“Stay calm, ma’am. We’ll be right there,” I said, “Captain, we’ve got a Code 12—a missing cake!”[3]

[3] The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake, A Wilcox & Griswold Mystery, Robin Newman and illustrated by Deborah Zemke (Creston Books, 2015), Ch. 1, at 2.

Chapter 2

The Crime Scene

Your investigators arrive pronto at the scene of the crime.

“Detective Wilcox and Captain Griswold, MFIs” I said, flashing my badge, “Can you please tell us what happened?

While questioning the victim and examining the crime scene, your detectives will start figuring out the who, what, where, when, and how. At the top of their to-do list is identifying potential suspects. In an early chapter book, you only need three or four suspects at the most. You don’t want to overcomplicate the plot, but at the same time, the story needs to be challenging enough to make your readers want to read more.

newman2In The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake, I have three prime suspects: Fowler, Porcini, and Hot Dog. Each suspect accuses someone else of being the culprit. By setting up the plot this way, it makes it easy for the detectives to go from one suspect to the next, and move the story forward. But the same technique can be used by having each suspect highlight a clue for the detectives to focus on as the story progresses.

At this time, the detectives also begin the task of collecting physical evidence. They tape off the crime scene area, dust for prints, and take photos. As a writer, you need to leave a crumb trail of easy clues, as well as some red herrings to keep your savvy investigators on their toes.

Chapters 3 and 4

Suspects and Clues

This is the meat of the story. This is where your detectives learn who had the motive, means, and opportunity to carry out the crime. They talk to witnesses, interrogate suspects, gather more evidence, and follow up on clues that will lead them straight to a brick wall and back to square 1. But when all hope seems lost, this is a major opportunity for your detectives and readers to reexamine the evidence. It’s a chance for your junior detectives to take note of facts that they may have missed earlier on in the investigation. Not to mention, an opportunity for them to re-strategize and develop Plan B.

One way to slow down the reader to take note of an important fact or to emphasize a clue is by having one character repeat or slightly modify what another character has said. For instance:

“And then she took a walk in her pajamas.”

“In her pajamas?” I asked. “That’s odd. Where did she go?”[4]


“But she sure was acting like a funny bunny.”

“Funny ha ha or funny odd?” I asked.

“She didn’t say a word—not even a peep when I asked if she wanted a nice hot cup of slop! And she was still wearing her pajamas. . . .”[5]


Even a comment by an investigator can slow down the reader to take note of an important fact.

“Where were you when the cake was taken?”

“I was taking a quick catnap.”

Hmm. . . a catnap. Such an odd thing for a bunny to do.[6]

Repetition is a pacing device that can help slow down the plot. In comedy writing, this is a technique that’s frequently used. But you should always think of plot in terms of elements that will move your story forward. The one exception would be red herrings, which are intentional story diversions.

[4] Id. Ch. 3, at 13.

[5] Id. Ch. 3, at 16.

[6] Id. Ch. 2, at 9.

Chapter 5

Plan B and the Big Reveal

newman6The investigation’s taken a new direction. Using what new information your detectives have found, they rush to catch the culprit before he or she strikes again. And when that big moment is about to happen, you want to slow down the text. Don’t give the big moment away too quickly. You want your characters, not to mention your readers, sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to find out whodunit.

In The Case of The Missing Carrot Cake, Detectives Wilcox and Captain Griswold try to catch their cake thief red handed, or frosting handed as the case may be, with a good old-fashioned stakeout and video surveillance. When it’s finally time to view the two videotapes, the first tape doesn’t work. But when they show the second video tape . . . .

The room was silent.

“There’s nothing on this tape,” cried Miss Rabbit.

“Patience. It’s still rolling,” I said, when the tape picked up the presence of a shadow.

“I can’t watch!” screamed Porcini.

“Me, neither!” cried Hot Dog.

“Who?!” hooted Fowler.

“Quiet!” I shouted.

The captain shot everyone his “or else” look.

 And then the blurry image of a figure appeared.

“Is it over?” screamed Porcini.

 “I’m scared!” cried Hot Dog. “Who?!” hooted Fowler.

“Shush!” I shouted.

The captain glared his “be quiet” look.

The figure slowly came into focus.[7]

A mishap or two right before the big reveal adds tension to the scene and makes the big aha moment really stand out.

[7] Id. Ch. 5, at 30.

Chapter 6

Case Closed

At long last, the case is solved. It was a piece of cake after all. It’s an opportunity for the detectives to recap, clarify, and explain how they figured out how the crime was committed. But just as in writing a picture book, you want to leave something extra that will spice up the last scene in the book. A twist at the end or touch of humor is a great way to do this. In The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake, Hot Dog saves the day. He made an extra cake for Miss Rabbit’s party, but once everyone takes a bite, they realize the cake is crunchy. Nobody’s ever had crunchy carrot cake. That’s because it’s Hot Dog’s secret ingredient: dog biscuits. And sure enough, everyone loses their appetite and the only ones eating are Porcini and Hot Dog. They finish every last crumb, and that’s how you make a cake disappear.


If you follow the tried and true formula of plotting a mystery, you’re bound to come up with a winner of a transitional reader or early chapter book. Remember to also pay attention to the age of your reader, vocabulary, word counts, the complexity of your story, and last but never least, have fun!

HIGH RES. 20140513_robin_newman_0051Raised in New York and Paris, Robin Newman is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the City University of New York School of Law. She’s been a practicing attorney and legal editor, but she prefers to write about witches, mice, pigs, and peacocks. She lives in New York with her husband, son, goldfish, and English Cocker Spaniel, who happens to have been born on the Fourth of July. Stop by her website, visit her blog, or follow @robinnewmanbook on Twitter. You can also find her on FACEBOOK.

Robin is giving away three copies of The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win her book, 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 Robin’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

If you haven’t registered for #KidlitSummerSchool yet click HERE.





157 comments on “Robin Newman: Plotting a Mystery for Young Children: Leave a Crumb Trail of Clues and GIVEAWAY

  1. Rachel H says:

    Thanks, Robin, you make mystery writing fun! I remember how much my son loved mysteries when he was learning to read. I might just play around with some ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for taking some of the mystery out of mystery writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Melanie Ellsworth says:

    Robin – I like the way you opened this post with the Dragnet reference. It’s a good reminder that kids, like adults, enjoy a comfortable, familiar set-up, especially in a mystery.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Keila Dawson says:

    And true, who doesn’t like a good whodunit! A very detailed look at plotting a mystery story for young readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. writeknit says:

    I love a mystery and began reading them when I was very young. Maybe it is time to try my hand at writing one. Thanks so much for plotting the process 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I was pretty sure the butler did it. 😉 Thanks for the tips, Robin!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. starting out with a case file – what a cool idea! The who’s, the what, the when, the where, and the why… all in one manilla folder with [MAJOR CRIMES] stamped on the front.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Doreen Duren says:

    Loved your Dragnet beginning and using a case file. Thanks !

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for explaining in six chapters, how a mystery is plotted, Robin. The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake is a favorite book of mine.
    ~Suzy Leopold

    Liked by 1 person

  11. kpbock says:

    What a fabulous breakdown of how to write a mystery!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Trine says:

    Fun, Robin! I have not tried to write a whole mystery for kids, but I want to. Thanks so much for laying out a plotting plan.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Caroline says:

    Love this! Thanks for breaking down the pacing in one of your books for us, and I especially love how you make sure there’s extra suspense right before the big reveal in chapter 5. That’s a great tactic to remember!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi Robin! Thanks for this fantastic post on structuring a mystery for young readers! Although I’m working on a mg novel, I may just add a little mystery as a subplot.
    Also, I thought your face looked so familiar. . . We are both alumna of ND! 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • rnewman504 says:

      How wonderful! What year are you? The new ND is beautiful. So different from 79th street. (I dare say, it felt like a real school. :)) I was there this past year for alumnae career day. Had a wonderful time chatting with some aspiring YA writers.


      • Hi Robin! I graduated in 1986. So wonderful you had a chance to visit! I’ve only seen the new building online, and yes, it looks like a real school; a far cry from the “brownstone” we used to attend. Will always have fond memories of chez nous. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  15. Wish I’d had this before I wrote my entry for the Highlights Mystery contest. 😉 What a fantastic hands-on lesson, Robin…just the kind I love – with examples throughout so I can understand EXACTLY how to apply the steps. You are a master teacher!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. DebbieL says:

    Thanks. Very helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Heather Pierce Stigall says:

    Great advice on how to write a mystery. Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. sharon giltrow says:

    Thanks Robin now I know how to write a mystery, you make it sound easy but I guessing it’s not 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Wow, thank you for the sensational how-to.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Mystery writing looks like fun and you’ve laid it out in a very understandable way. Thank you, Robin!

    Liked by 1 person

  21. angelcat2014 says:

    This is a really fun breakdown of mystery writing. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. mwebb32 says:

    Thanks for the tips on writing mysteries!

    Liked by 1 person

  23. Cindy Fullmer says:

    Such a simple formula. I haven’t attempted a mystery yet. This really spells it out. Maybe I’ll try one. Sounds fun! Thank you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Darshana says:

    This was great. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Anne Lipton says:

    Thanks for a great post on plotting a mystery, Robin. Your book has special resonance for me as my sister-in-law is a pastry chef and baked our wedding cake—and one of the layers went missing out of the hotel kitchen. Dum-dum-dum! The mystery remains unsolved, but as in your tale, we had a back-up cake. We displayed and cut that and were able to serve our guests what remained of SIL’s. For the past eighteen years, we’ve assured couples not to worry if anything goes “wrong” at their wedding—because that’s the story you’ll tell, happily ever after.

    Liked by 2 people

  26. Laurie Young says:

    Very interesting . . . thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  27. Robin, thank you for presenting your tips in such a fun way!

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Joanne Sher says:

    Great tips – feel like I have all I need if I should venture into this genre. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Zainab says:

    Thanks for your great post! I particularly enjoyed how you utilized your chapters to make the story interesting. Thank you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  30. Andrea B says:

    Thank you for the step-by-step guide for key plot points. I’m not writing a mystery, but I can see these points being used for thriller and action novels, as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Anita Banks says:

    Love a good mystery, thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Mary McClellan says:

    Thanks for this great post! I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a mystery and this sounds like it might just be fun…in addition to hard work, of course. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  33. Janet Smart says:

    This is great advice. I’ve always wanted to give mystery writing a try.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. SevenAcreSky says:

    Your points on suspense construction are perfect. Thanks for such great guidance on mystery building.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. hethfeth says:

    Love Robin’s detailed advice for writing in this genre. Hm…time to cook up a mystery?

    Liked by 1 person

  36. Margaret Greanias says:

    What a fun post. I’ve been wondering how to write a mystery and this blog post was a great read. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  37. Val McCammon says:

    The outline you give is terrific and the text you use from your own work as example really show how to make it work. Thanks, Robin.

    Liked by 1 person

  38. *Still giggling* The dialogue in your story is such fun! (Oh, and I loved your suggestions for writing mystery too!) I especially liked how you mentioned that ALL mysteries follow the basic formula. School should use mysteries in the classrooms more! Even students/children at young ages need exposed to the same basics in their mysteries so that as they develop as readers they can predict better. Thanks again for the fun and insightful post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • rnewman504 says:

      Juli, I just wrote a conference proposal on this very topic! The mystery genre (and in particular a richly illustrated mystery written for young children where text and art work in tandem to engage students at various reading levels) helps children become active readers and learners. It helps them make predictions, assess important from less important facts, question, etc. On my website, I have a teacher’s guide that accompanies the book. It includes a number of exercises that support a classroom mystery genre study if you’re interested. Many thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  39. Juliana Lee says:

    Seems like a mystery well plotted deserve a great big piece of carrot cake! Yum!

    Liked by 1 person

  40. Priya says:

    I love carrot cake and whodunits.

    Liked by 1 person

  41. writersideup says:

    I love this step-by-step outline of how to do this, Robin 🙂 And I have to say it again—I LOVE the name “Porcini” lol Your book is wonderful and so are you. Thanks for this!

    Liked by 1 person

  42. This is a great chapter-by-chapter outline. I also write chapter book-short mysteries.I’d love to know your word count. Mine always seem to range between 2000-4000 words… a very weird length, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • rnewman504 says:

      Marcia, That’s exactly the range for my books. The second book in the series, The Case of the Poached Egg, is around 4,000. Wish it were a bit shorter. There definitely seems to be a need, and market, for transitional readers/early chapter books to help kids make the leap to longer texts.


  43. MaDonna says:

    Thanks for the chapter-by-chapter outline for writing a mystery early chapter book. I was doing some research on this genre a few months ago and noticed the number of chapters, but this helps even more.

    Liked by 1 person

  44. ptnozell says:

    Thank you for setting out the rules of mystery writing so clearly. It’s no mystery now why you write mysteries so successfully!

    Liked by 1 person

  45. susanzonca says:

    Love having the bones for fleshing out a mystery.

    Liked by 1 person

  46. Dawn says:

    Thanks for sharing. I cant wait to read The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake.

    Liked by 1 person

  47. Lauri Meyers says:

    Looking forward to The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake!! Congrats:)


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