• <More on Intel.com

Mystery Elements

Mystery Elements

Unit Summary

In this project, students deconstruct the elements of a good mystery by analyzing many books and stories. They use those elements to craft their own mystery stories. The Visual Ranking Tool is used in a pre-writing activity to help students create ordered lists of the elements that make mysteries compelling. The lists can also be used in assessing student writing.

Curriculum-Framing Questions

  • Essential Question
    What drives people to find an answer?
  • Unit Questions
    How do authors plan stories?
    What makes a story compelling?
  • Content Questions
    What elements are most important to create a mystery that will hold your reader's attention?
    What makes writing a mystery different from writing in other genres?
    What are the characteristics of good writing?

Assessment Processes

View how a variety of student-centered assessments are used in the Mystery Elements Unit Plan. These assessments help students and teachers set goals; monitor student progress; provide feedback; assess thinking, processes, performances, and products; and reflect on learning throughout the learning cycle.

Instructional Procedures

Prior to Instruction

Examine the Visual Ranking Tool  as you plan instruction to learn about the tool and how to use it with your students..

Setting the Stage

Divide students into small discussion groups and have them brainstorm possible responses to the Essential Question, What drives people to find an answer? Assign one student to record responses. Bring the groups back together and have them share their answers with the entire class. Tell students that they will continue to explore this question as they work through the unit in order to identify and ultimately use the techniques and elements that drive others to develop a compelling mystery story of their own.

Tell students that they will be reading many types of mystery stories, thinking about the common elements within the stories, and then using these elements to write their own mystery. Prior to beginning the project gauge students’ prior knowledge by leading a class discussion and creating a T-chart comparing and contrasting the elements of a mystery story to other genres.

Post the Unit Question on the board, What makes a story compelling? and ask students to write their thoughts in a journal. Inform students that they will revisit this question throughout the project.

Before the students start reading, lead a discussion on the following topics:

  • Qualities of good writing (for example, create a visual image in the reader’s mind, point of view, plausibility)
  • Literary elements (for example, foreshadowing, characterization, setting, plot, misleading clues), and their role in stories
  • The writing process (pre-write, draft, revise, edit, publish) and strategies on how to write a quality story (reading, talking to someone, drawing, or sketching)

Provide mystery novels or short stories and monitor student selection, suggesting titles when appropriate. Give students a purpose to their reading by asking them to read the stories as if they were writers. Ask students to keep notes in their journals citing examples of where in the stories they find qualities of good writing and discussing the roles of the literary elements in the stories they read.

Allow time for students to read mini-mysteries and compare their structure and elements to the novels and short stories they read previously. Possible questions to help in the comparison: 

  • Which elements do you see in the mini-mysteries? 
  • What is different about the plots, characters, and endings? 
  • Which type of mystery do you find the most compelling? Why?

Ranking Literary Elements

Split students into groups. Ask them to create a list of the literary elements that made the stories gripping and enjoyable to read. To encourage higher-level thinking, ask them to make generalizations about all of the stories they read and to generate a list of elements that are common to all. Have each group present its list. As a class, ask students to agree on 8-12 story elements that should be part of a mystery. If needed, add items to the list to assist students with items for discussion.

Before proceeding with the next activity, click here to set up the Elements of a Mystery project in your workspace.  Revise the current list with the class list. Create teams of two to three students to rank the elements in order of importance. Ask student teams to respond to the prompts:  What elements are most important to create a mystery that will hold your reader's attention? and Why have you chosen to rank the elements in this order?

As teams work, remind them to use the comment feature of the tool to add explanations about why they have ranked the top three and bottom three elements in that order. Ask questions to foster discussion and help students formulate their rationale:

  • Why have you chosen to put the itmes in the order you have?
  • Why do you think certain elements are especially important and others not so important to a story's success?
  • What makes a story compelling?
  • Why do people like different things in a mystery? 


Examine the Visual Ranking Activity

The space below represents one team's ranking using the Visual Ranking Tool.  The view you see is functional.  You can roll over the white icon to see the team's comments and click the compare button to see how different teams ranked the items.

Project Name: Elements of a Mystery (Click here to set up this project in your workspace)
Question: What elements are most important to create a mystery that will hold your reader's attention? and Why have you chosen to rank the elements in this order?

Explore an interactive demo.

Mystery Elements

Once teams have completed their ranking, have them click the "Compare" button, in order to compare and contrast their rankings with their classmates' results. Lead a class discussion about the different reasons groups used to rank their lists. Review each group’s list to clarify any misconceptions and questions that have arisen and give feedback to the students using the comment feature within the tool. Have the groups return to the tool, read the comments, and decide if they’d like to change their original order. If they do decide to change their order, remind them to include reasoning for doing so.


Ask students to set goals for the project by responding to the following questions in their journal:

  • What can I do in this writing assignment that will challenge me as a writer?
  • What problems do I usually have trouble with when I write, and how am I going to deal with them?
  • How am I going to use my writing strengths in this project?

Before students begin working individually to plan their own mystery story, introduce the class to the Mystery Short Story Rubric to help guide them during the writing process. Pose the Unit Question, How do authors plan stories? and ask students to share their ideas with the whole class. Then ask the students to meet with their small groups to brainstorm story ideas.

Have students plan their story idea using graphic organizers, lists, timelines, storyboards, or any technique that works for them. Observe students as they work, asking questions, and taking notes on their progress.

After students have generated their initial story ideas, bring the focus back to the ranked lists of literary elements. Ask students to meet in small groups to get feedback on ways to incorporate the important elements in their stories. They can then refine and elaborate their plan by using the suggestions from their peers.


As students create the first draft of their story, remind them to review their notes on the characteristics of quality writing. Have students create their rough draft using paper or word processing software.

Set up conferences with the students during the drafting stage. The most important consideration during this stage is structure and organization. Use Sample Conference Questions to guide these discussions.

Editing and Revising

Through observation and conferences, monitor student understanding, and provide mini-lessons as needed (for example, using vivid verbs, creating detailed descriptions, building suspense, incorporating misleading clues effectively). Have students meet in writing groups and use the Peer Editing guide to provide feedback on the story draft. Then ask students to revise their stories using what they’ve learned from the mini-lessons, peer and teacher feedback, and the project rubric.

Publishing and Sharing the Mysteries

After publishing, have students read each others’ stories. Ask the student readers to write a response to the author that addresses the Essential and Unit Questions:

  • Which parts of the story were the most compelling? Give your reasons, and cite specific examples.
  • How did the story drive you to find the answer? or if it did not, how might the author improve the story in this regard?

To celebrate the publications, post the stories to a class Web page, email to epals, or share with other classes in the school.

Assess student work using the Mystery Short Story Rubric and share the results with the students. To wrap up the unit, have students complete a self-reflection in their journals.

Prerequisite Skills

  • Basic word processing and desktop publishing skills
  • Basic understanding of the elements of literature, such as plot, setting, and characters

Differentiated Instruction 

Resource Student 

  • Read short story or easier to comprehend novel.
  • Work in pairs to create short story instead of individually. 
  • Use the dictation feature in a software application to assist creating the story and talking text to assist in editing the student work.

Gifted Student 

  • Challenge students with a more difficult mystery novel.

English Language Learner 

  • Allow the student to complete work in the student’s first language and then have it translated into English later.
  • Have a more proficient bilingual student help the English language learner.
  • Create a story template to guide the writer’s process.
  • Pair the student with others during project work when the language load indicates this and while completing visual parts of the project independently.

Use the talking text feature in a software application to assist in editing the student work.


A classroom teacher participating in the Intel® Teach Program developed the idea for this unit plan. A team of teachers expanded the plan into the example you see here.

Mystery Elements

At a Glance

Grade Level: 6-8

Subject: Language Arts

Topics: Literary Elements, Writing, Mystery

Higher-Order Thinking Skills: Metacognition, Generalization

Key Learnings: Writing process, Writing components, Using mystery literary elements

Time Needed: 4 weeks, 45-minute lessons, 3 times per week