Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.23: The Element of Mystery

Mystery may well be the most common element in use, at least in some form or another, across the many bookshelf genres comprising “fiction.” We discuss the driving force of elemental mystery, how to evoke those feelings in the reader, and the importance of being able to write mystery effectively.

Liner Notes: we mentioned Episode 7.10 in which Mary and Dan interviewed David Brin.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Daniel Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson. 

Homework: Create a crime scene where you know what’s been done, and who has done it.  List the clues that would be present. Then begin removing the ones that characters would not notice. This becomes your framework for a mystery, which you’re essentially outlining in reverse.

Thing of the week: Mrs Roosevelt’s Confidante, by Susan Elijah McNeil, narrated by Susan Duerden.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: A mystery is a puzzle, and we read them for the thrill of solving a puzzle. Mysteries often start when the main character has a question, usually “Why is this dead body here?” Whodunit is one of the common forms of mystery, but there are others. Why are our robots acting screwy? Write a mystery because you are going to need that element in nearly everything you write! Puzzles and clues, oh my! Who did it? Where do the clues lead us? The body at the start creates an immediate question and stakes! Also, especially in the bookstore genre, a body is expected. For a murder to be compelling, there must be something at stake in solving it. Not necessarily a personal stake by the main character — consider Sherlock Holmes and other PIs! Planning a mystery? Start with a question that has multiple answers, for uncertainty. The mystery plot is built on fascinating clues, revealed one step at a time. Plus a healthy dose of red herrings. Dan starts with the solution, then lists clues, and works backwards. Learn ways to plant clues, such as in the middle of a list, with a bit of character misdirection, or as part of something else.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 23.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, The Element of Mystery.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re confused. No, wait, we’re puzzled. We’re… I don’t know what the element of mystery is.
[Brandon] Well, I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I think I’m Dan.
[Garbled And where’s Howard?]
[Howard] I’m Howard, I’m very sure of that.
[Dan] May… Or may not be. [Garbled]

[Brandon] Okay. Mystery. Mystery is one of my absolute favorites. Because I don’t think I’ve written a book that hasn’t had some mystery in it, and it’s really rare that I read a book that doesn’t have some element of mystery in it. This podcast, we’re going to talk about mystery as the main driving force for a story, as the super plot. So what does that mean? What is a mystery as a novel form?
[Dan] It’s a puzzle.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Dan] I think that’s what draws me to mystery more than anything else, is that thrill of solving a puzzle.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah.
[Mary] I think that mysteries tend to start when the main character has a question. Often, it is “Why is this dead body on the floor?” But it doesn’t have to be.
[Dan] It could also be hanging from the ceiling.
[Mary] It could be. That’s right. It could be in a closet. I mean, there’s a lot of different places to put the body.
[Brandon] I mean, we go to the body one, that’s the most common that you will see. When someone says mystery, it’s a whodunit. But one of my favorite science fiction writers is Isaac Asimov. Almost every Asimov story was a mystery. He would outline here are the three laws of robotics. Oh, our robots are doing something screwy.
[Dan] Why is this robot running in a perfect concentric circle endlessly?
[Brandon] It’s a mystery of putting together the clues with the information you have. It really appeals to the mathematical side of your brain, but also to the exploration/adventure side of your brain. If you’re going to discover something new, it’s like the perfect genre.
[Howard] For me, from the writer’s side of things, I think it was when Mary and Dan, you guys interviewed David Brin and he said, “New writers? Write a mystery. Sit down and write a mystery because you’re going to need that element in just about everything you do.” Like you just said. If you can pull that off, if you can build a story around giving us that sense of “Oh, I solve this! Oh, I’m clever. Oh, the author is actually a little more clever than I am, but I’m still very satisfied.” If you can do that, it’s so useful. Terribly useful.

[Brandon] Now, what about the mysteries where you know the answer before the characters do? Have you ever read any of those? How did they work for you?
[Dan] Those can work well. I’ve… There’s a lot of movies and TV series…
[Brandon] That like to do this.
[Dan] That are like this. There was a great TV show called The Fall with Gillian Anderson where you know from the opening scene who did it. You know the bad guy she is chasing. The mystery elements are how is she going to solve the clues.
[Brandon] So does that change it from a mystery into an adventure? Or is it still just a different type of mystery?
[Mary] I’ve always thought that one of the differences between… For me, it would be mystery versus thriller. That one of the things that you’re trying to provoke in the reader with the mystery is trying to figure out what’s going to happen. With a thriller, you know what’s coming and it’s the anticipation of it. So with a mystery, the author needs to be one step ahead of the reader. With a thriller, the reader needs to be one step ahead of the character.
[Brandon] That’s pretty cool. Yeah. And horror, you’re kind of on the same exact page, feeling the sense of dread as it manifests. That’s very interesting.
[Mary] In an ideal world, I think what you want… Like when I’m reading a mystery, the two things I want are I want to try to puzzle it out with the character and feel like I have all of the tools that I need to try and puzzle it out. So I’m in very similar character space, I’m having a very similar character experience. But when they solve it just a moment before I do and it’s that moment of “Ooooh. Of course.”
[Brandon] Right. That is the ultimate experience. Although I won’t discount the “You figure it out a page before the character does” experience also, which can be really, really fun.
[Dan] I think that that element of answering the question, of solving the puzzle, can still be there if you know who the killer is or you know the answer. Because what you’re really doing is you’re going along with the character saying, “Well, I know this guy did it. But how can I prove it?” There’s been a lot of TV shows that have had that as their puzzle solving element, rather than finding the bad guy, but convicting the bad guy.
[Howard] Watching Bones all umpty-whatever seasons…
[Dan] A lot of the forensic shows are like this.
[Howard] A lot of forensic shows are like this. I like Bones because the science for me feels… Even though the pace of getting results back is completely unrealistic. I love… It feels like science fiction to me because the science is a character, and yet at the heart of it, the whole time you’re watching the show, you’re asking yourself, “Who did it? What are the clues going to lead to?” But there’s also the meta… Once you’ve watched a bunch of episodes, which is “Okay. They never… The person who did it is never somebody who’s introduced in Act IV. Who are the characters who are introduced in Act I who possibly could have done this?” I will start spinning on that.
[Mary] I’m going to just make one argument though that when we’re talking about a mystery where we know the killer bef… We know the answer before the character. That’s a case where we’re talking about bookstore genre. But when we’re talking about elemental genre, the elemental genre of mystery, I think one of the parts of it is that it is a mystery to you, too, to you the reader.
[Brandon] Right. And there could be two…
[Dan] My argument is that it’s a different kind of mystery.
[Mary] Okay. Fair. Fair point.
[Brandon] You could say…
[Howard] That might actually be mystery as a subgenre, where what you’re trying to… The puzzle that you are solving is how are they going to arrive at this piece of information.
[Dan] That’s probably what I’m trying to say.
[Howard] That they can’t possibly know. I know it, but they can’t possibly figure this out.

[Brandon] Let’s turn this back to more standard mystery, rather than the tangent. So what kind of… What other elements define it? Often, there’s a body. Why is there usually a body in a mystery?
[Mary] It creates an immediate question and immediate stakes. Because if there’s a body, then someone probably killed them, which means that you have a villain.
[Brandon] Excellent.
[Howard] In the bookstore genre of mystery, I think it’s because the shelf promised you that there would be a body. Does that make sense? For the same reason there’s a horse in a Western. It just… It feels like it is so often there. It’s probably because of the stakes. But it’s very much expected in the bookstore genre.
[Mary] Right. But not at all necessary. But I think what it points us to is that in order for the mystery to be compelling, there has to be something at stake involved in solving it. It can’t just be, “Well, this is an interesting question. I wonder why cats purr?”
[Mary] That’s a question, that’s not a mystery.
[Brandon] That’s a really great point.
[Dan] It has to be a compelling question that will keep you turning the pages.
[Mary] But it also… I will say that it does not… Interestingly, it does not have to be a personal stake necessarily for the main character. Sherlock Holmes being a prime example of this. What he does is he solves mysteries.
[Brandon] Right. But they raise the stakes in those in other ways. You can maybe have… If you’re not going to have it be something really a compelling consequence, then making the main character really involved in it can make it equally powerful. Having a body raises the stakes enough for us that outside investigators can be like, “Oh! My job is to solve this plus people will die. I’m invested.”
[Dan] Well, that’s why one of the most common tropes that you’ll see in like cozy mysteries and stuff is that we’re all trapped here together. We’re in a house all together, we’re on a train all together. We know it’s one of us. Which gives you a compelling reason and it also gives you a sense of danger. If I don’t solve this soon enough, I might be next.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Mary is going to tell us about it.
[Mary] The book of the week is Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante. This is actually book 5 in a series, but you can read them out of sequence. The reason I picked this one is that it’s historical. It’s set in 1941, right after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the main character is Maggie Hope. She’s a special agent to Winston Churchill, she poses as a typist, and then she solves mysteries. It is… They are incredibly charming. Well-written, beautifully paced, and really very classic mysteries. This one, Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante is by Susan Elijah McNeil, and it’s narrated by Susan Duerden. You can pick up a copy at Audible if you start a 30-day trial membership by going to You can grab a copy of Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante as your first book.

[Brandon] Excellent. So let’s dig into how you would go about planning, or starting if you a discovery writer… Well, what we… How you jump into a mystery. This genre… For a long time, I believe that people listed And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie as the best-selling novel of all time. It I think was eventually superseded by the Lord of the Rings books once the films came out and the sales of those. But for a long time, mystery was the most popular… The single most popular novel genre that had ever been. So there’s something about this that people really, really love. How do you go about building one?
[Mary] Well, I think one of the things is you’ve got the question. But when you pose a question, it has to be a question that has multiple possible answers, so that there’s an uncertainty. Which allows… So that the… Because part of the… It is not just I answer this question and answer that question and then there we are. It’s not a single chain. For… It is the… For me, the thing about the mystery is the uncertainty.
[Brandon] Well, in each step along the way… Whatever type of plot you’re using, and mystery is the first one that we really have a definable here are the steps along the way, because the steps along the way for a mystery are the clues. Right? Now every story that you write of every elemental genre, you can substitute clue for something. It’s just not as easily defined, but there’s going to be these steps. Well, mystery, I like what Howard mentioned of saying to new writers, write a mystery because these quantum, if you will, of… These quanta of a… Of the story are so easy to think of. Okay, these are the clues that we’ll have along the way. The trick is, tying into what Mary said, each of those clues need to be fascinating in its own right. They need to change your conception of what’s going on, point you in multiple different directions, intrigue you. The clues need to be as interesting as the eventual resolution is.
[Howard] I’m intimidated by mystery. I think it’s because when I was 12, I picked up a paperback mystery that my grandfather had read, and on the first page, in his handwriting, was the names of all of the characters and page numbers. When I flipped through the book, I realized, “Oh, my gosh. He’s taking notes.”
[Howard] He’s… I was… I thought that that was how a mystery had to be. I thought that it was just impossible to plan that far ahead. And yet… His logic system, my grandfather would always find out who the killer was a page before it was revealed. Because that was the clue that finally narrowed it down from three to one or from two to one or whatever. Building that… I mean, if you want to build it mathematically, I’m sure you can. In the same way that you create a crossword puzzle or a sudoku. But that doesn’t feel like storytelling.
[Mary] Agatha Christie said, and I’m paraphrasing wildly, she was apparently a seat-of-the-pantser. So when she started, she said that at the beginning of the book, anyone could have done it. And that she doesn’t know until the end which of them did it.
[Brandon] So she starts narrowing it down as she writes. She says, “Okay, I’m going to make a clue that makes it so it couldn’t be this person.” That’s really interesting. For me, in developing a mystery, one of the things I look for are the red herrings. I say, “What’s the reader going to assume, because I assume it?” Taking away my knowledge… Then, I try to make sure that these red herrings are legitimate, at least for part of the story. Because if I’m assuming it, and the reader’s going to assume it, it’s good for the characters to assume it and start investigating it that way until they hit that brick wall. But hopefully, the brick wall isn’t just a brick wall, but it is an opening toward “Okay, if this isn’t the case, but we always assumed, something else is going on. What piece did we miss?” It can be a really interesting subplot to do that.
[Howard] I roleplayed How to Host a Murder once, where I was the murderer and I didn’t know it, because that page was stuck together and I just flipped past it, and I’d never played the game before. So people kept accusing me of having done it, and I got way into character and was very passionately telling stories about how “No, there’s no way. I’m not Tarzan. I couldn’t have gone between those balconies in the rain. What are you thinking? Yes, I climb mountains. I would never try that.” They didn’t pick me. We got the wrong person. It was like, “Okay, well, who is the murderer?” I don’t know. They looked at my book. “Howard, you were the murderer the whole time and you didn’t know?” No, I actually didn’t. But as we went back and put the clues together, we realized, “Oh, I… Because I didn’t know, I lied so effectively…”
[Howard] That I puzzled. It’s not that the clues didn’t drop. So when you talk about red herrings, that’s… For me, that’s the most fun, is presenting something so convincingly that it throws you.
[Dan] Now, see, when I plot a mystery, and writing mysteries is what taught me to start at the end. So I figure out what the solution is, and then I love to just kind of make a list of what are the clues that are going to make this obvious. Then work backwards from there and say, “Well, if I take out this one clue, the five that are left, who do they point to?” Then I take out one of those, before that are left, who do they point to? Then throw in some extra red herrings and things, and make sure that there some other clues in there you totally don’t even notice until way late in the book. That gives you a good way of keeping that believability that Mary was talking about. That even when you only know two clues, you’re pretty sure that those two clues point to character X, and it’s plausible.
[Mary] We should actually probably, just for people who are not familiar, define red herring.
[Brandon] Go for it.
[Mary] So red herring is basically a false clue. It is something that looks like it is a plausible clue… It is actually a clue, but the… You draw the wrong conclusions from it. It’s… There are a lot of different ways to plant it. One of the very mechanical, useful tricks for planting a clue and having readers just gloss over it? We tend to notice the first thing in a list, and the last thing in a list, and the things in the middle take on less important. So if you want to plant a clue and you don’t want to draw attention to it, then…
[Brandon] Put it in the middle.
[Mary] Put it in the middle of the list.
[Brandon] Another really good way of doing that is to give the clue, but think… Have the characters think that it points to the wrong thing.
[Dan] Well. Or to give a clue, but make sure that that clue is important for completely unrelated reasons.
[Brandon] Yeah, that’s good.
[Dan] So the reader can think, “Oh, he’s telling us this because of some other thing that has nothing to do with our mystery.”
[Howard] There’s a dog hair found at the scene. Oh, that must’ve come off the clothing of the murderer who owns a dog. No, the dog was actually in the room.
[Dan] The Harry Potter books are all mysteries. They’re all constructed like mysteries. She is brilliant at that. At showing you here is an awesome new magic thing that’s fun and it’s cool and it has to do with this subplot. Oh, and also at the end, we find out that it has to do with the main plot as well.

[Brandon] All right. I have to call the discussion here, although it’s going very well. We will talk more about mystery in a couple of weeks. But for now, Howard has some homework for us.
[Howard] I do. For you seat-of-the-pantser’s, this may be very difficult. For you outliners, this may be equally difficult. I want you to create a crime. Start with… Not in real life, please.
[Howard] Just stay at the keyboard. Create a crime scene. Create a crime that… Where you know who’s done it, you know what’s been done. Start leaving the clues, and work your way backwards through the criminal’s path, through the victim’s path, whatever, and lay clues. Then start removing the clues that people wouldn’t notice, so that you are building… You’re essentially building the framework for a mystery which you could then later wrap prose around.
[Brandon] Right. So outline backwards.
[Howard] Outline it backwards.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.