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

11.26: Elemental Mystery Q&A

In this episode we field some questions about elemental mystery. Here they are!

  • How do you balance between two mysteries in the same story?
  • What types of mysteries can fit well as sub-plots?
  • What do you do when beta readers figure out the mystery really early?
  • In the MICE quotient, are mysteries all “Idea” stories?
  • How do you write a protagonist who is smarter than you are?
  • How do you make sure your genius protagonist is still experiencing an interesting struggle?
  • How do you make a kidnap victim more than just a MacGuffin?
  • How “literary” can you make your mystery?

Liner Notes: The movie Howard referred to is Cellular, with Kim Basinger, Chris Evans, and Jason Statham.

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

Homework: Take a book or film that you enjoy, and write down every mystery you see.

Thing of the week: I Am Princess X, by Cherie Priest, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary:
Q: How do you balance between two mysteries in the same story? Should you even try?
A: Yes. Especially small mysteries. A plot, B plot. Be aware of when you open and close each one, and the proportion of time spent on each. Sequential, with the answer to the first mystery introducing the real problem.
Q: What types of mysteries can fit as subplots? For example, when does a murder work as a subplot rather than as a main plot?
A: Any mystery can be a subplot, just set the scope and number of clues. A subplot find the murderer can heighten tension and build characters. Make sure your murder is a complication, that it changes things for the characters.
Q: When the beta readers all figure out the mystery too early, how can I tweak it so that my readers won’t have the same experience as my beta readers?
A: Ask the beta readers what tipped them off, then take that out. All mysteries in first draft are either too obtuse or too obvious, and you have to add and remove to get it right. A good red herring that gets pulled out from under everyone helps.
Q: In terms of the MICE quotient, do all mystery plots have to be idea based?
A: Yes.
Q: How do you write a protagonist that is smarter than yourself?
A: Use revision, young writer! Accelerated thinking through rewriting. Jump to a conclusion, then explain the process of thought and clues — it was not a guess! Extra mysteries with quick solutions to show how smart we are.
Q: So you’ve made your protagonist really smart, smarter than the average reader and the other characters. How do you still have it be a struggle for them to solve the mystery without losing people or ruining the story just by having it all internal inside of the protagonist’s head?
A: Let them make mistakes. Use red herrings that mislead them, too. Make the cost of being wrong really steep. Lack of resources, or other kinds of obstacles.
Q: How do you keep a kidnapping victim from just being a MacGuffin if they aren’t recovered until the end of the story?
A: Given them a point of view, and agency through trying to rescue themselves.
Q: How intellectually stimulating can you make a genre mystery? How literary or serious can it be?
A: There’s what’s happening (the story) and how you tell it. These are not intrinsically related! You can tell any story with any method. Genre, especially elemental genre, does not dictate method of writing.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 26.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Mystery.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And… [gargle, mumble… garbled]
[Dan] We really aren’t that smart today.
[Howard] Oh, my heavens. Questions are delicious.
[Mary] So the mystery is, “What did Howard say?”

[Brandon] I’m going to throw a question at you guys. How do you balance between two mysteries in the same story? Should you even try? Jesse asks this. I think it’s a great question.
[Dan] Absolutely. Especially if they’re small mysteries. Like we said in the first episode about mysteries, a Harry Potter book will have 10, 12 mysteries in it, all by itself. Even the first one, which was short. So you can add lots of mysteries in there. I suspect by the question that the person is thinking of much larger mysteries, like mystery as main genre and a different mystery as another main genre. That could get tricky, but you could still pull it off.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah, that sounds like an awesome book to me. Tough. But awesome.
[Howard] The simplest format for this is… You can watch it during the second and third seasons of the original CSI, which is the A plot, B plot where the glue for the story is the relationship that these characters are having with each other and there are two different ministries being solved. Sometimes they relate, sometimes they are completely different.
[Brandon] I’m struggling to find an example, but I do know I’ve read books or watched movies where there are two mysteries and the characters don’t know it yet. They think they’re solving the same thing, and then at some point, they’re like, “Oh, these are two different things.” Or the reverse. Two mysteries we’re trying to solve and they’re like, “Oh, wait. These were the same murderer,” or “the murderer did this in order to set up this other murder.” [Garbled]
[Dan] That latter case is much more common, especially in procedural shows like Howard’s talking about.
[Mary] One of the things to do when you’re doing that is to pay attention to the order in which you open and close those mystery questions, and also the proportion of time that you spend on them. So if you open your first mystery, and you’re a third of the way into the book before you open your second one, you need to make sure that you’re allotting yourself enough time to close them both out without leaving the reader feeling like you’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time on one or the other.
[Howard] Often in the traditional three act format, you open with a mystery in Act I, and the solution to the mystery at the end of Act I is “Oh, this is the real problem.” We’ve answered the question with another much larger question.

[Brandon] So this one kind of plays off of that, but I did want to bring it up because I think that I’ve got an interesting answer for it. What types of mysteries can fit as subplots? For example, when does a murder work as a subplot rather than as a main plot?
[Brandon] I think it works… Can work just fine. I think any mystery can be a subplot. You just have to determine the scope of it and the number of clues. I love having like a murder mystery as a subplot when I tie it to one character. In the Wheel of Time books, when I was working on them, I was presented with something like 25 main characters and they all needed to have some involvement in these last three books. I said, “Well, there’s an assassin trying to kill one of the main characters. Let’s have her bodyguard investigate a dead body, because this assassin… Someone ran across the assassin, got killed.” What it did is, it allowed me to have him have a minor plot where he’s investigating the assassin, but it played into this whole larger issue of she’s in danger and the evil forces are working against her and it could work to their relationship because he’s like “I’ve got to protect you.” She’s like “Yeah, but you’re trying too hard, and you’re going to get yourself killed, and then I don’t have any protection.” So this subplot of find the murderer worked beautifully as just a little thing to add in to heighten the tension and the characters.
[Dan] You know… Go ahead, please.
[Mary] The other way that it can work is… We talked at one point about the difference between an obstacle and a complication. If your murder as your subplot is just an obstacle, it just stops things, it’s not very interesting, and it can just feel like something that’s tacked on very transparently to try to raise tension. But if the murder changes things for the characters, which it really should because someone’s dead, then it becomes a complication and that ratchets everything in the story up. So you want to make sure that whoever is killed, that there is actually an effect from that person being dead. It’s not just that there’s a dead body.
[Dan] I was going to say… It occurs to me while you were talking. The third season of The Wire had two brilliantly nested mysteries. There’s the cops who are trying to catch the drug dealers. Meanwhile, one of the drug dealers has killed another one and not told anyone. So the drug dealers are trying to solve this mystery within their own ranks. It adds a lot of attention to that story while they’re being hunted by the cops. Eventually, the cops figured out about the murder and started to investigate that as well. It was just really Byzantine, very complicated, but it worked beautifully.
[Howard] Everybody is the detective in their own murder mystery.

[Brandon] So, Patton asked a question that I find very, very interesting. It looks like they have had a story… I’m paraphrasing because… Where their betas say, “Oh, yeah, we all figured out the mystery way early.” Patton asks, “So how can I tweak it so that my readers won’t have the same experience as my beta readers?”
[Mary] Ask your beta readers what tipped them off, then take that out. Sorry, I’ve done this multiple times.
[Dan] In John Cleaver 5, I sent it to my beta readers and got to the big reveal moment. My friend texted me and said, “Wait, didn’t we already know this? Like three chapters ago?”
[Howard] Whoops.
[Dan] I thought, “Apparently.” That’s how I did it. Well, okay, what tipped you off? What gave this away? She told me the exact conversation, and I changed that conversation.
[Brandon] I don’t think you have to stress this one is much as you might be stressing it, Patton. Because that’s basically how you write every mystery. In the first draft, it’s either too obtuse and nobody gets it and the answer is “Huh?” rather than “Ooh.” And you have to add in more or you take it away. Another strategy I should mention is making another really good red herring, making the characters feel like they’ve figured it out and the readers feel like they’re smart and they’ve figured it out, and then have that get pulled out from underneath them a few chapters before you reveal the real answer.
[Howard] One of the challenges with writing groups… It depends on how you’re running your group. Usually, they’re getting a couple of chapters at a time and they’re reading the book across the space of a month or more. Which is lots of time to figure out what might be happening in the next chapter. If you’ve really engaged them and they spend a lot of time thinking about it, one or more of them is kind of likely to come across “Oh! This would just be an awesome ending that answers the question.”
[Mary] The other thing is… Also, one of the problems with beta readers is that sometimes they’ll forget the clues if you wait too long.

[Brandon] Mary, this one’s kind of more specifically targeted at you. Nathan asks “In terms of the MICE quotient, do all mystery plots have to be idea based?”
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] Okay.
[Mary] Great. Moving on.
[Brandon] Yep.
[Mary] Basically because in the MICE quotient, idea encompasses questions and mysteries are question driven.
[Brandon] Yep. I think that that is right. You can have a subplot that maybe would not be, but even then, that’s the idea.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week.
[Mary] The book of the week is I am Princess X by Cherie Priest, narrated by me! This is… It’s a YA coming of age, but it is also completely a mystery. Basically what happens is young girl… In the first chapter, you find out that her best friend died in a horrific car accident. They had had this cartoon character, Princess X, that they shared and did all of this art and stories about. Now she’s a teenager, and she’s moved to Seattle. Suddenly she’s seeing Princess X cartoons. There’s no way anyone else would know about this character. So she has to figure out why. There’s several actual embedded mysteries within it. It’s fantastic. I’ll also say that it was a mystery for me as an audiobook narrator because the print format of this as a comic book embedded in it.
[Gasp. Chuckles]
[Howard] Oh, man.
[Mary] So we had to figure out how to do that for radio.
[Brandon] I need to read that. Cherie’s one of the podcast’s favorite people. We just absolutely love her. Her books are great. This one sounds great.
[Mary] This is fantastic. I loved this book. So you can pick up a copy at, start a 30 day trial membership. If you go to, you support us and you can pick up I am Princess X as your first book.

[Brandon] Excellent. All right. So, Ryan asks a question that’s… I’m going to break into two parts. Because I think there are two interesting parts to it. The first one is “How do you write a protagonist that is smarter than yourself?”
[Mary] Many, many drafts.
[Brandon] Okay. Because theoretically, the protagonist, the detective, is going to have all these skills. This is one of the classic conundrums of writing, is every person you write is going to be better at something than you are. Remember that many of the ways that intelligence works for human beings… One of the methods is processing speed. Right? I’ve had several friends who are very, very good at this. One of them won Jeopardy, won $3 million on Jeopardy, and things like this. The thing about them is they’re smart, but they also… They have really quick recall and can process really fast. It’s a matter of the stuff that you would figure out in a couple of minutes, they can just snap off. This is a method of making someone more intelligent, because you can accelerate that while writing. Not the only kind…
[Howard] A great example of that, fair listener, if you’re one of those people who 20 minutes after the conversation that was unpleasant, you realize, “Oh, this is the thing I should have said.” But when you write that conversation in your book, your brilliant main character is witty and thinks of that right off-the-cuff.
[Mary] You may have thought of it 20 minutes after…
[Brandon] After you wrote it, you go back and put it in.
[Mary] One of the ways that… To demonstrate this on the page, which is what Brandon is talking about the processing speed, you can make your main character smarter by taking off some of the them figuring it out steps on the page. Which will make it look like they are jumping to a conclusion. You don’t want to take too many of them out, because we do want to see some of their brain. But that moment… You’ve probably read this. Suddenly, the answer came to him. Okay, you don’t want to write that exact sentence, but that’s one of the ways.
[Brandon] This is the core way that every writer of Sherlock Holmes, from Arthur Conan Doyle to the contemporary ones, has shown how smart he is, is he jumps to a conclusion. Everyone says, “Aw, you just guessed.” He says, “No. Clue, clue, clue, clue, clue. See how smart I am.” It is a quick easy scene to show the intelligence of the protagonist by showing their process.
[Dan] One thing that Aaron Sorkin does a lot of his characters… He kind of specializes in fast talking, really intelligent characters, is he’ll add in extra mysteries that can be solved almost instantly. So we’re working on the big one, but meanwhile, I’ll solve these other seven in a couple of minutes each. We go, “Oh, well, that guy’s really smart.”

[Brandon] The second half of Ryan’s question, which I’m kind of adapting a little bit, is so you’ve made your protagonist really smart, smarter than the average reader and the other characters. How do you still have it be a struggle for them to solve the mystery without losing people or ruining the story just by having it all internal inside of the protagonist’s head?
[Mary] You let them make mistakes. This is what the red herring exists for. That your incredibly smart character puts things together in ways that make a lot of sense. He puts them together quickly, and you’re like, “Yes!” Then he’s wrong.
[Brandon] Right. If what he’s come up with, or she’s come up with is something that you’re like “Oh, that was brilliant. That’s kind of where I was going,” and then they’re wrong. The reader’s like, “Oh, now I have no idea.”
[Howard] Having the consequences be steep for being wrong. Accusing the wrong person, who is a wealthy person who has the police in their pocket and now there is… The police are… You’re losing your job or whatever because you got it wrong, adds to the tension of well, wow, you’re really smart, but you really screwed that up because you should have known better than to accuse that person in that way.
[Mary] Which brings me also to… They can be really, really smart but it can be difficult for them to solve something because they don’t have the resources they need.
[Brandon] You can throw other obstacles in their path.
[Dan] I’ve never been happier with one of my own mystery stories than Devil’s Only Friend, where he is convinced that he has it, he has an explanation that makes sense and everything works and it answers every question, except that one that’s in the back of his head. Then he gets the last clue and figures it out.
[Mary] It’s a good book. I liked it.
[Dan] Well, thank you.
[Howard] It is a good book.
[Mary] I just don’t read your books at night.

[Brandon] All right. Jacob sounds like he’s struggling with some specific questions. Let’s see if we can help him. How do you keep a kidnapping victim from just being a MacGuffin if they aren’t recovered until the end of the story?
[Mary] Well, if you give them a POV. That is one way, and then you give them some agency by letting them make attempts to rescue themselves. That’s one way.
[Dan] Rey, in The Force Awakens, was a good example of this. She spent half the movie kidnapped.
[Mary] That’s true.
[Dan] Yet she was never a damsel in distress, she was never a MacGuffin, she was always working on something.
[Brandon] Yeah, I think…
[Dan] Even though some of it was [garbled]
[Brandon] That’s your prime way. If you’re worried about this, give them a viewpoint and make them a real person rather than a MacGuffin.
[Howard] I can’t remember the name of the movie where the guy gets a call on his cell phone. The kidnap… The woman trapped in her house and the phone’s been smashed and she puts the wires together and she can’t actually call… She has no control over the number she calls. She connects with this guy who has to figure out where she is. I cannot for the life of me remember the movie. Very, very tense. He’s running around trying to solve the mystery, figuring out where she is. She is trying to keep the phone running, trying to keep this connection going. I can’t remember… I’m going to have to Google that and put it in the liner notes.

[Brandon] Well, while you do that… Our last question from Steven kind of tweaks a nerve of mine. I’m glad he asked it, but it makes me want to get up on my soapbox. Where he asks, “How intellectually stimulating can you make a genre mystery? How literary or serious can it be?” I think this is an important thing to remember, particularly with our discussion of elemental genres, that the literariness of a story is kind of like one of these boxes that you put around the story. Let me explain that. Every story has a lens through which you are seeing the story. So there’s what’s happening and the way you tell it. A lot of people fallaciously assume that what you tell and how you tell it are intrinsically related. Which they are not. You can tell any story in… With any method. Now some naturally lend themselves one way or another, so maybe there is some faint connection. But I was looking at the list of most popular mysteries, and the Romance of the Ro… The Name of the Rose, The Romance of the Rose, the Italian book from… I mean, this is considered one of the greatest mysteries…
[Mary] Umberto Eco.
[Brandon] Umberto Eco, which is hugely literary and considered a triumph of literary fiction, and it’s a mystery. Straight up mystery. It doesn’t matter. You can write a fantasy, and make a lens through which you see it the most literary thing you want or you can make that lens different. So don’t assume that genre means method of writing.
[Mary] For those of you who do not have the video feed, I was nodding vigorously…
[Mary] All through what Brandon said, so just I’m not going to add anything besides that.
[Howard] I was googling. The movie is called Cellular, written by Larry Cohen, starring Kim Basinger, Chris Evans, William H. Macy, Jason Statham. It was a fun, fun movie.
[Mary] I’m like, “Chris Evans? Just tell me how tight his pants are.”
[Mary] Sorry.
[Brandon] Very tight, I would assume.
[Mary] I hate to objectify the man, but I so enjoy objectifying the man.

[Brandon] So, your homework. I’ve got your homework this time. One of the things when we were discussing these episodes we realized is mysteries are embedded so much in our stories. There are often so many of them, a surprising number. So I would like you to take a book or film that you enjoy and just jot down every mystery you can see. From who drank my milk to who killed this person or how does the magic work. Whatever it is, write down every one, and you’ll start to see that the curiosity of solving a mystery is integral to almost every story that’s been written. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.