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

18.08: Building a Mystery

After last week’s deep dive into The Spare Man we’re ready to talk more generally about mysteries, and the tools we use to write them. Obviously we can’t cover all of that in just one episode, but don’t worry. In upcoming episodes we’ll explore more of these tools in detail.

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Give yourself some context for the upcoming episodes. Read a mystery!

Thing of the week: The Glass Onion (Netflix).

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Types of mysteries? Cozy! Solving mysteries in your spare time? Straight up detective. Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot. With a final gathering, explanation, and fingering the murderer. Police procedural. The system, and how it works. Supernatural mysteries. Weird happenings, and puzzles. Noir! Voice and character make it. In the dark streets, in the rain… Mystery structure? Crime, investigation, twist, breakthrough, and conclusion. Also, red herrings. Act 2 try-fail cycles. Final clues are often out-of-left-field, accidentally revealed. Playing fair, so the reader and the detective have the same information. 

[Season 18, Episode 8]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] Building a Mystery.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m the Act 2 corpse.


[Mary Robinette] So we’re going to be talking about mysteries today. One of the things we promised you is that we were going to use the… Our deep dives as a way to look at different things. Over the course of the next couple of episodes, we’re going to be talking about tension. But we’re going to start by looking very specifically at mysteries. For the first half of this episode, we’re going to talk about the different types of mysteries. Then, after our break, we’re going to talk about some of the common tools. So. What are some of the different types of mysteries?


[Mary Robinette] Great. Good answer.


[Dan] Yeah. We’re all deer in the headlights. The first one that comes to my mind is the cozy mystery. Which is the… Kind of the Murder She Wrote ish genre of often an older lady who is solving a mystery in her spare time while doing something kind of charming or adorable. That’s one of my favorites.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] I feel like they tend to be lower stakes, a little bit, like easier on the violence. I mean, people still will end up dead in these, but it’s not like as hard hitting as like a Jack Reacher or something like that.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Howard] Oh… There’s a whole rule set for cozies, where if the detective… If our POV person, who I’ll call the detective, if they are ever actually threatened, then you’ve stepped out of the cozy. If they actually perform violence, get in a fight, then it stops being cozy and starts moving into something else. Yeah, Jack Reacher, I’m not sure what style that is. It’s not quite… I think of it as the anti-cozy. Because we have… we are following one person who didn’t set out to be a detective under these circumstances, but they are doing all of the cozy mystery-esque stumbling into things, but they’re stumbling into it with elbows and fists and sharp edges.

[DongWon] It’s like the reluctant detective kind of thing.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Erin] Yeah. One of the other things I love about cozies is that they can really be in any like area of interest. It’s like are you interested in this hobby? Then there’s probably like a cozy mystery for you. Be it bridge, gardening, mountain climbing. So I love that it gives people an opportunity to put the things that they love, their passions, into this really comfortable form and just work it all in there.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] I remember as a kid I read this whole series of cozy mysteries told from the POV of cats. This is still ongoing. One of my dear friends continues to edit these books. But the cat cozy mysteries is just one of these truly delightful weird corners of publishing.

[Mary Robinette] I have been contemplating having Elsie solve mysteries, but it feels like it’s already been done.


[Mary Robinette] So another type that you’ll see is the straight up detective novel. Which is where the main character is a detective. Like Sherlock Holmes, Poirot. Where they’re using their expertise to solve the mysteries. With Spare Man, I was actually splitting the difference, a little bit, because I have a detective, but I sideline him very fast. So my main character is using different expertise, but she is not a detective. So we are landing somewhere in between those two.

[DongWon] For me, the defining feature of these is the moment where the detective gathers everyone in a room and explains what happened and points a finger at the actual murderer. Right? I feel like this is just that really classic Poirot scene of like you have to use the little grey cells and he’s going to tell you exactly what happened. That, to me, is just one of the most delightful sort of resolutions to a mystery in this very clean way. Yeah, it’s just like the thing that makes them stand out in my head is this iconic figure standing in the front of the room telling you what happened.

[Dan] Yeah. Really great modern example of this is Knives Out which was leaning really hard into all of those tropes of detective, and, I think, very telling that when they got a sequel, it is about the detective rather than the other giant cast of really interesting people. He wasn’t even necessarily the main character. But he got that big scene at the end, where he walks everybody through and then he points the finger. It’s right back in the tradition of Agatha Christie and that sort of thing.

[Erin] I think something that Knives Out plays with a little bit of… is that I love that the detective is there like 50% of the time before, in this case it’s after, but before a murder occurs. Which is hilarious to me because it’s very like anticipatory a lot of the time. Like, I think I’m going to be killed tonight…


[Erin] So instead of preventing that, I’m just going to invite a detective, so at least my murder is solved. It’s such an interesting, like, very comfortable trope in a lot of ways. It makes the death feel less tense, I guess, because the person kind of knew it was coming and at least they prepped for it. Which is an interesting feeling that I enjoy in sort of a classic detective story.

[DongWon] That’s great.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. One of my other favorite classic detective mysteries is a series called Foyle’s War. It’s set during World War 2, he’s a detective for the British government, or the British police force, and he has to go out and solve murders. So that actually trends us over into another style, which is called police procedural. Which is usually a large group of people working within the system, and they’re using the system to solve the mystery. So, Foyle’s War kind of sits between these, because he gets some help, but it is frequently him doing his detective thing because they are significantly understaffed because of World War 2.

[DongWon] I mean, Law and Order being the classic example of this. You can turn on daytime TV at any point and watch a procedural episode of somebody committed a crime, usually you’ll see it in a cold open, somebody solves it, and you go through the whole arc of following. It’s very fixated on process. It’s very fixated on the machinations of how a police department functions. All the Michael Connelly novels kind of fall into this. Police procedural’s like a very classic… Probably the most popular version of this through the 90s and early 2000s.

[Dan] Definitely.

[Howard] It’s why I identified myself… Instead of saying I’m Howard, saying I’m the Act 2 corpse. Because in those police procedurals, it is very, very common with the structure that in Act 1, you’ve got 2 or 3 suspects, and one of them is looking really good. Then that really good suspect ends up as your corpse at the beginning of Act 2, or in the middle of Act 2, somewhere in there. To the point that when my family sits down and watches a new police procedural or something, someone will point at the screen and say, “Didn’t do it. That’s going to be our Act 2 corpse.” It’s like we’re putting money down. It’s fun.

[DongWon] Called shots.

[Dan] Yeah. Another genre that I think is important to mention, this is kind of two for one, supernatural mysteries. I think the kind of main example I want to throw out is Dr. Who. Dr. Who is often not even a murder mystery. This is not about solving a crime necessarily so much as solving a puzzle. The mystery is weird thing is happening. In Dr. Who’s case, it could be supernatural or science fictional. But mysteries don’t have to be about murder.

[Mary Robinette] That’s right. Especially when you’re talking about something like YA, where it’s so often dealing with… Or middle grade, where you’re often dealing with a theft. The Encyclopedia Brown books. Nancy Drew. All of those are dealing with a classic mystery structure, but there’s no corpse. So, even for adults, it does not have to have a corpse.

[DongWon] One more category I wanted to hit is a classic one, which is the noir. This is taking elements of mystery, but really punching it up with voice and character right up front. This is Dashiell Hammett, this is Maltese Falcon, Chinatown. A mystery is core to what’s going on, usually someone’s dead or money’s been stolen or an object’s gone missing, but this is very much focused on a very moody, very dark tone. A very specific voice and pastiche. Noir is truly one of my favorite categories. It’s a thing I delight in. I think Dashiell Hammett is one of the great writers of the 20th century. It’s a real delight.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] That, interestingly, was one of the challenges that I had working with Spare Man, because the novel, The Thin Man, which I was riffing on the Thin Man, the novel is noir but the films, which is the part that I was riffing on, are not. They’re a different style, which is called a mystery comedy. So one of the challenges that I had was getting some of the trappings of noir, but keeping the tone light.

[DongWon] Which is great because the Spare Man feels… You can feel the noir roots in it, but you can also see how pushing the voice a little bit takes it out of the category and makes it something else. It just shows like how much it is about a particular way of saying things and a particular way of voicing a character and a perspective.

[Dan] At the risk…

[Mary Robinette] Well, that’s…

[Dan] At the risk of leaning really heavily on Ryan Johnson, and this is going to lead us into our thing of the week, one of his first movies was called Brick.

[DongWon] What a [garbled]

[Dan] Which is a modern film noir. Watching that, and comparing Knives Out to Brick, you can see how important that tone is. The tone of it, the style, that kind of atmospheric focus really changes the flavor of the whole thing.

[Mary Robinette] Well, let’s go ahead and take a pause. Then, when we come back, we’re going to talk about the structural elements that all of these different forms of mystery have in common.

[DongWon] Our thing of the week this week is Ryan Johnson’s newest movie, The Glass Onion, which is a sequel to Knives Out. It just came out last December on Netflix, and was truly one of my favorite things that I saw over the holidays. It is following on the world from Knives Out, it’s the same detective, Benoit Blanc, returns, but tonally, it is doing something very different from Knives Out. Where Knives Out was riffing on sort of classic mystery structure at a remote house, at a remote manor, this is a much brighter, sort of pulpier, more contemporary story about a tech billionaire who invites his friend to an island for a murder mystery game, which then devolves into something far more dark and chaotic from there. It is, as… He does such interesting things with narrative structure and is very playful with the audience expectations. It is somebody who understands the mechanics of how to put together a mystery at the deepest levels. Watching him assemble this beautiful puzzle box is, for me, as somebody who likes to think about story and craft, just incredibly delicious and incredibly exciting. I can’t recommend Glass Onion highly enough.

[Mary Robinette] So, now we’re going to talk about structure. There are a lot of overlaps in the different genres of mystery. You’ll see things that are both a cozy and a detective. All of these things. But they have two main things in common. There’s the overall structure, there’s a… Mystery has a specific structure. Then they all contain a puzzle. I’m going to talk about the structure that I was working with when I was working on The Spare Man. Then we can also talk about some of the additional tropes, because I’m not hitting all of the tropes when I talk about the structure. So, you have the crime. Then you have the investigation. Then there’s a twist. Then you have a break through. Then you have the conclusion. These are the basic beats that you have to have in a mystery. There are some other beats that will commonly occur. You’ll see red herrings. The crime is often preceded by the establishing of normal, but sometimes you begin with a cold open of a crime. So what are some of the things that you all think about when you are thinking about mystery and the structure of mystery?

[Howard] I look at the structure of… When I think of 3 acts, I think of Act 2 as driven largely by this iterative looping of try-fail cycles. For mystery writing, for me anyway, the try-fail cycle is the detective having a theory and proving it wrong, having a theory and proving it wrong, having a theory and it proves disastrously wrong. The Act 2 corpse. With each iteration, information is being dropped on the reader so that the reader has the opportunity to catch up with and maybe, if they’re super clever and I want them to be right, they will be able to get the answer before the detective drops it in Act 3. But that whole try-fail cycle of iterative looping through theories is a key structure for me.

[Mary Robinette] When… Surprising no one, I’m going to mention the MICE Quotient… mysteries are classic inquiry stories. This iterative looping that Howard is talking about… In a mystery or an inquiry thread, you begin with a question, and it ends when the question is answered. So all of the road blocks in the middle are keeping you from answering those questions. That’s that try-fail cycle, the iterative looping which is also where red herrings come from, because it draws the detective and the reader down the wrong path.

[Erin] One thing I think is really interesting in thinking about the differences between the types of mysteries is where that information is coming from, and how much of it is access to authority. So, in a cozy, there is usually no real authority figure. It is just a person acting on their own. Detective stories tend to bring in… like, I’ve done a few try-fail cycles on my own, but now I really need to get that autopsy report, other thing that like an authority brings. That is why the detectives tie to the police, even if it’s tenuous, it’s helpful in their moving things forward. In a police procedural, they have all of the access and sort of the authority of the state that they can use as they’re making these try-fail cycles happen. So I think the structure is the same, but how these try-fail cycles happen is a lot different, depending on who’s actually doing the investigating.

[Mary Robinette] That’s a really interesting point about the authority of the detective. I am making notes. That’s very smart.


[Howard] Well, I often use that as part of the structure. Is that I’m… one of the fails in the try-fail cycle is not being able to do a thing because you’re not the authority.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Dan] Yeah. A lot of what we’re talking about, it strikes me, are basically impediments to success. Right? Why does the detective not solve this mystery in the first scene? Because there are impediments to their success. Sometimes that is access to authority or to key information. The detective requests the autopsy report or the bank account records or whatever very early on, but they don’t get them until the end. A lot of that middle part is just treading water in an entertaining way, until we finally get that information. Sometimes it is the try-fail cycles like Howard was talking about of this theory doesn’t pan out and this theory doesn’t pan out and so on and so on. One thing that I see often is that the final clue that helps us solve the whole thing is discovered accidentally. The detective earns it by their dogged determination to never stop looking. But in the process of trying something else, something pops up and they say, “Oh, wait. Now I know exactly what’s going on.” It’s because of this out-of-left-field clue… If the audience is paying attention, they can possibly put it together as well.

[Mary Robinette] A lot of times that out-of-left-field clue recontextualizes a piece of information that the detective had recieved earlier. Frequently, it’s one that they had misunderstood, that is pointing them at the wrong person, or that had seemed otherwise irrelevant. This is… This gets into an area called playing fair. Which is that in a mystery, the detective and the reader are trying to solve it at the same time. So to play fair, the reader has to recieve all of the same information that the detective does. Often, you will have some things, like with Sherlock Holmes, which aren’t actually playing fair in many ways, because Holmes has this encyclopedia of knowledge in his brain and will often, because he’s not the POV character, will have noticed something that Watson does not. Like, “The shade of mud on his left cuff…

[Dan] Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] Indicated that he was bicycling through tarpits. Obviously. Elementary.”

[DongWon] A little bit of a magic trick. Right? Because you’re trying to make the audience feel like you’ve played fair with them. But you, as the author, obviously have way more information than the reader does. So how you reveal things and when you reveal it is sort of the prestige of the trick. Right?

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[Dan] Like, how are you revealing the information. One thing that I think about a lot in terms of the structure of this is you actually want the audience to solve the mystery before the detective does. You want them to do it as close as you can to the reveal, but immediately before it. There’s a famous saying in film making that’s like, “If you let the audience realize that one plus one equals two, they will love you forever.” Right? Letting them feel slightly smarter than the thing that they are reading is going to really hook them. Now, if they figure it out like on page 10, it’s way too early. So being able to time what information you reveal that let’s them figure out who it is right before they come to the in-text revelation is a thing that is so satisfying to the reader as they’re engaging with your mystery.

[Howard] I want to point out that that’s not the same thing as sitting down to a familiar, but you haven’t seen this episode, murder mystery show, and in the first ten minutes, realizing that person’s the killer. I don’t know why, I don’t have enough clue… There’s no way for me to know why other than the fact that these screenwriters, these directors, these actors consistently do certain things that are their own identifying tells for who the killer is. I don’t know how I’m identifying that, but sometimes I’m right. That makes that delightful for me. Then, as the episode unfolds, and I see the clues, I’m even happier. That’s my goal, is to make people happy when they read a thing.

[Mary Robinette] So we have so much more to talk about with mystery, however, we are doing a second mystery episode. In between, we’re going to be talking to you about the tools of tension. So even though I can see everyone wanting, including me, to tell you more things about mystery, we’re going to go ahead and wrap up here, and then move on to our homework assignment. In a couple… In seven more episodes, we’re going to come back to talking about mystery with your new tool set. 

[Mary Robinette] So, Dan, do you want to give us the homework assignment?

[Dan] Yeah. So, this is a pretty fun, pretty simple homework assignment. We want you to consume a mystery. Whether that is reading a book or watching a movie or TV show or something. Maybe seek one out that you haven’t seen or read. Or try one of the genres we talked about in the beginning that you’re not familiar with. We’re going to be talking about mysteries for quite a while. So give yourself some ammunition to work with.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.