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

18.15: Building a Mystery, Now With More Tools

Back in February, with Episode 18.8, we began exploring the process of writing a mystery story. That episode led us into a series of six episodes about tension, and the tools we use to create and manage it. And now, with this episode (and a toolbox full of tension) we’re ready (we hope!) to revisit the creation of mystery stories.

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: Make a list of the tools you regularly return to while writing (MICE, three-act structure, etc). Now make a list of the tools you know about, but don’t think you use. Try to move one tool from the second list over to the first.

Thing of the week: Into the Light, by Mark Oshiro.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Using a toolbox of ways to build tension in mysteries? Anticipation! Unanswered questions. A foundation of character tension, relationships and stakes. Handles or business ends of the tools? It’s not just information, there’s also emotion, revelation, and consequences.

[Season 18, Episode 15]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] Building a Mystery, Now With More Tools.

[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 Howard.

[Mary Robinette] We’re going to talk about mysteries again, but now you have this whole toolbox of different ways to build tension, and you see why we were so excited about it. So. Let’s start  talking about mysteries. So we’ve been talking about mysteries and anticipation. Okay. So how do you apply anticipation to mysteries? What are some of the classic ways we’ve seen it done or ways that you’re like, “This! This is a really meaty juicy way to do it?” I can talk about… I was like, “I’m just going to riff until one of you has an answer…”


[Mary Robinette] I was anticipating something and then it fell through for me. Seriously, though, one of the things that I did a lot in the Spare Man was that I was using anticipation. I was using the anticipation of waiting for that body drop is one of the things in the first scene… Or second scene. In the second scene, I set up a fight. So that is building for the reader the anticipation that something is going to happen with one of these three characters. That then allows me to have… To keep you moving along. Then we get into the second scene… Or I guess it’s the third scene, actually. The next scene where we have a scream. That builds an anticipation of oh, something has gone wrong. Which I then ramp up further by giving you an unanswered question of who is the screamer? So what I find a lot of times you can do with these is that you can take one of the tools that we’ve used and then use it as a… One of the tools we’ve mentioned and then use it as a handoff or a funnel point…

[Howard] A page turner.

[Mary Robinette] Page turner. Use it as a way to keep you going, and then give you another. Another piece of tension.

[DongWon] I’ll say that those are the mechanics of a plot structure that you have there. Those are the beats that you used to move us along. What works really well, and the reason all all that engine goes, is you’ve established underneath that the character tension. Right? You’ve established the relationship and the stakes for these individuals of like her trying to figure out how do I relate to this other person, what is marriage going to be like for me, and also like dealing with her own trauma, her own history. Like those are all questions you’ve introduced fairly quickly. I cannot remember exactly when each piece of that comes in, but by the end of the first few chapters, I have a lot of questions about the future of this character, the future of her relationship, the future of her sense of self, that are pulling me through all of this as your giving me the plot details and the unanswered questions that layer on top of that.

[Howard] Coming back to the toolbox metaphor for a moment, as we talked about these as tools, we’re kind of talking about the business end of the tool. The way the blade of the screwdriver fits into the head of the screw. The way the hammer slams the head of the nail. We haven’t talked a lot about the handles of the tools. For my own part, I don’t start with anticipation or juxtaposition or conflict. I start with what is the answer to the original unanswered question of who committed the murder. Then I start making notes about where I want readers to feel the different things. This is where I want them to be excited. This is where I want some sense of wonder. This is where I don’t know what’s going on or what’s going to happen, but I’ve got to get them to turn the page, so here’s a question mark. Then as I sit down with the manuscript, that’s when I open up the toolbox and start looking at, “Oh. Oh. This is where I’ll throw in micro tension, because the characters are talking about things that don’t really matter, but I need to explore them. I need to explore the characters so I need them to be passionate about what they’re talking about and to be perhaps a little bit in conflict during the discussion.” So my approach to the use of the tools is… Yeah.

[Mary Robinette] So, I will say that with Spare Man, I actually started with not who committed the murder, but how the murder was committed. Because for me, the thing that is interesting in a mystery is the puzzle. That puzzle is around the murder. So I figured out what is a really interesting way to murder someone. Then who do I have that can commit that murder. That was actually the way that I built that particular thing. Which… What I’m hoping that you’re noticing, dear listeners, a thing that we keep talking about is that there is no one right way to do things. Each of these is a correct way, it’s just whatever is feeding you as a writer.

[DongWon] Yeah. I don’t want people to come away from this feeling like with all of these different tools, you have to have some kind of master plan. Right? That you need to know, “oh, I’m going to deploy a red herring here, I’m going to deploy tension here, I’m going to deploy this that and the other there.” Because I think a lot about the apocryphal thing about Agatha Christie, about her not knowing who the murderer was until Poirot said it on the page or something along those lines. Right? You can approach it from… I mean, yes, you do need to know which end of the tool’s the business end, and which is the handle, but you can deploy these tools as you go and sort of see where that leads you and sort of build up to something that feels really consistent. A lot of making a mystery feel right is a thing that happens in editing process as you go back through it and say, “Hum. I was giving a little too much information here. I need to withhold that there.” Or, “This is really confusing because I knew what was going on, but I didn’t set that up properly two scenes ago.” Right? So, mysteries. Think of them more as magic tricks rather than like perfectly executed plans. Right? You get to go back through it and adjust and tweak and make sure everything’s set up right for your audience to get there when they get there.

[Dan] So, as we’ve been going through these last few episodes, which really stood out to me talking about all these different forms of tension and how to use them are overlaps between them and ways to solve multiple problems with a single tool. So, for example, we’ve talked a lot about how we need to care about the characters in order to be invested in them. That is a perfect match with the concept of micro tension, because if you give your character enough texture that they have a hobby or a job or something that they love outside of the plot, then suddenly you’ve given them something that they can be working on in the background of a scene or these other kinds of little micro tension problems they can be dealing with while trying to solve or trying to ignore the much larger mystery and problem that they are faced with. That solves a lot of things all at once.

[Mary Robinette] That’s a great example… Sorry, I’m going to use… A great point, and I’m going to use the character of Fantine in Spare Man as an example of that. So, there’s two things, two micro… Two points of micro tension for her. One, she’s doing crochet for much of the thing. At one point, she is so distracted she makes a mistake, and in yelling, she’s mad, not just about all of the other things that are happening, but about the fact that she had to rip out 20 rows. It’s like having to rip out 20 rows has no bearing on the overall mystery at all. But it is… It’s a piece of character detail and it adds just a little bit of micro tension. Then the other piece for her is her weird pattern of cursing. Because she had made a deal with her priest that she wouldn’t use swearwords. So she curses by a combination of Shakespeare and Catholic martyrs. Again, she hits a point where she’s so upset that she accidentally does swear. Again, it’s just this tiny bit… Little bit more tension that I’m applying to that seen, and texture to the character, which is a lot of fun.

[Dan] Fantine ends up as a lot of people’s favorite character, or one of their favorite characters. Because of all these things that you’ve done.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Yes. Hashtag team fantine or team gimlet, apparently.


[Mary Robinette] Why don’t we take a moment and pause? We’ll come back and talk about some of our other tools and how to apply them to mysteries.

[DongWon] Our thing of the week this week is Mark Oshiro’s new young adult novel Into the Light. It is a very twisty thriller that’s told in a nonlinear way. It focuses on a young teen named Manny who was first pulled into a cult called Reconciliation and then subsequently kicked out of said cult. We sort of meet up with him while he’s on the road after all of that. His sister stayed behind, and so he’s trying to reconnect with her. Then sees on the news that a dead body has been found in the hills near where Reconciliation is based. There’s multiple timelines, there’s different POVs, as we try to get to the heart of what exactly happened at Reconciliation. What is his trauma around his experience with this cult, and what is it like to navigate the world as a queer adoptee who’s been sort of neglected by the system. It’s a really fantastic pointed sharp funny weird novel. I think people are going to be very excited to find the spoiler at the core of what makes this novel tick. It’s a real thrill.

[Mary Robinette] So, when we’re talking about mysteries and tension, there are a number of other tools that we have not even gotten to yet. One of them which… One of my favorites and one of the core things is the unanswered question. So we talked about that a little bit in the first one. We’ve got a whole episode on unanswered questions. But when we’re applying them specifically to mysteries, one of the things I want to look at is not just the ways to do it, like misunderstanding the question, but also some of the dangers in that. Like, what are some of the pros and cons of delaying an answer in a mystery?

[Dan] Okay, so I’ve got a pretty good example of this one. One of the things of the week that we promoted earlier was my new book, Dark One Forgotten. Which is a mystery and it is a prequel to a Brandon Sanderson fantasy novel. What that means is that even though it is structured as if you are listening to a true crime podcast, you go into it knowing that there will be a supernatural angle. You know that eventually… It’s got Dan Wells and Brandon Sanderson on the cover, there’s going to be magic or some kind of speculative element to it. Especially if you’ve read the novel it’s based on, you know exactly how the mystery gets solved. So the problem that I ran into in writing it, and that I had to send multiple drafts over and over through my writing group to figure out is, it is obvious to the reader what’s going on. We know that the reason no one can remember the killer or the victims is because there is some kind of magic effect. So, how long can I drag out that anticipation for the reader for the characters to finally catch on without making them seem stupid or without frustrating the audience? It’s difficult. It was very hard to write a story that kind of fundamentally ignores one of its core premises for the first half or so of the story. So there is that unanswered question like who’s the mystery, but the fact that it’s… Or who’s the killer. The fact that it’s a prequel means that I needed to start… And here’s the solution. Here’s why I’m saying all this. What I eventually had to do was to just give you as much information as possible. It was essentially a story about tying off every possible loose end before they finally conceded that maybe magic was real. Because it takes place in our world. They aren’t predisposed to believe it, even though the audience is predisposed to expect it. So, three episodes of them exhausting every possible other explanation made it interesting enough to get through that. So the anticipation and the unanswered question was very difficult to deal with.

[Erin] I think this gets to something that we’ve talked about before. Which is that sometimes you can give the answer to the reader or to the listener. I think it’s what’s really cool about that example is the question, it seems like to me, becomes less is there magic involved with this, because everyone knows the answer is yes, but more how will people deal with the revelation that magic exists in the world? So that’s a different unanswered question. So sometimes shifting from the informational question… I think one of the dangers sometimes in mystery is you think everything has to be about information and plot. But, sometimes some of the most interesting unanswered questions are the ones about emotion, revelation, and consequence, as opposed to the ones about who did what to whom at what point.

[Howard] Touching on something that Dan said toward the beginning of this episode, and something that Erin just said, we’ve talked about how it’s like setting up a magic trick. In the second edition of Xtreme Dungeon Mastery, Tracy and Curtis Hickman point out that magicians entertain purely by deception. When they explain how the trick is done, it just kind of makes us feel dumb for not having seen it. Which is why they typically don’t do it. Storytellers entertain by setting up deception, and then with revelation. Erin, you use that word twice. So when I think of unanswered questions as a tool, I’m always thinking of the revelation that is going to come at the end. The reveal of this is the answer to the question, this is how it was done. The magician typically won’t show us that they were using a trick knife with a collapsible blade, but in Knives Out, famously, we are told about a trick knife in the first act, and we are shown the trick knife at the very end of the show.

[Mary Robinette] Interesting that you say that, because I have some friends who are magicians and we talk about the overlap between magic and story all the time. Because one of the things that a magician must do is that they must tell the rea… Tell the viewer what they’re about to do is impossible. Because you go into a magic trick knowing that they’re going to do something. I think that that is also one of the things that you have to do, in different ways, but it’s still a narrative thing, that you using a lot of these tension tools in a mystery to signal to the reader that this is actually hard to solve. A lot of the conflict things that you’re using are ways to say this is… There are reasons that this is hard to solve. Much like what Dan was talking about with, well, why don’t they just think it’s magic. There have to be… It has… You have to present the impossibility to them in order to get the payoff of, “Ah, here’s the solution and the answer.” So a lot of the tools that we’ve been talking about are tools that you can use for that.

[DongWon] I think one thing that’s important to remember in all of this is that there’s a way in which mysteries and the structure of a mystery is a fantasy. You are selling people on the idea that there are easy answers to complex problems. That there is a trick behind the whole thing. I think when we think about unanswered questions, sometimes it is almost more interesting to not answer every single unanswered question you put out there. Right? Like, sometimes you have a Darrell who’s still wandering around the island and nobody knows why he’s there. That adds this extra layer to what you’re doing and you can sell the fantasy of, “Wait. We do know who the killer is. We do know what happened. We do know what exactly was done to pull this magic trick off.” But things are hidden from the audience in that. Right? There are answers that we won’t see, and that’s okay. I think that can add a really interesting layer to how your presenting your mystery, how your presenting your answers, and what questions are you really asking in the story that you’re telling.

[Mary Robinette] I think these are all great points. I’m hoping that our listeners have some new tools for when they’re going back into their mystery and can apply all these different forms of tension to the mystery.

[Mary Robinette] We also need to set you up for success for the next episode. We are going to be doing a deep dive on The Dark One. Dan, do you want to tell us a little bit about what people should do?

[Dan] Okay. So, as we explained several episodes ago, our next little series that were going to do, we’ll start with a deep dive on Dark One Forgotten, an audiobook by Brandon Sanderson and me. Then we’ll have some other episodes spinning off of that. So, in preparation for that, you’ve had several weeks, you have one more week left to listen to Dark One Forgotten. This is audio only because it is a fake podcast. You can get it pretty much anywhere that has audiobooks. Audible and LibroFM and Google Playbooks and Barnes & Noble and all these other places. So it’s about six hours long, a little more. Listen to that. Then get ready for next week, when we are going to dive deep into everything about its structure and its… The process of creating it and why I love it so much.

[Mary Robinette] One of the reasons that we’re doing these deep dives, and then building episodes off of them, is so that you can see the tools that we use and hopefully start to build a toolbox of your own. Which brings us to our homework assignment.

[Howard] Okay. So. Yeah, part of your homework is if you haven’t listened to Dark Ones yet, go listen to Dark Ones. But the other part of your homework is make a list of the tools which you regularly return to when you’re writing. That might be MICE Quotient, three act structure, Hero’s Journey, whatever. Just make a list of the tools that you already use regularly. Then make a separate list of the tools you know about, perhaps tools like tension via micro tension, conflict, anticipation, juxtaposition, unanswered questions. Make a list of the tools you know about but don’t think you’re using yet. Then, try to move one tools from the second list to the first one.

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