Writing Excuses 6.26: Mystery Plotting

Let’s talk mystery! Specifically, how do you plot a good mystery? We’re not focusing on the mystery genre but many of these principles will apply there. For fantasy and science-fiction work this usually means creating plots or sub-plots in which the main experience for the reader is one of discovery or revelation, rather than anticipation.

Tools we discuss include the presentation of clues, unreliable character (and narrator) viewpoints, and how to offer the reader multiple plausible explanations prior to the big reveal. Howard talks about the plotting of the next Schlock Mercenary book, Random Access Memorabilia, and Dan tells us a little about his next book, Partials. Both titles have a mystery and a reveal, while neither is a whodunit.

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Audiobook Pick-of-the-Week: Snuff, by Terry Pratchett, narrated by Stephen Briggs.

Writing Prompt: Write your way backwards into a puzzle-box mystery. The answer is that someone’s soul is in the box — now reverse-engineer the plot so that the presence of a soul in the box is surprising yet inevitable.

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19 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 6.26: Mystery Plotting”

  1. Howard, just curious; did you know the answer for your CSI parody ahead of time? Ah, silly me, of course you did. But could you talk about that a little?

  2. @Bryce: For the CSI parody I decided to look at what happens when a gate-clone goes criminal. From there I wrote backwards, knowing that I needed a locked-room sort of murder mystery and I needed Schlock to be part of the body of evidence.

    From there it kind of wrote itself, honestly.

  3. Hey guys, thanks for the great podcast. I’ve been listening since Episode 1; you’re wonderful, all of you. Before listening, I had never really given a whole lot of thought to how to add mystery to a story, and some of the things you said really hit home with me.
    Brandon talked about hiding things right in plain sight. Mary, said that people tend to skim over the middle. And Dan talked about when describing a clue, describe five other things that mean nothing. All these pieces of advice are fantastic. I am going to include these tools in my writing.

    I have to let you know that I followed your advice on the book of the week for one of the episodes and the book was Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. It was unbelievable! What a terrific book. I’m off to finish my NaNo. Just wanted to say thanks.

  4. Great episode, and as Brandon points out, mystery is a part of the story in many different genres.

    The one thing I want to hear more about is the advice to avoid info-dumping your clues. You all talked about the example of separating the moments when a clue is revealed and when the protagonist realizes the significance of the clue. That’s really sharp, I think. But I feel like I’m missing something. Is there more to this idea?

  5. Unreliable Narrators

    I think the reader deserves to have all of the clues needed to come to the revelation on his own. I enjoy that: “I should have known that!” moment.

    I loved the Sherlock Holmes stories growing up, but this ruined some of the tales for me. In one story Holmes even chides the narrator, Watson, for not giving the reader all of the clues.

    I want to be surprised by the revelation, but I want to be able to go back see how I could have solved the puzzle on my own.

  6. @Chella

    I added the Unreliable Narrator bit. The Writing Excuses gang can’t be expected to cover everything in fifteen minutes. I thought this was germane to the topic and maybe helpful.

  7. I suck at mystery writing. Instead I let the audience in on the “secret” while keeping the characters in the dark and dolling information to them as appropriate. .

  8. @Rafael? Maybe you should try a mystery in the Columbo style. Remember those? Typically it started with us seeing the crime, and knowing exactly who did it. The mystery was all in how is Columbo going to pin it on the person we already knew did it, and watching the maneuvering between the criminal and Columbo. “Oh, just one more thing…”

  9. Howard,

    Love how you walk the edge of randomness–and share it with the rest of us! You are consistently my fav of the Fab Four of Fiction. :)

    Guys & Mary,
    Good good podcast! Can’t wait for the next when you folks have a mystery writin’ guest.

    *This message comes to you from deep in the heart of cold, gray Sweeeeeden. Jaaa, shure!*

  10. I liked the podcast, but I have problems with writing mysteries for a single fact: Pacing out the “discovery” of facts about the case and making them apparent to non-writers. I’m also really horrible at making a fact fork where it could go either way. I’m very sure I want these skills though I don’t have any intentions of trying to write a mystery any time soon. (Would help with political fiction writing and general plotting.) Any tips on how to do this better?

    Also I noticed with my own writing that hints can be overlooked with pacing of the material going faster rather than slower. So how do you handle dropping clues v. the overall pacing of the book/chapter and try not to make the hints blunt force objects?

  11. I like this topic, but as I mention on my own blog, I think creating an effective mystery requires a deft touch that comes from practice and success. Even Elantris, while Brandon’s first published book (I believe), it was far from his first written. Young writers are still trying to make sure the overall story and theme themselves are not blunt instruments, so working in such subtleties takes a confident hand I think. Still, I like the idea and have a couple ideas in mind for when I feel I’m ready.

    I did the prompt and liked the setup enough I’m going to spin it into a short story, which will give me some of that practice:


  12. @ Tony – nope, it was in the episode description.

    Not expecting everything – just what’s highlighted for that ep ;)

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