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. 


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.

Mrs Roosevelt’s Confidante, by Susan Elijah McNeil, narrated by Susan Duerden

15 thoughts on “11.23: The Element of Mystery”

  1. What I really want to know is how do you work the mystery around the constraints of 3rd person limited. Examples:
    * showing something to the reader that is outside of the pov character’s perception (the bomb under the table scenario)
    * hiding something that the pov character knows from the reader so as not to spoil the mystery (the pov character has a secret–or the answer to a mystery)

    1. The POV character can see, but not see the significance of just about anything. That’s easy.

      Hiding POV character knowledge from the reader is often only required in the event of sloppy plotting. If this is a critical reveal, the POV character should learn it at the appropriate point in the story. Pace accordingly, because no matter how well you hide POV character knowledge from us, it will feel like a cheat to many readers.

    2. @Steve Bruns – While I can’t really say *how*, I can identify where those tactics are used in many crime situations already. In the first example (the reader knows there is a bomb but not the character), that’s a good opportunity to delineate from mystery and show a little thriller. It ‘ups’ the stakes. When we see the threat, we’re drawn to the urgency of the POV character’s quest to figure out the culprit responsible or the fact that there even is a threat. You see this a lot in openings of some of the classic crime shows like CSI or NCIS or others, where there are often episodes where we get the view of the immediate threat to the POV character before we even get into much detail of the plot or situation happening. It could be a good way to introduce a conflict immediately (like being a replacement to just having a dead body), or a way to increase suspense or work on the thriller aspect.

      Per the second example, I think of the show House and Elementary (the modern day Sherlock with Lucy Liu as Watson) (or even Bones per Howard’s allusion). All have main characters as highly intelligent people who are able to deduce well, and often notice what other characters (and even the viewers) don’t. Particularly in Elementary (I recently binged it so it’s freshest in my mind), you notice that each episode basically lays all the clues out for you so that if you’re really on top of it, you could figure it all out. After some trial and error and Sherlock (or House) getting their initial guesses wrong, there usually comes a stump point where they hit a brick wall. But after a while (usually following a talk with Watson or Wilson or Booth, respectively), they reach a ‘eureka’ moment where it all seems to ‘click’ together. Now by that point, they never actually *reveal* who it is–they usually just whisk off to catch the culprit. but before they do, the viewer is given a small window for everything either to ‘click’ or not. Many times you can make a reasonable guess, but oftentimes, as with Elementary, there’s a key point of information that Sherlock will sometimes keep to himself (perhaps seeing it as irrelevant or whatnot), that even Joan won’t pick up on. So I would find myself *mostly* there, but without the proper information to pull it all together. It isn’t until Sherlock reveals in his dramatic way that ‘all is revealed’ and really comes together. You can use the reader/viewer’s lack of knowledge as a tool to create tension, or build to a dramatic/revealing climax.

      For another example, but one more lighthearted, Psych also does a terrific job with this. All along, you’re getting bits of everything that Shawn is noticing, but you often don’t know what’s important, and sometimes Shawn himself is clueless until the final act and moments when he spitballs his final theories and reveals everything in an outlandish way.

      1. The problem with a TV example is that it uses 3rd-person cinematic, where we’re never actually in the POV character’s head. Sherlock Holmes is just another player on the stage, and he knows things the viewers do not, because we can’t see what he’s thinking. This POV works in TV, movies, and comics, but in books it is harder to pull off.

        1. Ah, yes. Of course…that’s a good point. I hadn’t really been thinking that through. Are there some good literary examples of this done?

          I suppose an attempt could be to reveal information through another POV other than the main character (to reveal the ‘bomb’ to the reader through a scene depicting the bomber planting it himself) but with a limited POV, that might not be warranted if the narration is only focused on one character through the whole piece.

          And I guess the other scenario could be portrayed by describing the character’s actions as indicators that the character knows something more that the reader isn’t privy to. Perhaps there are thoughts/emotions of the POC character that the reader is given as well, but not all of the information is revealed flat-out. (ie: Sarah feels uneasy that a man in a yellow hat walks by. Sarah tries to hold back tears and stop herself from running toward the man. We could get a description of her feelings, and know how she’s physically reacting, and we know that something about the man and possibly his hat triggered a response from her…but it might not be revealed until later the ‘why’)

          It would probably have to be done carefully, so as not to create an unreliable narration…and some bits of knowledge might not be well-suited to keep from the reader for such a long time, depending on the mystery. I feel like it could easily become something more annoying rather than interesting if done poorly.

        2. Yeah, I guess I was thinking along the lines of Casa Blanca, Game of Thrones, or Babylon 5, where many of the characters are “gray”, and any one of them could stab you in the back. However, because the villain of the piece is important, and not revealed until later, I want to be able to show their point of view without spoiling it for the reader. I guess that’s just one of the limitations of third person limited over third person omniscient.

  2. Raymond Chandler’s classic essay “The Simple Art of Murder” is the best reference I have ever found on the American “hard boiled” mystery style. I think it can be applied outside of strictly mystery novels to any novel that contains elemental mystery.

  3. When Mary brings up Agatha Christie’s seat-of-the-pants quote, I am drawn to remembering my first murder-mystery dinner theatre show. There are entire theater performances that are basically whodunits but it’s written in such a way that every character COULD be the murderer and during intermission, the audience votes on ‘who they think it is’ and the script delineates so that the most votes basically determine which alternate ending we get per the character. It’s fun even though you know that, in a sense, you’re not really voting for who you think the murderer is so much as voting for who you *want* it to be. But if your choice is selected, it still amazes me how I can still feel that “I knew it!” feeling…because when written well, all the clues still seem to lead up to them and rationally I know it was engineered to make me feel that way, and it would probably ‘click’ no matter who it ended up being, but it still feels satisfying.

  4. On that book of the week: it should be “Susan Elia MacNeal” not “Susan Elijah McNeil”

  5. Why is this dead body hanging from the ceiling?

    Good question, but wait until you see the rest of the clues! Read all about that dead body hanging from the ceiling, and other elements of elemental mystery, in the transcript buried in the archives or over here


    Then go ahead and write a mystery or two. Remember, a good friend helps you move, but a true friend helps you move the body.

  6. So I had a question concerning mystery – a genre that has fascinated me but I’ve never dived full into – what are the ways to categorize it?

    Like, is there a definition to distinguish between a character mystery (a mystery where the main mystery element revolves around a character) and an environmental mystery (where the mystery element revolves around the setting). Would an environmental mystery be more of an adventure story than a mystery? Or would it be more horror (like in a haunted house story)?

    Just some thoughts/questions I had. Terrific podcast as always!

    1. As I think about it – I suppose the third category would be object mystery (mystery element centered around what an object is/why it does what it does).

      It seems like, if these are actual definitions, that character mystery dominates the market. Although, would Asimov be an example of object mystery?

  7. Lovely podcast episode. Question: I’d like to write a mystery without murder or violence. I think I can manage to keep the stakes high. Do I also need to telegraph to the reader that there’s no murder or violence coming — to manage expectations? My thought is that if I stress the high stakes in the beginning then reader won’t miss the body. And maybe not mentioning guns, poison, etc. will create a nonviolent atmosphere. Am I on the right track?

  8. So here’s my conundrum…

    I’m writing a story that’s primarily a cyberpunk/horror, but there’s got to be a good deal of mystery in it. Without giving too much away, there’s a guy who survives an attempt on his life, and later he becomes the big bad evil guy. OR SO WE THINK!

    What I’d like to do is sprinkle clues throughout that will make us think that that the main BBEG is what everything revolves around, but punch readers in the face with a big reveal that totally makes sense in hindsight. Like, I want them to be kicking themselves that they didn’t see it, or at least suspect something. I’ve got the other elements you’ve mentioned (horror ones, mostly), and I think the story itself is solid. I took it to a con last month, and most people also seemed to like the idea; I’m just concerned about the execution now.


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