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. 


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

I Am Princess X, by Cherie Priest, narrated by Mary Robinette Kowal

12 thoughts on “11.26: Elemental Mystery Q&A”

  1. Mary,
    Go ahead and objectify Chris Evans. I have long thought the best cultural compromise we can come up with concerning sex is, “you can have your slab of meat and I can have mine.”

  2. Elementally speaking, is noir a separate genre, with some things like mystery and some unique things that make it not quite fit the mystery bill, or it it just a regular mystery with a certain aesthetics?

    1. I would posit that noir, like Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Urban Fantasy, and others, is a blend of elements. For detective noir, I think you’re looking at mystery plus a varying mix of horror, thriller, drama, and humor.

      I don’t think that the purely visual aesthetics of film noir can be mapped into our elemental genres without an expansion of the table of the elements to cover visual mediums. Film folks are better suited than we are for that project.

  3. My big mystery, how do I go a week without listening to new episodes of writing excuses? I started listening a couple months ago with season 1 episode 1. You could rarely find me without my headphones in, ignoring the world around me while I learned from the masters. Of course my collection of writing prompts would make for a very odd anthology.

  4. You’ve got questions? The felonious foursome have answers! Multiple mysteries, fitting murder into your subplots, what to do when the beta readers are too smart, what to do when your protagonist is too smart, turning kidnap victims from MacGuffins into real people (wasn’t that the Ransom of Red Chief?), and last, but not least, how can a mystery be literary? All that, and more, in the transcript, now available in the archives or over here


    So remember, if the dog doesn’t bark, well… I see you have recently been in Afghanistan!

    1. I’ve got a question! I listened to the podcast today and was a bit disturbed to realize I did it: I have a kidnap victim in my story, and I think he’s a MacGuffin!

      My protagonist, a woman who can stop bullets, is being hunted by a guy who wants to get her into his lab. To lure her in, he kidnaps her boyfriend. Up to this point, the boyfriend has had a few pov scenes. But I’ve struggled to give him any scenes after this point (kidnapping happens at the midpoint). I think you just revealed why.

      In the podcast you implied that the kidnap victim needs agency. He needs to make attempts to escape, etc. My conundrum is I want to keep the boyfriend’s whereabouts from the reader until the protagonist learns where he is/who has him. So I don’t have any scenes with him until (well) after that’s revealed. Suggestions on how to make my kidnappee into a real boy?

      1. Attempted escape is just an example of agency. Other options could be interactions with his captors; internal dialog where he hopes she is coming for him; internal dialog where he hopes she is not doing something stupid like trying to save him; the boring minutia of being a prisoner.

        What is the character like? How securely is he being held? How would her respond to being kidnapped? Would he want his girlfriend to save him? Why or why not?

        In short, to make him a character, you have to “make him a character.”

        1. Reading your question again, I now see the real problem.

          My suggestion:
          More scenes before the kidnapping.
          Let the Protagonist tell us about him trough memories and imagining what he is up to.
          Let him be a MacGuffin, no shame in that.

          1. Thanks for the speedy response! Great ideas here. Your questions in your first response are helpful. I’ve covered some of them and can use other questions to add to scenes. Your second comment has some great suggestions – having the protag remember and think about him will develop both characters. Awesome!

  5. Another way to balance two main mysteries is a little like the A plot and B plot, but on a bigger scale — in TV, where there’s a “mystery of the week” and a season or show mystery. This has probably been done a lot, but two that come to mind that did it well are Veronica Mars and The Mentalist.

    Veronica is the daughter of a private investigator, so I suppose actually there are often two main mysteries of the week — a case she might help her dad with, and something at her high school. But the real mystery in the first season — well, there’s two, but one of them is, who murdered her best friend? It’s also personal because her dad was the investigating sheriff at the time.

    Then in The Mentalist, our main character is a former psychic now helping the police as a consultant. Overarching mystery: Trying to catch the serial killer who murdered his family.

    The book equivalent would probably be a series mystery versus a book mystery. As in, again, Harry Potter.

    How you balance the two is probably preference. Some shows seem to just have little teasers for the longer running mystery, to remind you it exists, give you a character story arc. I prefer more story arc, less episodic. Or at least make the episode mysteries have consequences in the larger story arc. Patricia Briggs does this in her Mercy Thompson series — Mercy is just trying to survive and solve the mystery, but things come back to bite her in later books. Even if it’s as seemingly small and simple as a favor called in, the consequences end up huge.

    Oh, and making things hard for a smart character, they don’t have to be smart in every conceivable way. The Mentalist comes to mind again. He can get the mystery right but still make mistakes that put himself or others in danger. SPOILER:

    At the beginning of the pilot, he figures out, with the help of the murder victim’s mother, who did it. And then the mother shoots the murderer, which wasn’t really what the police department was going for when they hired him as a consultant on the case. It’s a good character intro.

  6. I think I would disagree with the concept that mysteries must be idea stories. First, semantics:

    I would define an idea story as an exploration, driven by a question.

    I would define a mystery as an exploration of a question pertaining to any of the MICE quotient (why a location, why a character, why an event).

    For example, the show 24 is a mystery driven by a looming event. Or does it stop being a mystery? Does the aspect of the quotient dilineate the genre? Like 24 is a thriller, and so an event story? Horror could be millieu or character, depending on the style?

    I may have just confused myself…

    1. Don’t forget: the M.I.C.E quotient for medium- to long-form works includes more than just the one letter. “24” is I+C+E, with maybe some M. Note also: the elemental genres don’t map cleanly to M.I.C.E. These are two different systems for thinking about how your story works.

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