Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Taking The Mystery Out of Mystery Writing

by Donna Fletcher Crow

One of the reasons I like to write mysteries is because I like structure. Once your story has good bones you can hang anything on that structure to make it fun and exciting. Structure frees you to be creative. Not surprisingly, mysteries, like all stories, have a beginning, a middle and an end. But there are some very specific elements that need to go in each of those sections.

In the Beginning:

It’s essential to introduce a good strong story question right up front. This must capture the reader’s imagination and carry them through turning pages to the very end. You must also introduce your sleuth and establish him or her as a unique person. Also establish the time and place of your story. Reader orientation is essential. Your reader needs to know when and where they are so they can then focus on the all-important clues you’ll be dropping. 

You must also have a Dramatic Event. There is considerable discussion among mystery writers whether or not you need to have a dead body in Chapter 1. I think that’s far too restrictive, but you need something exciting or mysterious that will eventually lead to murder. 

Now you set your sleuth on the path to solving the mystery. It’s your job to offer plausible suspects with rivalries and conflicts and make the crime more complicated than originally thought. And introduce your subplot which will demonstrate change and growth on the part of the protagonist. One of my favorite subplots to work with was the clash between Felicity and her mother that surfaced in A Darkly Hidden Truth, book 2 in my Monastery Murders. It played into the solving of the crime, revealed a lot about my heroine, and is always there to be used in a later book. 

No Sagging Middles:

Carry on planting clues. Your sleuth will see some, but not all. A careful reader needs to be able to see them, but not understand the importance. As for a good magician, misdirection is the key. As you reveal facts about your suspects direct your reader toward a conclusion that will prove erroneous. 

It’s important to give your plot a sense of urgency. This will be a “ticking clock” in a cozy, a “ticking bomb” (often literally) in a thriller. A deadline will ramp up the tension. Your sleuth also needs to have a personal stake in the outcome and this can often be your ticking clock. Will she lose her job? Will his sister die? 

Continue to put suspicion on others with more misdirection, your sleuth taking a step back for every two forward— or maybe even two steps back for every step forward. And continue to complicate the plot. Maybe another murder? Dead bodies are very useful. Perhaps your Prime Suspect is murdered, sending your sleuth back to square one. 

Always remember: Motive, motive, motive: What does the villain want? Why does the sleuth keep at it? This is especially important if you have an amateur sleuth. It’s not her job— so why keep on with this risky business? 

At last— the End:

The beginning of the end is your Dark Moment when all is lost. It’s best if the failure is both physical and emotional because you always need to work both inside and outside your characters. Your sleuth now sees she’s on the wrong track, picks herself up and determines to give one more heroic try. 

Now Something Unexpected happens: the thing you said all through the book couldn’t happen. Yes, this can also be the Dark Moment or it can lead to the turnaround revelation. Either way, your Protagonist, having been strengthened by ordeal, leads on to the final solution. 

The Climax needs to be a dramatic confrontation. Make it physical. The more impossible the odds have been, the more rewarding the climax. 

Climax is closely followed by the Resolution. Here your sleuth reveals his clues of deduction. Be sure all your loose ends are tied and subplots resolved.

The Case is been solved and justice served to the satisfaction of all.

The End

DONNA FLETCHER CROW writes three mystery series which she hopes demonstrate the essentials she exhorts others to follow, although, as she always tells her writing students, “You must know the rules before you can break them.” 

Her latest releases are: 
A Jane Austen Encounter, An Elizabeth and Richard Literary Suspense 
An Unholy Communion, The Monastery Murders 
A Tincture of Murder, A Lord Danvers Victorian True-Crime Mystery 
You can see more about them all at: www.DonnaFletcherCrow.com


  1. Something strange happened to your post, Donna. I couldn't read it all as the text was cramped. And I'd really like to read every bit of it!

  2. Rita, it's fixed now. Something wasn't working properly with the HTML code.

    Donna, great post! Thanks for sharing your helpful insights on story structure and plotting for mysteries.

  3. Narelle, thank you so much for fixing the formatting. I fought with Blogger all day yesterday. Life is hard for us low tekkies.

  4. I love your quote, Donna. "Dead bodies are very useful." Oh my! And what an interesting structure. Some of it can carry over into a long historical...but without the body.

    Thanks for sharing.

  5. Absolutely, Rita. The basic structure is the same. In an historical you might have a war, a religious controversey or the love affair of a king as your page-turning device. I love historicals!

  6. Great overview, Donna! I especially think that motive is so important. You can have your characters do almost anything and it will work IF the motivation is there.

  7. Love the way you have described the structure, Donna. No wonder I enjoy your books and look forward to reading A Tincture Of Murder.