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Writing Excuses 6.26: Mystery Plotting

Writing Excuses 6.26: Mystery Plotting


Key Points: Mystery plots are when you don't know what's going to happen, and you're waiting for the revelation. How do you write a plot that is about finding out information? One trick is to bury the important information: for example, in the middle of a list. Add extra people and details to make it harder to see the important part for the trees. Start with the solution to the mystery, then work backwards, adding red herrings and other distractions. How could someone misperceive this? Break your information and clues into small chunks and reveal them slowly. Plan how to dole out the information, how to bury it, how to obscure it with other bits of information. Make your red herrings lead to something else, something extra. Separate learning a bit of information, realizing it is a clue, and realizing who it implicates into different scenes -- spread out the revelation.

[Howard] This week's episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by audible and Neil Gaiman. Head over to for Neil Gaiman Presents, a collection of books personally selected and produced for audio by Neil himself. That's

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Season Six, Episode 26, Mystery Plots.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we might be that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] And I'm Howard.

[Brandon] Mystery plotting. This is how to construct a mystery in any type of genre you're doing. Not necessarily writing the mystery genre itself. Someday we will do a podcast on that, but we want to have a good mystery author on when we do that. But if you think about it, basically there are two plot types. There is the anticipation plot, where you know what's coming and you're waiting for it to happen. That's a romance or often times a big action plot. Then there's mystery, where you don't know what's going to happen, and you're waiting to find the big revelation. You could pretty much break every plot archetype into one of these two. Today we're going to talk about how to write a good mystery. How to write a subplot, or even a main plot, that is about finding out information. How do we do this?
[Mary] Well, one of the tricks that I use is a really simple one, which is related to red herrings, but it is burying the important information. The way I do that is I... Like, if I'm having my personal walk into a room and notice things, I make sure that whatever it is that is important, like, I give them a list of three or four things that they notice and the thing that is important, I put in the middle of the list. Because people will notice the first thing, and they will notice the last thing, and they will skim the middle one.
[Brandon] This works really well, particularly if you can give another reason that the middle thing is noticed. I'm going to give a spoiler here. But my first book, Elantris, one of the big mysteries is why did the magic break. It's related actually to this big... You have to read the book, but it's related to the geography. There's a big chasm that opens, and there's a big earthquake, and things like this. Well, in order to distract the reader, I flip causality. I had all the characters thinking, "Oh, the magic broke, and so this big earthquake happened." Where in reality, the big earthquake caused the magic to break. If you think about this, by giving the readers a very valid explanation that everyone accepts, that is kind of just shuffled off to the side, basically I had the solution to the main mystery in plain sight. This works wonderfully well if you can give a really valid reason. You can hold it up in front of them. But just like a stage magician, while one hand is doing one thing, the other hand is drawing your attention.
[Dan] The other benefit of burying the key information like that is that your world looks richer than it needs to be. You can see this a lot in... Say any... Every episode of Perry Mason. The law of economy of characters tells you that the biggest star in the movie or the TV show who is not a regular is the killer. You can always figure that out. So just throw in extra people... In your book, you can do this, you can have a cast of as many as you want. Throw in extra people, throw in extra details. When you describe a clue, describe five other things that mean nothing just so that you can't look at it and say, "Well, that's the one thing he told us, that must be the important part."

[Brandon] Oh, now... This is kind of trying to foil the whole Sherlock Holmes concept, which is if the reader can elminate everybody but one, you've actually got a problem. Now, eventually you should be able to eliminate everybody but one, but when you start, you're like... they're like, "Well, we've seen viewpoints from all these people but the quote unquote butler. Obviously, it's the butler." You want to avoid doing that because it's going to...
[Dan] Well, I wouldn't say that's going against the Sherlock Holmes principle. It's feeding it.
[Brandon] Well, it's feeding it...
[Dan] You have to give your reader things they can eliminate.
[Brandon] Right. Well, you do. But what I'm saying is you don't want to... You don't want Sherlock to be able to walk on to your book in Scene One and say, "Okay. Eliminated, eliminated, eliminated, eliminated, bing!" You have to give valid reasons and valid motivations for multiple characters that can slowly be eliminated.
[Dan] Yes.

[Mary] One of the most interesting... I wish I could remember which of the very famous mystery writers said this. But... It's someone like Agatha Christie, but don't quote me as saying that it actually was. But she never knew who did it until the end. She was a seat-of-the-pants writer. I was reading this interview and I'm like, "Waw!?" The answer...
[Howard] Did she do any rewriting?
[Mary] Well, her answer was that she made it plausible for every character to have been the murderer and gave them all motivations. Gave them all reasons. Then when she got to the end, she picked one and provided one extra reason for it to have been that person.
[Howard] It's funny. I played a game of How to Host a Murder. I read my part wrong. There was a page stuck together. I was supposed to find out, on like the third page of my little script, that I was the killer. I didn't know that I was the killer. The information on that page was just you did it, this is how you did it. Okay? I knew my skill set on the previous pages. But as I flipped the pages and looked at what was happening, as other clues came about, I was sure that somebody else was the killer. My explanations as to why... Well, yeah, sure, I'm a rock climber, but that doesn't make me flipping Tarzan. I can't... Have you seen how far apart those balconies are? I'm not going to try that. Don't be ridiculous. I was completely selling it because Howard completely believed that his character was not the killer, because I had missed that page. We got to the end of it, and the wrong person got accused. I was like, "Wait a minute, I did it? How did that happen?" We found that my pages were stuck together.

[Brandon] Now, let me use the How to Host a Murder things as a negative example of how to write a mystery plot. Because there's actually a problem with these, the ones I've done. Let me explain to the listeners why. They make it so plausible that everybody can be involved, because they want... it's a game. It's fun that way as a game. It's... They're not doing it wrong...
[Howard] It's a balanced game is what it is.
[Brandon] But they're making a balanced game. But the problem is, when you get to the end and you find out who did it. It's not a "Oh, that's who did it!" It's a "Oh. Well, of course." Because everybody wanted to kill this person, usually. They actually... The murder mystery ones I've played, five people tried, and only one of them actually got the person killed first. This is actually bad if you're writing a straight up mystery. Which... we actually need to turn this podcast towards not just whodunits, but if you're writing a straight up mystery, be careful of having it be at the end, any one of these people could have done it and you just... This one is the one who did. Because that'll actually be unfulfilling. What the reader's looking for is that extra reason that Agatha Christie was really able to do, that in the last few chapters you realize, "Oh, no. None of the others actually could have, because this person has the real motivation."

[Howard] I'm getting ready, with the next Schlock Mercenary book... I'm getting ready to do a mystery. Not a murder mystery. But it's a... for lack of terminology, it's a what's-in-the-box mystery. I already know, at this point, what's in the box. I know what we're going to find at the end, I know why it's significant, I know why it's important, I know why it's going to be fun. What I need to do now as I'm building out the outline for the story is look at why what-is-in-the-box might look like other things when you haven't yet opened the box. So that as we go through the story, we have a fun unfolding of scientific puzzles, sociological puzzles, historical puzzles, whatever else. So that when the box is finally opened, it's very, very satisfying and we've gotten to a fun place. But the only way for me to build that is to start by knowing what's in the box, why it's important, and how that affects and informs everything else in the plot.

[Brandon] Let's stop for our book of the week. Actually, Howard, you have our book of the week this week.
[Howard] Oh, fantastic. I, right now, am about three-fourths of the way through the new Terry Pratchett book called Snuff. If you follow Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, this is a Sam Vimes novel, and it's a cottage mystery. Sam Vimes and his wife have gone off to the country home where Vimes has never been. It fits very well into this genre of... Like the Agatha Christie, the cottage mystery books, only it's being told by Sir Terry Pratchett and it's just delightful. Vimes is one of my favorite characters. His motivations are some of my very favorite motivations. He survived a previous book by virtue of the fact that he really wanted to get home on time to read a story to his son. That's a character that I just love. This book is all about him. I don't know how it ends yet.
[Brandon] Okay. Well, go to to start your 14 day free trial. Listen to Terry Pratchett's Snuff. All of his books are standalones, so you could just start with this one if you wanted to. In fact, I usually suggest people not start at the beginning with Discworld because the middle and later books are just so much better. So give that a try, support the cast, and support Sir Terry Pratchett who is an awesome writer.

[Brandon] Okay. Let's take this away from whodunits. Let's talk... Remember this is a principle of plotting. Dan, you've got something you've been wanting to say.
[Dan] Yeah. I have a book coming out next year in February called Partials. It's science fiction, post-apocalypse, and the central plot is a mystery plot about a disease. There is a disease that is killing people and the main character is trying to figure out how that disease functions, why it is killing people, what does it... How can it be cured? So it is a medical mystery, essentially. Very similar to what Howard was saying. My method for writing that was first of all to figure out exactly how the virus worked, and down into some fairly granular detail that didn't end up in the book, but I needed to know it. Then, looking at all the ways that could be misperceived. What misconceptions could half of that information lead you to assume? Kind of building in these other things so that I could track in my head very plausible ways for them to not understand it until they get the final clue that puts it all together.
[Brandon] Now, um... This is actually how I approach most of my mystery plots. Every given book I have will usually have three or four. I define a mystery plot any time there is information that the characters don't have that they need. I plot them backwards. I start with what needs to be discovered. I actually then break it into small chunks. This is kind of following one of my basic methods of plotting, which is the idea of sense of progression. I want there to be a sense of progression in my books. I want there to be little steps along every problem that's being worked on. So with a mystery, I decide what needs to be revealed. I decide what clues can be revealed. I space them out appropriately. Then I actually add in the ways to hide that. In fact sometimes I write the whole book with the clues being pretty out in the open. It's in a later draft that I then obfuscate and I hide and I add the stage magician stuff so that the reader is misdirected. Sometimes I don't actually have to add misdirection though. Sometimes the mystery is just we dole out bits of information as the reader finds them. In this case, it's less of a which-of-these-characters-did-it and more of a where-is-our-killer-hiding or... It doesn't have to be a killer plot, but you see what I'm saying? Those are actually two different styles of plots, both using a mystery.
[Dan] Well, breaking it up in clues like that, I think, is a wonderful way to write a mystery, at any level of proficiency. Because you can look at it and say, "Well, these four pieces of information will tell you the answer. So I'm gonna just plan ahead how I'm going to dole those out to you, how I'm going to bury them, how I'm going to obscure them with other bits of information." Then it's just almost step-by-step you go through and reveal the clues.

[Howard] Now, Howard. We've been talking a lot about the preplanning. Now, we know, Agatha Christie as a discovery writer wrote mysteries. I know you have said several times that you have started with a mystery and figured it out halfway through... This whole luxury... You do preplan a lot more now than you used to. How did you go about doing that when you didn't have the luxury?
[Howard] In many cases, I was just flying by the seat of my pants, dropping clues... Red herrings, maybe or actual clues. I didn't know which. I was giving the characters information. Then at some point, it would coalesce for me. I'd go back and I'd read through what I'd done. I'd realize, "Oh, okay. So that was a red herring, that was a red herring, that was a red hearing. But this is the actual trail of clues. If this is the actual trail of clues, it can only lead to one place. Let's make sure that the red herrings in fact lead to a different place and make sense to have existed. Now I can go ahead and finish the story."
[Brandon] That's a really good point. Using your red herrings right can really make this satisfying. Not just dropping them into completely distract, but actually make them lead to another place. [Coughing] In fact, I've seen you do this before, Howard. That the red herrings actually uncover some other subplot that... That's not related, but they accidentally discover. They've been following these red herrings, and lo and behold, somebody's been smuggling this whole time. Yes, it's a bad thing, it's not related to our main plot, but it actually is pretty cool. This whole thing gets uncovered, and it becomes part of the plot that affects the main plot. Using your red herrings that way I think will feel much more satisfying.
[Dan] Science fiction... Oh, go ahead, Mary.

[Mary] Well, I actually went to grab something. I was working on a mystery and talked to Diana Rowland who writes police procedural paranormal romances and used to be a cop. She had this fantastic thing which was very opening for me. Which... Don't infodump your clues. By this I mean don't have the scene where the reader learns about the clue... Learns about a piece of information also be the scene where you drop a clue that that character might be involved. Then don't have the detective also realize that it's a clue in the same scene. Because it's like having everything... You have to spread them apart.
[Brandon] No, that moment of revelation of "Oh, that thing I discovered five chapters ago is actually a clue, not just a random tidbit." That's great.
[Howard] Well, what's fun... No, go ahead.
[Mary] What she says specifically is that when you do that, you've left nothing for the reader to figure out. That part of the fun of these is for the reader to figure things out.
[Brandon] Yeah. Yeah, it is.
[Howard] I love dropping something that I know is a clue fairly early in the book and then dropping something later in the book which of itself wouldn't really be a clue except that it points up the existence of that first thing and positively identifies it as a clue. I can't think of an example now, but I know that I did it in Force Multiplication and I did it in Longshoreman of the Apocalypse.
[Brandon] So what Howard is saying is he's brilliant, you just have to trust him. [Laughter] all right, Mister Brilliant, let's bring it out with a writing prompt. That means you.
[Howard] Okay. Writing prompt. Yeah. Nope, that's just fine.
[Dan] When you said Mister Brilliant, I thought you were talking to me there.
[Brandon] Yeah, he forgot for a minute that was referring to him.
[Mary] I knew it wasn't me
[Howard] Well, because of the Mister.
[Mary] Yeah, exactly.
[Howard] Puzzle box. Okay. Give us a mystery about the contents of a box.
[Brandon] It's John Travolta's soul.
[Dan] It's a cat. Wanted dead or alive.
[Mary] Oh, great. Spoilers.
[Brandon] Pulp Fiction reference, sorry.
[Dan] isn't that Ving Rhames soul?
[Brandon] Maybe it's Ving Rhames soul.
[Dan] Anyway.

[Howard] Whichever. No, that's good. That's good. It's a puzzle box, and the answer to the puzzle is someone's soul is in this box. Now start building your way back to the beginning of the mystery so that the people who are trying to find out the actual contents of the box are deceived into thinking that it's anything but a soul right up until the very end.
[Brandon] That's very nice. Way to roll with our stupid comments, Howard. Well done.
[Howard] You called me Mister Brilliant, I had to execute.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: bury, clues, distraction, extra, information, mystery, obscure, plot, red herring, reveal, revelation, work backwards
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