Make Your Sleuth Reach for a Solution
Creating a great mystery for readers depends on page turning events in your story. Create tension with challenges to your sleuth. Each time you create a challenge your reader keeps reading to see how your sleuth gets past a stopping point. That point may be a small as a suspect hesitant to answer questions to a life-threatening event with the opponent.
The events may vary in intensity depending on the sub-genre of your mystery, but every story needs challenges to the protagonist. Your challenge as a writer is to create hurdles in your storyline. The more the better. Make your sleuth work for the final resolution.
Complications, Roadblocks, and Reversals
Three plot devices for giving your sleuth a tough time are complications, roadblocks, and reversals. In your story-crafting process brainstorm as many ways as you can to frustrate your sleuth.
A complication is an event or factor that slows your detective’s progress. As your sleuth attempts to discover the villain things get in the way.
These complications are often daily events that happen at an inconvenient time, but the result is you’ve delayed the sleuth’s progress..
Roadblocks are just that, they stop your sleuth. Roadblocks are impediments to your sleuth’s progress. These are points in your story where your sleuth has to change direction. They occur at major plot points in the story.
Once your sleuth encounters the roadblock, you take your reader in a new direction.
A reversal alters your sleuth’s course into the opposite direction. If she is gaining traction, a new circumstance shows she needs to rethink everything. A reversal increases the stakes and sends the story in a completely new direction.
Emotional reversals create a clash between the protagonist’s inner goal and the outer goal in a disastrous way.
Your Obstacle Course as a Mystery Writer
Your aim in creating an intriguing mystery is to create obstacles for your sleuth. As your story moves forward, create obstacles that increase in difficulty and challenge for your protagonist.
Complications, roadblocks, and reversals create story tension. That tension complicates the mystery solving puzzle
. There’s no set order of how to use your obstacles. At each stage of your story think of the worst outcome your sleuth could have for their current course and set the challenge. Your readers will thank you.
PRO TIP: Each scene is a mini-story that requires an obstacle. For example, if you have a chapter with three scenes, each of those scenes will present a hurdle for your sleuth. By the end of the chapter, you’ve created three different obstacles. Keep them coming.
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What is Foreshadowing?
Foreshadowing is a literary device which is an advance hint of something that will happen later in the story. Foreshadowing creates an atmosphere of suspense as the reader continues on with expectations over later events.
Foreshadow upcoming events with character dialogue, plot events, and changes in setting. Each method supplies a way to hint to the reader of what is coming. And each instance builds suspense for the reader who wants to know how that dialogue, event, or setting change will lead toward discovery
of the killer.
Clues as Foreshadowing Events
Each clue your sleuth discovers in a mystery foreshadows the final revelation. But, the mystery writer has a challenge, how to plant the clues without giving away the villain before the end. You want to foreshadow, without foreshadowing.
In the mystery novel, you want to tantalize your reader without calling emphasis to the clues that point toward the final discovery. The device works like a secret foreshadowing to keep your reader guessing.
Ten Ways to Tantalize Your Reader
Invite your reader into the puzzle without giving away the secret of who the villain is.
Sequence Diversion –
Put the real clue right before the false one. Readers and your sleuth often focus on the last clue presented. If you’re getting started with mystery writing, this tactic is a great place to start. Mention or show the clue first and then immediately focus on a different clue or red herring.
Secret Emphasis –
Emphasize the unimportant, but de-emphasize the clue. The reader sees the clue but doesn’t see what’s important about it. For example, your sleuth may see the value of a company report and the statistical details but doesn’t look at the man who researched and wrote the report.
Before It Counts –
Early on, plant the clue before it has any context. Your sleuth may walk by a man cleaning his yacht with chemicals before a business partner dies of toxic chemical poisoning. Carolyn Graham uses this tactic in her Inspector Barnaby mysteries.
Missed It –
Your sleuth misinterprets the meaning of a clue. The murder took place in a room with open windows. Your detective believes that’s how the murderer escaped. But the windows were open to let in the evening breeze and the murderer escaped through the door and out the back staircase. This is a great tool to use with a flawed sleuth whose flaw keeps her from seeing the real meaning.
The Not a Clue –
The clue is what isn’t there. Although the sleuth deduces
certain actions happened, the real clue is absent. A classic clue that isn’t there is when Sherlock Holmes realizes the dog didn’t bark in “Silver Blaze.” There was no intruder.
Piece by Piece –
A time-release method to scatter pieces of the clue in different places through the story. Then mix up the logical order. Your sleuth finds an empty aquarium, water but no fish in a suspect’s room. Later on she finds six fish bodies tossed out a window. She has an “epiphany” when she remembers the empty aquarium.
In Plain Sight –
Create a cluster of clues and squeeze the real clue in with all the others. Hide the clue in plain sight. This technique works well in a story with multiple suspects from Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express to John D. MacDonald’s hard boiled Travis McGee (pick one).
Draw your reader’s attention away from the clue. The sleuth and the reader follow a false trail. What seem like the most evident clues are not the real trail to the suspect. In Adrian McKinty’s The Cold, Cold Ground the clues seem to lead toward a serial killer who targets homosexuals. Not the case at all.
Time Seed –
Create a time problem. A suspect has an alibi for the time of the murder. Later it turns out that the murder was earlier and the alibi does not work. Or the suspect claims a time as an alibi but could get away during the time covered by the alibi.
Camouflage with Action –
Camouflage a clue with action. Just as your sleuth glances at a scrap of paper on the floor, he’s hit from behind. In the ensuing action and consequences—trip to the hospital, a missed appointment because of time in the hospital, etc.—your sleuth overlooks the clue. Jo Nesbø uses action camouflage in his Harry Høle series.
Satisfy Your Reader
Foreshadowing with clues is a challenge for mystery writers. Building suspense in other genres with foreshadowing leads to events later in the story, but the reader keeps those foreshadowing moments in mind. The mystery writer needs to subdue the foreshadowing by hiding the clues. At the end, your reader may realize all the clues were there, but while reading you want to keep those clues hidden.
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Your Villain Right and Wrong
The true pleasure of mystery readers is trying to discover who the killer is before your detective does. It’s the big puzzle and the draw of the genre. The challenge for you as a mystery writer is to create a villain who is understandable, relatable, and yet hidden until the last moment of your mystery.
The best approach to understanding your villain is to look at their world view. In the villain’s eyes, their beliefs and actions are justified. The villain may feel unjustly harmed by the victim. Or his killing may feel, to him, like justifiable revenge. Or, her cold-blooded calculation is rational in her belief system.
However you conceive the villain’s motivation, throughout the story they will remain firm that their world is correct, and the killing justified. So, your villain is right in their world while wrong in the world of your story.
The Villain Portrait in the Mystery
The villain can be a smooth talker, a buffoon, or a monosyllabic thug to the rest of the world and the other characters in your story, but you need to present the villain as he sees himself as you write your story. When he speaks with other characters, especially your sleuth, the villain sees himself as the good guy. He will portray himself that way in the story.
You can reveal the villain layer by layer as he moves through the story.
In your background, focus on the relationship between the villain and the victim. Their relationship is the basis for the murder and the sleuth’s involvement. Think of ways the two connected, then the ways things went wrong, and finally the one incident that tipped the villain to murder.
Like any story research, you may use only 20% of the relationship you create. Experienced writers know that rich background allows for opportunities to use details as they are writing. Even, you, the writer, may not know which details you will use in your mystery until you are writing.
The Open Good and Hidden Bad
Writing a believable and concealed villain for a mystery requires consideration of how you present and reveal their beliefs and actions. You may feel that all the clues you plant are obvious because you know who committed the murder, but if you balance the villain’s view of himself and his actions as good, you can save the hidden reality until the final reveal. You sleuth and your readers will appreciate your skill.
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The Victim Drives Your Mystery
Although your sleuth is the hero of your mystery, the victim drives the story. The sleuth works throughout the story to uncover layers about the victim and the people (characters) involved in the victim’s life.
In a traditional mystery, the puzzle pieces the sleuth uncovers are based on the relationship between the victim and the villain. As you construct your story, you reveal the layers of the victim’s life as your sleuth learns more and more about the victim’s world.
The Essential Victim Backstory
As you work to create your character bible for your mystery, the victim holds prominent place right after your sleuth. The more you know about the victim and their world, the easier it is to construct the puzzle of your mystery.
Basics you need to know:
To add extra depth to your victim, give them a secret and a lie the same way you do for your other mystery characters. Imagine what you can do with what suspects think they know about the victim when they share with your sleuth.
Context and the Victim
Context is the most important element in creating your character. When you create your victim character background you create the context for all the characters in your mystery. The victim’s relationship to all the other characters are the elements that help you create the puzzle.
As you take your detective and your readers deeper into the story, your detective enters a new world, the victim’s world. As he wanders the victim’s world he gathers bits and pieces of information, meets suspects and in their environment expands his vision of the victim’s world.
You need to know this world, in order to guide your sleuth through discoveries. Sometimes, because the victim’s world is new to him, he makes false assumptions or overlooks clues or mistakes a red herring for a clue.
At various places in your story, you set up clues for the sleuth that reveal the connection between the victim and the villain. Part of the fun of writing your mystery is hiding those clues to baffle your sleuth and keep your reader guessing.
The Base for Your Mystery
Even though your victim may play a small part in your story, create a rich background for this all-important character in your mystery. The murder is the incident that sets your sleuth in motion.
When you know about your victim and their world, you can pull from a rich resource to unlock relationships with other characters, hide clues that seem unimportant at the time, and slowly reveal the deep connection between the victim and the villain.
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Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middle Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.