No Mystery Without a Puzzle
Mystery readers love a puzzle. More than
one is more enticing. While your developed detective leads the reader on discovery search, the puzzle is the draw of a mystery.
All the work you do in developing your characters, creating suspects, and planting clues has one aim to create a mystery. Giving away too much at the beginning spoils the tension. Readers will tolerate backstory, a love interest subplot, and even descriptive setting passages, but without the puzzle, there’s no mystery.
The Set Up
Your sleuth is the reader’s guide through the story. Creating a detective with quirks and strengths invites your reader into the story. The reader expects the detective to solve the mystery at the end, but not until the end. A solid introduction to how your sleuth works initiates reader trust that their guide has what it takes to collect the puzzle pieces and put them in place.
The murder victim is the key to the mystery. As the detective learns more about the victim and the victim’s world the reader follows along anxious to see how things develop. They are eager for clues and suspects to confound them and your sleuth.
The last part of the setup is when your sleuth takes on solving the mystery to uncover the villainous murderer.
Once your sleuth takes on the case, you set the puzzle pieces in place. What evidence and clues are at the scene? How was the victim killed?
Then, your sleuth enters the victim’s world. He uncovers the victim’s friends, loved ones, and enemies. Each of these characters sheds new light on the victim’s life. The reader learns from each of the suspects a bit more about the victim. The victim’s likes and dislikes, their shortcomings, and their secrets are revealed as suspects contribute to painting a picture for the sleuth and your reader.
The sleuth and your reader begin to form an opinion of the victim and possible reasons the victim brought on their own death.
Toward the middle of your mystery your sleuth and your reader discover that they didn’t have a full picture. A midpoint event illustrates how wrong those first assessments were.
On The Hunt
Everything seemed to go along in the discovery until the big obstacle pointed out the sleuth did not have all the facts, was headed in the wrong direction, and needed to rethink everything.
Once your sleuth reconsiders all the facts, evidence, and statements, she must find a new direction to unveil the killer. Without reversals and twists your reader will feel your story is episodic and is not creating the puzzle they crave.
This is the point where a beginning writer often lose the puzzle thread. They know the villain and the suspects and want to lead the sleuth and the reader to the revelation. But it’s much too soon in the story sequence. And it’s the reason both writers and readers complain about a sagging middle. But mystery writers have no reason to sag.
Whether you call it the last part of Act II or Act III, in a mystery the hunt section is the place where tension builds, your sleuth is overrun
with false starts and obstacles, and the villain confounds your sleuth’s search.
Before you get to the revelation, give the antagonist one challenging twist. Your reader knows they are coming to the end, create more mystery with one last big challenge for your sleuth.
Tie up any loose ends or subplots, then the final reveal. All mystery leads to this moment.
Photo by Tim Johnson on Unsplash
What’s A Red Herring?
In logic, a read herring is a fallacy of distraction bringing up another point to distract the argument. In the financial world, a red herring is a prospectus of an upcoming business that is not complete but indicates the future stock.
In a mystery, a red herring is a false clue that leads the sleuth away from the villain. The red herring distracts the reader from knowing the true culprit.
The origin of the term is vague and entomology scholars debate the source. Some people believe it originated in a news story by English journalist William Cobbett. He claimed that he used a red herring, cured and salted, not fresh, to mislead hounds following a trail. At the time of publication the term served as a metaphor for false news accounts.
How to Use Red Herrings in a Mystery
Red herrings create mystery in your story by testing your sleuth’s abilities and decision-making skills. Each false trail creates another obstacle for your sleuth keeping them from discovering the true villain.
Use red herrings as a device in the middle section of your story to build tension. When you’ve built a strong protagonist, the reader will believe, as the protagonist does, that a true clue is at the root of the discovery path.
Here are some examples of using red herrings and build suspense for your reader.
The essence of the red herrings you use is diverting attention from the real clues and the right suspect.
Limit Red Herrings in Your Story
Although red herrings are fun to create for a writer, adding too many in your story will frustrate your reader. Aim to keep a balance between real evidence and clues and the false ones. Have no more than three red herrings in your mystery.
Readers love a puzzle but they don’t want to be tricked. Make sure the red herrings you create integrate with the overall theme and mystery, otherwise they will feel “added” to pad the story. The same holds true for too many false starts. Your reader will feel they are being cheated from solving the crime. You need to balance frustrating your sleuth and losing your reader.
Readers Expect Red Herrings
Red herrings are a standard trope in mystery novels. Readers love to follow your hero’s challenges. They enjoy rooting for your sleuth and discovering how he meets each challenge to solve the crime. Keep your readers guessing with well-placed false clues inherent to your storyline.
Scenes are the building blocks of your story. Each scene moves the story forward. As you build your story alternate between action and reaction.
When you go through the first edits of your story make certain that all scene components are in each scene. You’ll take your reader by the hand to lead them through the story.
Two Types of Scenes
Alternating between Proactive and Reactive scenes is a cycle that builds story in increments.
The Proactive Scene challenges your protagonist.
By the end of the scene, the protagonist not only did not reach his goal but has a setback that leaves him worse off than at the beginning.
Checklist for the Proactive Scene
Put your hero or heroine in the worst situations as they seek what seems like an obtainable goal at the beginning of the scene.
The Reactive Scene
Now that you have thwarted your protagonist, it’s time to give him some space. This scene is where your heroine decides what to do next.
Checklist for the Reactive Scene
These are the basic elements to include in the Reactive scene when your protagonist makes a decision
Reactive scenes provide a way for your character to make terrible decisions which will create even greater conflict later on. She may be blind to the motivations of another character. He may find that getting into the boardroom isn’t a slam dunk. Reactive scenes are your opportunity to build conflict and tension because the following action scene may be based on a very wrong decision that seemed right at the time for the character.
Why This Structure Helps
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.