Skills to the Fore as Your Sleuth Apprehends the Killer
In the first act of the mystery, you laid out all your detective’s skills one by one as new situations arose. In the middle, you frustrated all those skills by exposing your sleuth’s weaknesses. Now at the end, you can bring back those skills and strengths as your detective confronts the killer.
Your detective has learned from his mistakes in the middle. Now, as she confronts the killer all her skills come into play to reveal the killer. She knows how and why the killer attacked the victim. She must do one last task - get the killer to confess. Or, if the killer doesn’t confess, your sleuth must make it clear that the killer is the one who committed the murder.
14:54 Q: I’m confused. I’ve heard about Aristotle’s three-act structure, but you talk about four acts. Why is that?
Pull Out All the Stops
Finally, you can reveal your protagonist’s skills. Whether it’s deductive reasoning, observation, determination or a combination of skills, get your reader to see how all the frustrations and setbacks naturally led to the final revelation.
You are about to write The End.
36 The war of attrition begins as the antagonist’s forces fight harder and your protagonist is isolated from the allies and resources he was counting on. The antagonist’s minion or resource that was neutralized is brought back into play or replaced by someone/thing even more powerful.
Your detective can’t make contact with any of her allies and has to go after the killer alone. The killer now seems to have an ironclad alibi or escapes an approach by your detective. She’s got to take this on by herself and the killer is just beyond her grasp.
You’re in the plot structure climax, stage four: war of attrition
37 Your protagonist steps forward to battle the antagonist mano a mano. The true extent of the antagonist’s power (and the depths of his evil) become clear, and the antagonist gains the upper hand. (Twist here?)
Your detective finally finds the killer. But the killer has a surprise for the detective. Your detective may have made a false assumption or misread the killer’s intent. The killer pulls out one last trump card, one the detective didn’t expect. Whether it’s a battle of wits or hand to hand fighting, the killer plays that one last card.
You are head to head in the plot structure climax, stage five: mano a mano.
38 Your protagonist realizes how he can strike the decisive blow and defeat the antagonist—and he does. (This is the last place in your story for a twist.)
The detective looks the killer in the eye and gets the confession. In the battle of wits, he pulls out the piece of evidence that condemns the killer. In a physical fight, he wins. Twist this up by having the opponent inadvertently supply that one last piece. The killer may hem and haw but finally admits to the crime.
In plot structure, you are there! Climax, stage six: from the ashes of disaster.
39 Your protagonist reacts to the defeat of the antagonist who is or has been disposed of, and out-of commission allies might be recovered or revived. (Subplot A) (Subplot B)
In the aftermath of victory, your detective surrounds himself with supporters. The opponent gives up, for the moment, in the wake of the detective’s victory. The love interest may appear one last time. Any loose threads from anywhere in the story get tied up here.
Plot structure: resolution, stage one: sweeping up.
40 Your protagonist and any surviving allies may celebrate their victory and console each other on their losses as they tie up all remaining loose ends (including a romance subplot, if there was one). Your story ends with your protagonist reaffirming how he’s changed and how he’s remained the same as a result of his ordeal (through both his words and his actions).
The detective celebrates either at a party or home alone. The love interest may join him. One last pithy thought on fighting crime from your detective.
Mysteries often combine 39 and 40. You’ll need to use your discretion. If you are tied to 40 chapters, add another chapter earlier, with a complication, of course.
You are done! This is resolution, stage two: reconnection in plot structure.
You Did it! You Wrote The End!
All the planning and brainstorming paid off. The conclusion reveals your sleuth as the hero your readers will love. Celebrate all the frustrations and setbacks you dreamed up. Revel in your creation of a sleuth worthy of your reader’s attention from start to finish.
Now, put the manuscript aside for at least a week. Don’t even peak. Work on your next story. Take a vacation. Give your family your full attention. Just let the manuscript simmer. It’s OK to write possible changes - you’ll think of some - but don’t look at the manuscript. Give it a break. That way you’ll be able to enter the editing process with fresh eyes.
You can understand how the work you did on your character background at the very beginning and any additions you made as you wrote, help deepen your character, their skills, and reader involvement.
Congratulations! You finished your mystery.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Her course for beginning writers Write A Killer Mystery is coming soon. Get on the notification list.
Photo by niu niu on Unsplash
Barriers and Clear Sight
You are finally heading toward the conclusion of your mystery as you begin the final act. But, your ace sleuth still has a bumpy ride before the end. As a writer, you focus on complications, twists, and building the killer’s cunning.
First, congratulate yourself for making it through the middle without one sag. These sentences work! Writing a novel takes time. You may feel like rushing to the conclusion, but hold on, build more trouble, and keep your readers turning pages.
10:43 Q: I want to write a cozy mystery but I haven’t decided on my sleuth, yet.
13:01 Q: The sidekick?
Here you go. It’s time to ratchet up the suspense. Your sleuth just had a setback. Before a triumphant conclusion, Shift your thinking from trouble to serious confrontation. If you put your sleuth in physical danger, your readers won’t stop reading.
31 Forced to retreat or taken prisoner, your protagonist experiences a moment of hopelessness that allows him to see his misbelief for what it is: a falsehood that’s kept him stuck in his flawed state ever since his backstory wound was inflicted.
Your detective is captured or completely blocked from finding the killer. The victim’s world becomes more of a mystery. She’s just not seeing anything the right way. If she’s trapped/captured, there’s no way out.
In story structure you’ve reached the aftermath of the second plot point, part one: the dark moment.
32 Something rekindles his hopes: maybe he sees a way to defeat the antagonist, or maybe he realizes he’d rather die on his feet than live on his knees. Either way, he’s ready to sacrifice everything to take his enemy down.
Your detective, trapped and blocked, sees a way to get out of the trap...if only he can… His determination, maybe it’s downright stubbornness, gets him to emotionally rally. He’s ready to take it on either the problem on the killer.
Your plot structure label is the aftermath of the second plot point, part two, the resurgence of hope.
33 Your protagonist prepares for battle: does a SWOT analysis for both sides, identifies the decisive blow that will be needed to win the battle, and makes his plan.
Your detective puts those little grey cells to work and examines the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) for himself and the killer (whether the killer is identified yet or not). He makes his plan.
You’re flowing with story, but here’s the plot structure moment: Climax, stage one: preparing for battle.
34 As he takes the fight to the enemy, he may indulge in one of those “if I die, I just want you to know” moments. When he arrives at the scene of the final showdown, he learns that the situation is different than he expected. (Another great place for a twist!)
The detective gets out of his trap and if he hasn’t before now knows who the killer is. He gets ready to confront the killer but...twist!...even with all that SWOT analysis he missed something and the killer has something up his sleeve.
Still clinging to plot structure? Ok, here’s the moment. Climax, stage two: taking the fight to the enemy.
35 No plan survives contact with the enemy—and your protagonist’s enemy has been crushing it since their last encounter. Both sides take damage, and when your protagonist redoubles his efforts, his forces manage to neutralizes one of the antagonist’s minion or resources.
Before your detective actually confronts the killer, something comes up that makes his surmise, just that, a surmise. The killer may have disappeared, or skipped town, or seemingly been somewhere else when the murder(s) occurred or someone vouches for the killer. Your detective knows the killer is dodging but can’t get to that final confrontation. For the moment, the killer survives any accusation.
In plot land you’ve reached the climax, stage three: first contact
Use Character Depth to Build Suspense
Whew! It’s a labyrinth of trouble. Once again, brainstorming what confronts your detective and a twist will deepen your story and keep your readers going. All the work you did at the beginning with your character bible can pay off when you are looking for a complication or a final twist. If you are stumped, go back to your victim and your murderer.
Going deep into your characters will help you build believable problems, confrontations, and twists. If you try to make them up out of thin air, they will seem forced. Your readers will notice.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Her course for beginning writersWrite A Killer Mystery is coming soon. Get on the notification list.
The Detective Finds Clues in the Killer’s World
Let the complications roll! Your detective screws up, asks for help from the wrong people, stumbles over his weaknesses. If it’s bad, bring it on. In the final section of Act II (Four-Act Structure) your detective dives deeper into the killer’s world as the ultimate exploration of the victim’s world.
As you are developing your story line, take some time to brainstorm some really nasty ways to confound your detective and threaten not just his discovery process, but the detective as well.
13:39 Q: Is there a difference between evidence and clues?
15:49 Q: I want to write a crime novel. Should my detective be a private investigator or a police investigator?
Writers’ Guide to Homicide
Before the Confrontation It’s One Big Mess
26 Your protagonist retreats in the face of his worst disaster yet, a disaster that feels so much like that thing he never got over that’s he’s having déjà vu. He might’ve noticed a chink in the antagonist’s armor, but not soon enough to take advantage of it.
There’s another murder, your detective thought she understood the victim’s world but now she feels as though she’s back to the beginning. There’s a glimpse of the killer but either the detective doesn’t notice it or doesn’t give it due attention. Time to lick some wounds and then gaze around.
In plot land you’re at the aftermath of the second pinch point.
27 As he’s gathering new allies and resources, something your protagonist did (or failed to do) in Act Two because of his misbelief comes back to bite him on the butt. (Subplot A)
Your detective finds new connections, alliances among suspects he was unaware of earlier and now he realizes that he overlooked important information (back in Act Ii) that needs new examination. While these discoveries feel like a new beginning of sorts, his opponent jams it up with a new attack. This attack can take his eyes off the case and onto something personal like a flaw that is holding him back.
Yes, it’s complicated, and meant to be. You’ve arrived at the fifth complication in traditional story structure.
28 He’s got to eat crow, beg for help, sacrifice more resources or improvise within an already imperfect plan—and he can only blame himself. He starts to question his misbelief: his biggest success came when he’d temporarily abandoned it, but the idea of giving it up voluntarily is terrifying. (Subplot B)
So, that flaw, emphasized by the opponent, it’s got your detective in a heap of trouble and it’s all his fault. Your detective may need to ask the opponent for a detail or help. He starts to question his vision of the victim’s world. The love interest helps him look at that world a different way. But he resists because it’s not his way.
In structure this is the aftermath of the fifth complication and it’s messy.
29 Your protagonist attacks that vulnerability that he noticed earlier, and at first it seems he’s caught the antagonist unprepared—is victory at hand? (Subplot A)
The opponent encourages the protagonist to look at the victim’s world in a new way. He notices something new about the killer. Is it that easy? Just shifting perspective?
If you’re still hanging on to story structure this is the setup for the second plot point. Yes, you are headed toward Act III.
30 Nope. (Maybe there’s a twist here?) Either the antagonist was using that weakness to draw the protagonist in, or he reacted fast enough to protect it. Your protagonist gets one clear shot at the antagonist, but he has to give up his misbelief to take it, and he isn’t able to make that leap of faith.
The killer uses a smokescreen and the clarity fades. The detective has one chance to confront the killer, but he has to clear his vision of the victim’s world and antagonist gets away because your detective is still missing a piece of the puzzle.
You’ve reached the second plot point in story structure. It’s going to get wild now.
Confuse All Your Characters
With all the confusion, hot mess, and frustrations your detective struggles in this part of your mystery. Keep the story from sagging by mixing things up. Your detective’s opponent may unknowingly give her an insight while trying to stop her. Or, her love interest may threaten to call it quits. Keep your reader guessing. But still you want to keep them guessing about how the detective will solve all these problems and solve the mystery.
Amidst all the setbacks, your detective gets close to the killer. Even though your detective may overlook the clues in the middle of the confusion, the killer feels the pressure. The killer takes on the role of antagonist and actively works against your detective... even if it’s behind the scenes.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Her course for beginning writers Write A Killer Mystery is coming soon. Get on the notification list.
Avoid the Sagging Middle in Your Mystery
Mystery writers have an advantage over many other genres when it comes to keeping the middle from sagging. Up to the middle the detective has delved into the evidence and suspects in the victim’s world
The essence of keeping a reader turning pages is heightened tension. Rather than episodic scenes where this happens and then that happens and then something else happens, you create tension by throwing up increasingly baffling obstacles for your detective.
In the chapters after the crisis in the middle, your detective gets glimpses of the killer’s world. These glimpses into the killer’s world are the mystery writer’s advantage, because the detective enters a world within a world. The killer’s world is inside the victim’s world.
In these chapters, the detective gets glimpses of the intersection between the two worlds.
What is a character bible?
How to liven up dialogue.
Reference Article Characters Don’t Speak in Semicolons
After The Middle
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.