Mystery Factory

THE ULTIMATE MYSTERY RESOURCE

HOW TO WRITE MYSTERY Plots

WRITE Mystery PLOTS for SCRIPTS or STORIES

A MYSTERY STRUCTURE can be divided into seven parts.

What happens?
THE CRIME

Who is involved?
THE CHARACTERS

Why did it happen?
THE MOTIVE

How did it happen?
THE METHOD or MEAN

When did it happen?
THE OPPORTUNITY

Where did it happen?
THE CRIME SCENE

What is the solution?
THE CLUES

Overview of the Mystery Structure

Mystery plots can seem complicated but …

… when you break the structure down to a ‘step by step’ process – it becomes simple!

I often have to come up with fairplay mystery plots (mysteries where the reader or audience has all the clues they need to solve the mystery) on very short notice. Over the years I have created a series of diagrams to help me do this. Below is the COMPILATION CHART – the final step and a consolidation of all the previous steps and diagrams.

COMPILATION CHART

Once I have the COMPILATION CHART filled out I have my plot and I know all of the clues that need to be created so that the mystery can be solved.

HOW TO START Writing your mystery

There are at least 7 different starting points for a plot … probably more. Any of the following plot points listed below can inspire you to commit murder. Do you have an idea about …

  • What happens – an overview of a captivating situation?
  • Who is involved – any particular type of nefarious or super character?
  • Why something happened – a motive that gets your blood boiling?
  • How it happened – intrigued by a challenging murder method?
  • When – passionate about time travel or a certain time of day?
  • Where – curious about historic or futuristic locations?
  • The Clues – in love with strategy and puzzles?

ANYTHING that GRABS your ATTENTION
can be a
STARTING POINT

There is no particular order in which to begin your mystery because writing the plot is not a linear process. The setting, the characters and their motives and the crime itself are all intricately tied together.  If you are writing a scrip, then the parametres you follow are going to be narrower than if you are writing a story.

MYSTERIES are CIRCULAR by NATURE

Mysterys are circular by nature. Their construction is circles within circles. Because of the shape of a mystery there are many different points of entry when devising a cluetrail.

In the centre of the circle is the crime. Around the circumference are the suspects. Orbiting between the centre and the circumference are the motive, method, opportunity.

A mystery starts with a question and ends with the answer.” – Lee Child

Whatever your specific question is, it will fall under one of the above plot points. The question starts with ‘What if …’ This question breaks down into a kaleidoscope of other questions. .. all of which must be answered by the end of the story. These questions are the life force of a mystery, the situation into which the characters are tossed and by which the reader or audience is captivated.

Mysteries are incredibly flexible. They can bend and twist to fit any circumstances or situation. If you are writing an interactive mystery event, you just have to know what you have to work with in the beginning to save yourself the work of adjusting elements later on.

If you are writing a book, you have much more freedom – but you still need to know where you are going to end up. One of the great joys of being a writer is being able to lay the infrastructure so that it supports all the twists and turns you are going to pull your reader through on their way to solving the crime.

This does not mean you are married to a rigid outline or structure. Yes, you do have to make one, but if along the way a better idea pops up, follow it as far as you reasonable can. If this bright new idea is asking you to rearrange just about everything – it’s probably a different book. If you can easily tweak existing ideas to support the new twist – by all means follow it if it improves the story.

Building SUSPENCE

MYSTERIES are really TWO STORIES

One story is  What Appeared to Happen, and the second story, which everyone is trying to figure out, is What Really Happened.

What Actually Happened is the story. What Appeared to Happen is the mystery.

PLAN Your PLOT

ADVISE From The EXPERTS

P.D. James
“With Agatha Christie ingenuity of plot was paramount – no one looked for subtlety of characterization, motivation, good writing. It was rather like a literary card trick. Today we’ve moved closer to the mainstream novel, but nevertheless we need plot.”
 

Mickey Spillane
“Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it’s a letdown, they won’t buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.”

Anton Chekhov
“If somebody places a gun on the mantle in the first act, it must be fired before the end of the second.”

Alfred Hitchcock
“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”

Benjamin Franklin
“Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.”

Joseph Hansen
“Don’t just say it’s raining – make us feel the sodden weight of a wall of water driven by winds at sixty miles an hour.”

The TEN COMMANDMENTS of PLOT DEVICES from 1928

In1928, Father Ronald Arbuthnott Knox  (1888 – 1957) priest and crime writer,  created a “Ten Commandments” of plot devices that more or less codified the rules of the Fair-play whodunnit. A few of them are vastly outdated now, but still, fun to look over and appreciate in principal:

  • The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early on, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
  • All supernatural solutions are ruled out.
  • No more than one secret room or passage is allowable, and must be appropriate.
  • No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  • No Chinaman must figure in the story. ( A case of unsophisticated anti-racism, given the Yellow Peril figures prevalent in dodgy crime fiction at the time.)
  • No accidents or lucky intuition must ever help the detective.
  • The detective must not himself commit the crime.
  • The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
  • The detective and his sidekick must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind.
  • Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been prepared for them.

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2 Comments

    1. Hello Mystery Lover!
      A mystery has two components; ‘what actually happened’ and ‘what appeared to have happened’. You tell the story of ‘what appeared to have happened’ and your detective or protagonist figures out ‘what actually happened’. This is often accomplished by telling the story out of chronological sequence. Know what actually happened before you start, break it down into pieces and then toss them out there for your sleuth to find and put back together.
      A mystery doesn’t have to be a murder, in fact it doesn’t even have to be a crime. A ‘whodunnit’ simply means that an unknown person performed an action – no matter if the action is a murder, a theft, or the baking of a cake. Basically you want to have your theft have the motive, the method and the opportunity (The Mystery Bones) to have committed the theft and then create the clues to prove that he had, indeed, each of those three things. You will also need to create clues to show that other people also had one or two of the Bones (motive, method or opportunity) otherwise there is nothing to solve. You can get a bit of help with the clues here.
      Put the crime, or a piece of intrigue leading up to the crime, at the beginning of the story. You want to grab the reader and have them asking questions right away. Keep the action going right up until the end. ‘Give hope. Take hope away. Give hope. Take hope away.’ Let your detective make wrong assumptions and then figure out what a clue really means at the last minute. If you enjoy writing your mystery then others will enjoy reading it.