#23: Constructing a Satisfying Mystery

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m writing a short murder mystery story, ten people trapped in a house style. I want the murderer to turn out to be another person who was secretly hiding in the house the whole time, but… if I overdo the hinting, it’ll be pretty obvious, and if I don’t talk about him at all it’ll be cheap when it’s revealed at the end.

The main characters are all friends and knew the murderer personally before the story, so there might be good reason for them to mention him casually. I just don’t know how to do that without letting out huge warning bells! Especially since he has the most clear motivations to do the dirty deed, and there aren’t any other (living) outsider characters.

The murderer is the twin brother of the victim, so the characters toss around a few “maybe they swapped places”–style theories, which wouldn’t really work if he was right in front of them. I suppose I could do something like have him be in the house, but in such a state of “shock” that the characters can’t tell which twin he is or extract any information from him? But I don’t know, it still feels like as long as he’s directly around, he’s the most obvious killer.

—Clued Out (she/her)

Dear Clued Out,

You’ve painted yourself into a corner by eliminating all sources of tension from your story. Fortunately that’s pretty easy to fix.

Here’s the setup you have right now:

  • Someone was killed
  • By the person most motivated to do it
  • Who is so obvious a culprit that if he appears in the story he will be immediately identified as the killer
  • So you leave him out of the story

That’s not the setup of a murder mystery, because there’s no mystery to it. You need multiple plausible solutions and perhaps some implausible ones as well. And you’re right that if there’s only one plausible solution and the only reason characters (and readers) haven’t figured it out is that they’re missing information, the revelation of that information will probably be unsatisfying.

Satisfaction comes from sustained tension leading to a climax. The tension in a mystery is usually an unanswered question: whowhy, or how. It sounds like how isn’t so much the issue in your mystery, and right now who and why have only one possible answer. So you need to set up some alternatives.

Why mysteries sustain tension while withholding crucial information. Josephine Tey’s brilliant Brat Farrar comes to mind: Brat impersonates a presumed-dead man named Patrick, but no matter how good his impersonation is, Patrick’s brother, Simon, is still skeptical. Why? We don’t find out until a dramatic confrontation near the end. But in that case we know there’s information we don’t have, because Simon clearly does have it. We want to find out what he knows—why he’s so certain. That’s the central mystery. And there are many plausible reasons for Simon to think that “Patrick” is an imposter, starting with the undeniable fact that he is, or to pretend to think so, since Patrick was the oldest son and would get the inheritance Simon’s been expecting. Also, the reader has information that Simon doesn’t have—certain knowledge that “Patrick” isn’t Patrick—and is waiting to see what happens when he learns it.

If you want to turn your mystery into a why mystery, you could reveal the killer fairly early on but leave the question of his motivation unclear, and make it important for some reason, such as establishing whether the killer could claim he was acting in self-defense.

In an investigative who mystery, the central question is generally established up front and then one or more characters proceed to try to answer it. In a fair mystery, the reader knows only what the characters know and vice versa, and the challenge for the reader is to put the pieces together first. It sounds like this is the kind of mystery you’re trying to write, so you can’t have the solution be something the characters and reader don’t know about, such as a person hiding in the house.

To turn your mystery into a who mystery, there need to be multiple suspects who are just as plausible as the twin. In a situation with a closed circle of suspects this gets quite intense, as all the suspects suspect one another and they’re all trying to clear their own names. If some of the residents fear they may themselves be murdered, that also increases the suspense. I assume you already have some of those elements in place; if not, time to throw them in! A closed-circle mystery with ten detectives and one suspect won’t hold the reader’s interest. A closed-circle mystery with eleven detectives and eleven suspects: that gets much more interesting. Why set off only one warning bell when you could set off a dozen?

While you’re making the other characters into plausible suspects, you can also make the killer twin a less plausible suspect. Perhaps he and his brother just publicly reconciled after years of feuding. Perhaps he has a good alibi. Perhaps there’s a clause in the will saying that in case of foul play the entire estate will be donated to charity. Perhaps it’s well known that he gets faint at the sight of blood. There are plenty of ways to render him just one suspect among many.

Your letter is very much a why mystery for me: I want to know why it’s so important to you that the twin not appear in the story. From where I’m sitting, “increase the number of possible killers” sounds like a much easier writing task than “figure out how to have a shocking last-minute reveal that doesn’t feel like cheating.”

I recommend reading some great closed-circle mysteries (this Goodreads list of country house mysteries is a good starting point) and taking notes on what makes them work. Examine how the information is parceled out, and see if you can solve the mystery before the characters do. Then reread with the solution in mind and look at how the red herrings are laid and the reader is encouraged to follow them.

Finally, remember to be mean to your readers. You want them to sweat and struggle to solve the puzzle. That’s why we read mysteries—for the pursuit of the answer, not the answer itself. And on reread, every mystery is a how mystery, as we figure out how the author led us astray even when we were doing our very best to be perceptive and clever. So make your mystery fair but challenging, and make the reader really work for the answer.

Happy scheming!


Story Nurse

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2 thoughts on “#23: Constructing a Satisfying Mystery

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