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Techniques to structure "mystery" plots?

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"Mystery" being in quotes because of course, there is the classic detective story, but there are myriad other "mystery" plots where the characters have to find out what is really going on.

I'm always afraid of revealing too much too soon (which makes it boring as I mark time), or of having red herrings that aren't believable at all. I'm interested in how others lay this out; it's hard to know The Truth and yet dole it out without feeling like it's too obvious. But I came up with a thought the other day while thinking about books that do this well: draw out a table (could scribble on a white board or put stickies on the wall, too) all the real things that have to be discovered in your story. Now cover some up. What logical conclusions could a character come to based only on that skewed sample of clues? I think it would make it more believable than a simple, random red herring, no? Then as your character acts on his or her assumptions and things fail as a result, the lack of more evidence will become evident, and they'll be driven to find the missing pieces, until at last they have the full picture (and all the clues to defeat the antagonist, I presume).

Has anyone tried anything like this? Or have another way to plot this kind of book that works well? I have interesting characters and situations, but I feel like I'm breaking down when it comes to plot for some reason.
#1 - December 04, 2015, 12:24 PM

I write a lot of mysteries, and one thing I do is to mentally plot the story along several different paths. In a way, I'm plotting a series of very straight line mystery plots.  For instance, what if the killer was actually the principal -- what would be his motivation? How did he do it? What did he do to try to cover it up? Who might have seen him? What mistakes might he have made? Now, what if it was the neighbor -- what is his motivation? How would he do it? etc, etc. I do this with AT LEAST three and preferably more characters. And I come up with these mental paths leading all the way to the ending so that I can see how each of these endings could be completely viable.

Then I look at each of these people one at a time and I mentally  make that person not the killer -- so now the principal is not that killer. So why was he at the victim's house? What did they fight about? Why did he try to cover up his actions? I come up with a good solid plot that results in him NOT being the killer. I do the same for all of my murderers -- other reasons each of these characters might have done all the incriminating things other than because they were the murderer.

At the end, I pick the killer (usually the person who would be the easiest to make be NOT the killer). I keep the paths to each of the people open as along as I possibly can, shutting them one at a time in ways that makes a DIFFERENT person (not the real killer) look very, very guilty. This makes all my red herrings extremely believable.

Now that I read this back, it sounds like this would make you a little crazy, but I actually find it fun.
I'm a little odd.
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#2 - December 04, 2015, 01:55 PM
« Last Edit: December 04, 2015, 01:58 PM by Jan Fields »
ASKING QUESTIONS ABOUT HOW HOLLYWOOD MOVIES GET MADE [Cherry Lake/2015]
GHOST LIGHT BURNING [ABDO/2015]
MONSTER HUNTERS [ABDO/2014&2016]

At a NESCBWI conference a few years back, Kate Messner did a great presentation on how she plotted her mystery series. It isn't as complex as you're describing, Rose (though I love your covering up idea!), but I thought it was a nice comprehensive way to consider a mystery plot, motives, suspects, along the lines of what Jan is describing. Thankfully all of Kate's slides are on Slideshare, including her mystery mind map:

http://www.slideshare.net/mobile/tkmess/mystery-workshop
#3 - December 04, 2015, 03:32 PM
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I don't write mysteries, but there's usually a mystery component to my stories. It would be a very good thing to plan this out from the very beginning!  :eh2

Thanks for starting this thread, Rose!
#4 - December 05, 2015, 05:37 AM
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These are all great. I also write a lot of mysteries and I'm always looking for ways to improve my plotting. I'm naturally a pantser but have to do outlines for my mysteries which is a good thing. But creating an intricate puzzle plot will probably never be my forte.

I try to have three or even four suspects with good motives to do the deed. Sometimes I don't get very deep into the timeline part of a plot, ie who was there at 10 pm but rather call into question all of them. Then if I need to have someone be present that wasn't otherwise thought to be, I unveil a new clue.

In one recent book, 3 people all bought the salve that could be poisonous if misused and another handled one tin for the buyer.

I also try to have shocking and/or twisty things happen at 25%, 50%, and 75% to keep the plot escalating.
#5 - December 05, 2015, 05:48 AM
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I don't write genre mysteries, either (I was actually thinking "mystery" as in one of a few basic plot structures, others possibly being "lack" or "conflict" or "road trip" or whatever--NOT limited to crime stories). I think most books have an element of mystery, no matter what you call it. And how well you pull it off really affects how successful your pacing is, how much progress it feels like your character is making in a reasonable amount of time, and even how interesting and compelling a book is. You've got to somehow let the reader have enough clues so they can be figuring out The Truth along with your character, to both give them surprises, and make them inevitable. So I like hearing all these different ways, because they really force you as the writer to have concrete plans, you know? (Ahem. Says the struggling Pantser here!)
#6 - December 05, 2015, 06:30 AM

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All stories have an element of mystery and Donald Maass examines this in his book Writing the Breakout Novel. I found it very helpful in deciding when things should be revealed. I used the Workbook to revise and it made a huge difference.

Kristi Holl has a book about writing mysteries (the classic kind). Maybe that will be useful as well to you.

Vijaya
#7 - December 05, 2015, 10:50 AM
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 :trench The great P. D. James explained that readers of mysteries read them to "make sense of the world," especially the more seemingly senseless aspects of it. This requires tight planning, IMO. Of all the genres mysteries don't lend themselves to 'pantsting.' You can have some spontaneous incidental things pop up, but the structure and almost all details should be known to the writer before they write the first paragraph. That paragraph likely contains a pivotal clue, at least in the best of the classic mysteries.  :trenchcoat
#8 - December 05, 2015, 12:36 PM
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I write a lot of mysteries, and one thing I do is to mentally plot the story along several different paths. In a way, I'm plotting a series of very straight line mystery plots.  For instance, what if the killer was actually the principal -- what would be his motivation? How did he do it? What did he do to try to cover it up? Who might have seen him? What mistakes might he have made? Now, what if it was the neighbor -- what is his motivation? How would he do it? etc, etc. I do this with AT LEAST three and preferably more characters. And I come up with these mental paths leading all the way to the ending so that I can see how each of these endings could be completely viable.

Then I look at each of these people one at a time and I mentally  make that person not the killer -- so now the principal is not that killer. So why was he at the victim's house? What did they fight about? Why did he try to cover up his actions? I come up with a good solid plot that results in him NOT being the killer. I do the same for all of my murderers -- other reasons each of these characters might have done all the incriminating things other than because they were the murderer.

At the end, I pick the killer (usually the person who would be the easiest to make be NOT the killer). I keep the paths to each of the people open as along as I possibly can, shutting them one at a time in ways that makes a DIFFERENT person (not the real killer) look very, very guilty. This makes all my red herrings extremely believable.

Now that I read this back, it sounds like this would make you a little crazy, but I actually find it fun.
I'm a little odd.
Also, I need a bunny. :bunny2

 :like
#9 - December 05, 2015, 02:35 PM
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I write mysteries. I really like your cover up idea. My plots are not that intricate, and I tend to work backwards. I figure out the bad guy first and how and why he did it. That helps me set up clues in the early scenes. I don't work from a very detailed outline, but I know the ending and the major plot points before I draft. But I also tend to do a lot of rewriting. One book that I always reference and learned a lot from is The Weekend Writer Writes a Mystery (Robert Ray). It's geared for writers for adults and some of the stuff probably isn't applicable, but his idea of interviewing the killer and the victim in the planning stages always helps me figure out my story.
#10 - December 05, 2015, 09:18 PM
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Because my mysteries (both the ones I do for adults and the ones I've done for kids) tend to have a lot of action (I'm a whoovian through and through, I love it when I send my clever boys running), I also look for ways to menace my main character. In a mystery, the main character is basically seeking truth, and truth has a tendency to be inconvenient to liars--so my main characters are usually upsetting MULTIPLE people who want the lies to stay hidden. So I have several directions from which menace can come. And these can also serve as a type of red herring. They can try to track down who threw the brick with the note scrawled on it in Sharpie, assuming that will lead them to the culprit of the mystery, only to discover it was a rabbit trail that lead to someone who was only guilty of wanting to keep a lie concealed. So, the good menace can be hugely helpful. I often reach a point in a plot where I think, this main character isn't scared enough--so what can we throw at him that will be really scary and really distracting.
#11 - December 06, 2015, 05:44 AM
ASKING QUESTIONS ABOUT HOW HOLLYWOOD MOVIES GET MADE [Cherry Lake/2015]
GHOST LIGHT BURNING [ABDO/2015]
MONSTER HUNTERS [ABDO/2014&2016]

Another side note: distraction is a great way to bury "true" clues. When a the real clues roll up, I usually bury them either in a clump of false clues, or I immediately jerk the reader's attention away from what was just learn through a distraction (like setting the building on fire or throwing a rock through a window...I'm a terrible citizen). If the distractions are well done enough, I can hold the reader off on figuring out the real culprit. Readers tend to be most thrilled with a mystery when they figure out the culprit just the teeniest bit ahead of the "detective." That feels like "winning" to the reader without resulting in the judgment that the mystery was "stupid" or "too easy."
#12 - December 06, 2015, 05:47 AM
ASKING QUESTIONS ABOUT HOW HOLLYWOOD MOVIES GET MADE [Cherry Lake/2015]
GHOST LIGHT BURNING [ABDO/2015]
MONSTER HUNTERS [ABDO/2014&2016]

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When I started writing my YA Mystery SWIMMING ALONE, I actually wasn't sure who did it or why, or what exactly had happened. I just wrote and wrote... and eventually, I figured out my plot. Then I started to outline (and re-outline), and make sure all the correct clues were planted. The book went through a lot of rewrites! (Maybe if I had figured things out earlier, that would not have been the case!)

For me the key is that there is the actual solution, and then one or two other solutions that distract the protagonist. In SWIMMING ALONE, there is something really major that distracts her from figuring out what actually has happened. The book is in the first person, so I really tried to step inside her shoes-- what would she think if this happened. What conclusion would she draw?

But with my shorter mystery fiction, I worked much more organically. I usually know the ending (but not always) and write until I get there-- and then do a lot of rewriting to make sure the clues and red herrings are in place. And some of these stories aren't traditionally plotted at all.

I also think that with a mystery, what keeps it from being "boring" is the early "body drop." It doesn't need to be an actual body, of course, but then the reader will stay engaged as the character attempts to figure things out!
#13 - December 07, 2015, 05:45 AM

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:goodthread

Great tips, you guys! I've learned a lot from this thread.
#14 - December 07, 2015, 10:59 AM
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