Help Please! Building a mystery

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Jason L.

Full Member
Jun 22, 2022
Seminole, FL
Hi there!

I am writing a mystery. I have at least eight viable suspects, two different murders, and the motives are strong. I have several clues already baked in and a few more that I am trying to test out. I have several red herrings (I won't say that everybody has secrets, but let's just say that enough of them have secrets that it's not a level playing field). There are at least two side mysteries (both of which could be the motivation for the murders, but aren't).

Every time I write a mystery, I think "I will never do this again. It's really hard and once I'm done with this, I will never, ever be able to repeat it. Periodt." I can understand why some of the mystery writers I dislike write such predictable, unoriginal stories: this is really, really hard. You cannot write three books a year of this when you are still going back and forth about how that neat clue could be reasonably discovered by the sleuth and worrying that, once you have used that clue idea, you can never ever use it again and you will eventually run out of clever plot ideas.

Agatha Christie structured her murders backward, starting from the end and working the clues backward. This is helpful, as it means that I am having to go backwards and add in scenes in which I introduce characters or have a clue thrown in.

So if there has been someone who found some good tips, I would love to open a conversation about that. Is there any way that you have made mystery writing easier for yourself, if you've done it several times?
Cops also solve their murders backward. They often use a story-board with timelines for EACH suspect, artefact, or theory. If you remember how they used to teach English grammar (all those diagrammed sentences!), that's how those boards become as each clue links to a section, part or person.
By necessity, they start in the middle of the 'story' with the victim/body, the previous section for lining up any suspects, prospects, etc. (and their timelines) and the end section for those they watch to see where and when a slip is made, evidence is gathered, facts garnered, or something becomes connected to them, and how it connects.
Often, it's not a board at all, but huge glass window, so you can imagine how big it gets.
Cold cases are more targeted, leaving out those know to have no involvement based on facts and evidence, and it leaves only those who cannot be ruled out.
For fiction, having only those who can't be ruled out due to some form of connection, makes the story stronger. I think Christie made sure everyone had some form of motive/drive to do the deed, and no one who wasn't involved in some way.
As a reader, I prefer Christie's method, because I don't want to find out that the person I suspected had nothing to do with anything! They all have reason, and I get to decide, based on information provided, who is the most likely candidate and if I can prove how smart I am by picking (or noticing) who the culprit is, I'm chuffed.
My debut is a mystery and I completely pantsed it…my second WIP is a thriller mystery which I have tried to plot a bit more but it appears I am still in the panster team.

I wonder if you are over complicating things our head with so many characters, so many twists and red herrings.

Do you have a plot laid out? I am finding Plottr useful for book two.

If not, I would suggest you start with your main plot-just the basis. Then perhaps do a plot for each character separately.

Who is the real killer? Focus on their plot first.

It’s hard to give advice on your plot hole without knowing the plot…

I appreciate you don’t want to share to much but happy for to dm me with more details so I could try to come up with come suggestions?

Hello, @LA Thomas - you seem to have misread me. I don't think I have plot holes that I know of. And one of the reasons that I wanted to open this discussion was not to have a backdoor excuse to discuss my own work, but a broad discussion.

Vis-à-vis my level of subplots and characters: Reread Death on the Nile, or A Caribbean Mystery. A standard-length novel by AC has at least those things. Eight viable suspects at the start, several of whom are weak and are eliminated by midnovel, leaving four close suspects after midnovel. The twist is that at least one, and possibly two, are likely guilty of something (infidelity, embezzlement, etc) but not of murder, meaning that we wasted our time. There is often one romantic storyline in which one person is a potential suspect and the other is mooning about hoping they are not murderers. The person who is guilty is often not even on our initial list of suspects.

In a taxonomy of clues, Ms. Christie used three different types: a physical reaction, a spoken/written clue, and a physical object (there are subsections for each).
  • In At Bertram's Hotel, we have a character who looks shocked. We think it is because he is staring at someone who likes to be flamboyant. In reality, he is shocked by something behind that person. We are misled into thinking that the person was upset by this behavior, but it wasn't.
  • In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we have a chair put out of place so that when you enter the room you wouldn't notice something behind it until that thing had been moved.
  • In Evil Under the Sun one of the chief clues is in an inane background conversation held between Captain Hastings and Miss Lemon.
There has been a trend, during the past twenty or so years, many modern mysteries have lost that sophistication. If you were raised on Ms. Christie, it makes for a more disappointing read. Mostly the clues are occurring during what I call "formal interrogation mode" with a smaller subsection of vital clues being dropped in "anecdotal reminiscences" mode.

Because I admire Ms. Christie, I would like to emulate her style more closely. I have several writers who have appalled me, despite being popular, but I try not to make a habit of namedropping writing that I didn't like. Someone did, and it wasn't me.

Here's what I found worked. I wrote the first half according to plan, and then I wrote the big reveal scene at one go. After that moment, I knew that I had to bury each one of these clues earlier. I had a guideline to follow and was conscious that X scene isn't advancing the plot at the moment. It's more concentrated on the emotional growth of the characters. Is it necessary? Is it important? How can we make sure that even this scene has some little tidbit that is important now, or that will become important later? In some cases, I am still working on that.
For reference sake, this is the taxonomy that I started writing.


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I'm not going to follow this thread, because I don't want to accidentally pick up plot points that would help me guess whodunnit. I'm happy to read the mystery with no prior knowledge of the story, plot or characters.
All I know is that I do prefer Christie to the modern gore porn. Poe's 'Goldbug' has everything I want in a mystery. In my head writing is much like creating an English garden. You plant the spring bulbs in first because they are the deepest then layer up each season so you have interest the whole year. Keeping in mind there is no garden without limitations. Windows, doors and arches that block the view and create different perspectives. Otherwise it's just a plot,( accidental pun-but it works.) It's the mystery that makes a garden. You have read the Silent Patient? I saw an interview with the author and he was also a Christie fan. I think he said he did basically as you describe. Working backwards from the reveal?
My favourite Christie novel is And Then there were None which she has reportedly described as the hardest to write. I also love Stuart Turton's The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle which also must have been incredibly difficult to keep from falling into plot holes (protagonist keeps waking up in another of the dinner party guests' bodies and minds. In order to leave this endless ground-hog day dinner party, he must work out who murdered Evelyn).
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