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Friday, January 13, 2017

Taking the Mystery out of Mystery Writing

A couple of years ago I wrote my first mystery Isis: AllAbout The Goddess. And it was one of the most challenging Isis series stories I had to craft.

I’ve always said that writing a mystery is like making a cheesecake. All the elements of the story have to be structured exactly and formed precisely in order to create a satisfying story for the reader.

Most traditional stories are simple and all you have to do is answer three questions in three chapters: Who is the main character? What do they want? And Why should we care?

While we get the answer to those first three questions with the introduction of the lead character and the obstacles they face in the first three chapters, a writer has to answer more questions in those first three chapters when they write a mystery. And in order to keep them compelled to read, a writer has to keep the reader asking questions until the climax of the story. Usually after the inciting incident shows us what crime was committed, a good writer will have their readers asking questions like:

Who committed the crime?

Why did they commit the crime?

And why should we care?

As the main character continues to face a series of obstacles thrown in their way by a series of suspects, the reader gets clues to their possible motivations and their possible reasons for committing the crime in the inciting incident.

For example in Isis: All About The Goddess Isis had to figure out which of the students at the Next School was stalking Marilyn Marie, a former child star. As she takes her place modeling nude in the art classes she finds a series of clues left by the stalker in the form of notes after each class. Each note and each new piece of evidence leads her to interview a different suspect between classes.

As the story builds to a climax, there are plot twists right after the plot points that spin the action around and has them asking more questions. In Isis: All About the Goddess, the first plot point reveals that there’s a note left for Marilyn in the class that Isis posed in. However, the door only locks from the inside. That first plot point has the reader asking questions.

Who put the note there? And how did they get inside?

And it points Isis towards a prime suspect. That note and an interest in sculpting wax has her thinking that Kyle the sculptor who works with Marilyn in the Fine Arts office is the prime suspect because Marilyn rejected his request to model for her. And his frantic search for a soft wax in the office closet has her believing he’s going to strike that day. As Isis goes to model in her second class the next day, she gets another clue: the same sculpting wax jammed in the door. That answers some questions and points towards the prime suspect who seems to run away from the door after leaving a second note.

It’s looking open and shut against Kyle. But mysteries are never solved that easy. The suspect is never who the main character or the audience usually expects it to be.

While it’s looking open and shut against Kyle, plot point two features the first plot twist that spins the action around and has the reader asking more questions. On a tip from one of the students, she learns that they can print documents wirelessly on their phones. While the evidence still points to Kyle, Isis goes to print a document in the computer lab. When she notices the ink patterns are different on the note and the documents printed at the lab, that first plot twist spins the action around for plot point two.  

The greatest challenge for a writer in crafting a mystery story is the pacing. If the story moves too fast, it gives everything away too soon. If they pace the story too slow, the reader loses their incentive to care. There has to be just the right amount of suspense and red herrings in between the plot points and the plot twists to throw the reader off the trail of the prime suspect and keep them compelled to keep reading until the final chapter.

After the second plot point in Isis: All About The Goddess I had the challenge of keeping the pace up. Yes, Isis had a lead on Kyle, the sculptor. And the story is looking like it’s building towards that climax. However, the notes were still leaving questions unanswered. If Kyle used the computer lab like all the other kids, why did the notes left in the dressing room have a different ink pattern?  After an interaction with Brody, an outspoken student from the class, and a confrontation with Kyle, and a discussion with Jessica, another student she soon learns things in the second plot twist that spin the action around for the third and final act.

In that sequence with Jessica, Isis learns more about how the stalker is making their notes. And after talking to Marilyn about her routine she learns more about the pattern of the stalker.

Right around the second plot point and second plot twist the mystery should be building towards a climax. In Isis: All About The Goddess everything is building towards a confrontation between Isis and the stalker. In this final confrontation, the stalker gets the drop on Isis. But afterward Isis realizes who that person truly is out of all the suspects. In the climax the action gets spun around in a plot twist that finally reveals who the stalker is and leads to a satisfying conclusion.

To my surprise Isis: All About The Goddess is one of the better selling Isis series stories. I still have a long way to mastering the mystery genre, but from the response of readers I seem to have done well writing my first mystery story. I’d love to do another Isis series mystery, but I want to make sure I have a better understanding of how to pace out the plot points and plot twists in the structure of the story.

The challenge of writing a mystery story together is like assembling a puzzle. Each piece on its own makes no sense to the reader. But as the reader starts putting the pieces together they all come together to form a bigger picture that shows them who committed the crime, what their reason for committing the crime was and why they wanted to do commit the crime When the pieces come together in a logical sequence it leads to a satisfying reading experience that has the reader eager for the next story.

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