Friday, November 16, 2012

7 Ways to Add Mystery to Your Plot

by Jill Williamson
When I wrote my mystery vs. suspense post on Tuesday, I tried to link to this post. Then I discovered that I never posted this post on Go Teen Writes. This was one of my last posts on my old Teenage Authors blog. So I decided to post it here for those of you who've never seen it. I think it's helpful when writing a mystery.
The strength of a plot depends on how the writer reveals information to the reader. If you have nothing going on in the middle of your book, try some of these mystery tips to see if you can add some intrigue. And if you don’t have enough characters for intrigue, maybe you need to add some minor characters.
1. Know the ending
When writing a strong plot, it’s important to have some idea of how you want the story to end. This usually results in your main character achieving his goal. In a mystery novel, that means figuring out who done it. If your mystery is a subplot, you still need to reveal the answer to that mystery. Once you know your ending, it will be easier for you to plant clues and red herrings for the reader along the way.
2. Avoid luck
Nothing is more frustrating to a reader than a story in which the main character succeeds by a string of good luck. Do not allow luck or other heroic characters to sweep in and steal the spotlight from your main character. Your hero needs to solve the mystery!
3. Backstory
Know the backstory of all your main and minor characters. Do not put all that you know into the book! You need to know it to understand each character’s motivation for doing what they do in the story. Murder requires motive. So does every other action. Once you know each character well, it will be easier to plant clues and red herrings for the reader. 
4. Introduce the culprit early on

Make sure the reader gets to see that bad guy/traitor/guilty party early on in the book. It’s frustrating to be reading a story and think you know who may have done it only to discover it was a character who just entered the story in chapter 28! Give the reader a glimpse early on. JK Rowling does a great job with this. If you've read or seen the first Harry Potter, remember that we first saw Professor Quirrell at the Leaky Cauldron when Harry was first headed to school.
Keep in mind, the culprit shouldn't always be the least likely person. Mix it up. Keep your reader guessing.
5. Clues
A clue is: anything that serves to guide or direct in the solution of a problem or mystery.
Plant clues as the story moves along. Things that may seem significant or completely ordinary. Harry Potter’s meeting a new teacher seemed like no big deal at the time.
Clues can be observations. Perhaps your character notices a tattoo on a friend. He doesn't think much of it until later in the book when he sees a villain with the same tattoo. Then there is a connection that raises suspicion of the friend. 
Clues can be relationships: relatives who hate each other, a boyfriends who was cheated on, a couple in love, a mentor…
Clues can be evidence like fingerprints, hair color, footprints, license plate numbers, etc.
Clues can be dialogue. Keri told me she loved snowboarding. Then why did she tell me she hated it?
Depending on the type of writer you are, you might plan these clues before you write the book or write the whole book then go back in and plant clues. Both ways work.
Use clues sparingly. You don’t need them for every character in every scene. You just need a few here and there.
6. Red herrings
A red herring is something intended to divert attention from the real problem or matter at hand; a misleading clue.
Plant red herrings as the story moves along. Things that may seem significant or completely ordinary. Professor Snape’s apparent hatred of Harry seemed like a very big motive for villainy, even though it wasn't.
Red herrings can be observations, relationships, evidence, and dialogue too. Reveal them in the same manner as you do clues. You goal is to throw your reader off track.
Depending on the type of writer you are, you might plan out these red herrings before you write the book or write the whole book then go back in and plant red herrings. Both ways work.  ;-)
Use red herrings sparingly too. 
7. Wait as long as possible for the big reveal
If the mystery subplot is integral to the overall plot of your story, don’t reveal your culprit in the middle of the book. Wait until the last possible moment for your main character to figure it all out.
The idea is to create a trail of puzzle pieces for your character to find and put together until it’s time to be revealed. So if your story is stuck, I suggest you plant some more puzzle pieces. Any questions?


  1. Useful as always! I'm still trying to figure out what exactly my plot is...I'm at that point where I'm six chapters into my WIP and barely going anywhere. Bleh. :P

    1. Hmmm. Does your main character have a goal?

  2. Puts me in the mood to write a mystery!

  3. Haha! :D This was perfectly timed as I'm starting up a new mystery. This blog is a huge help to me.

    I have some questions though. How do you avoid telling too much at the end? Like, explaining WHY the villain did what he did. You don't want a huge monologue, right? So what's too much and what's too little?

    If you add character's that trip the reader up, then how do you explain them in the end and their reasons for being suspicious beings?

    And finally, this has a lot to do with my story, how do you write one character discovering who the culprit is without revealing it to the reader?

    thank you for your time :)

    1. I'm so glad, Random!

      First, try to let your hero seek out the bad guy's motivation as he tries to guess who did it. Crime needs motivation, so he'd always be seeking that. You can reveal more motivation in the form of clues and space them out. Let his motivation come out through the action of the story. And do try and avoid that big confessing monologue at the end. You could have your hero ask one question or something.

    2. Second, when you add characters that trip up the reader, you need to know what their motivations are. That way when your character discovers it, he'll know they are innocent. So maybe he suspected that Sue was guilty because she disappeared each night at the same time of the crime. So he follows her. But he sees that she's going to see her father in prison and didn't want anyone to know he was in there. So she was keeping a secret, but it wasn't bad. And your sleuth finds out why and she's been cleared as a suspect.

    3. Third, I don't quite understand your question. Do you want your main character to learn who the bad guy is but you don't want the reader to know? Is that what you meant?

      If so, you could just end the chapter with something like:

      I'd put all the clues together and now I knew who'd done it. I would head to Officer Brown's office first thing in the morning and tell him.

      That sort of a thing tends to increase the narrative distance between you and your readers, though. But lots of writers do it that way.

  4. Great post, Jill! Love how methodically you laid everything out!

    1. :-)
      I'm thinking like a sleuth.
      Or a murderer...

  5. Awesome post! As always, perfect timing - the story I'm now starting involves mystery.

    The mentions of red herrings remind me of Lemony Snicket's The Ersatz Elevator - which features an actual red herring statue, that is actually not a red herring at all. I loved those books :)

    1. Sweet, Kate!
      Ha ha. That's funny about Lemony Snicket. :-)

  6. I find that these tips are great for my spy novel :) thanks so much! The only thing that is still driving me crazy is I can't seem to keep the action up from clue to

  7. Very true!
    Do you have any input on writing with morals/Biblical concepts without sounding preachy? As a Christian writer, I struggle with that often. Not to mention I'm at a potentially-preachy part in my novel right now. :)