Anatomy of a Mystery

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Anatomy of a Mystery

Notes for

When Words Collide

16 August 2015

Table of Contents

Table of Contents 2

Introduction 3

Formula for a Mystery 3

Readers Expectations in Mystery Genre 4

The Anatomy of a Mystery 4

Types of Mystery Plots 5

The Mystery Arc 6

Point of View in Mysteries 9

Key Characters in a Mystery 10

Sources of Conflict 12

Clues and Red Herrings 14

10 Tips for a Successful Mystery 15

5.Play fair with the reader 15

6.Raise the stakes 16

7.Control the pace Impose a deadline 16

8.Make the interrogation physical as well as verbal 16

9.Threaten the characters 16

10.Challenge the characters’ ingenuity 16

11.Allow characters to make mistakes 16

12.Limit detective’s options 16

13.Isolate detective physically 16

14.Isolate detective psychologically 16

Conclusion 16

Bibliography 17

APPENDIX A: History of Mystery 17

APPENDIX B: Mystery Terms 18


From the time I read my first Nancy Drew Mystery, I was hooked on the puzzles that are at the core of every mystery book. From Nancy, I moved on to my brothers’ stack of The Hardy Boys, dived into my best friend’s collection of Agatha Christies, and the rest is history. Now I’m a full time author, and my stories always have a mystery at their core even though I may then weave in light paranormal elements or wander into the international suspense thriller setting. And, I still love to read mysteries.

Formula for a Mystery

Mysteries are books that have, at their core, a crime (most likely a murder) and someone who strives to solve the crime or catch the killer. But mystery fiction has not escaped all the upheaval of the recent paradigm shift in the publishing industry and has had to adapt accordingly.

Today's mystery and suspense writer can go literally in any direction, genre, and sub-genre. Romance, Science Fiction, Paranormal, and Mainstream novels routinely tap into the elements of mystery fiction. This has opened the doors to some new and exciting direction like the cozy paranormal mystery series from authors like Mary Stanton, Heather Blackwell and Joyce and James Lavene. That doesn’t mean that you can throw out the traditional bones of a mystery. The tried and true formula still applies along with many of the other fundamentals we’ve relied on for decades.

Suspense = Interest + anticipation + uncertainty + emotion

So what makes for a great mystery?

  • Strong Mystery PLOT

  • Depth of CHARACTERS

  • Multiple sources of CONFLICT

  • Strategic Placement of CLUES

  • Creative use of RED HERRINGS

Readers Expectations in Mystery Genre

Mysteries are a genre and if you are writing mysteries you must meet the expectations of the readers. Mystery form is not as rigid as in the past, but there are some the generally accepted rules that still need to be observed for a mystery to be a mystery and a satisfying read. Rules are NOT laws – they simply define the boundaries of the playing field.

  • The crime must be serious enough for the reader to want it solved, along with a penalty for NOT solving the murder.

  • There must be detection--a crime cannot solve itself.

  • Fair Play. Every clue discovered by the detective/sleuth has to be made available to the reader somewhere in the book. The reader has the right to expect that clues and red herrings eventually lead to solving the crime.

  • If it is a whodunnit there must be a number of suspects and the murderer must be among them. All suspects must be introduced or mentioned within the first few chapters of the book.

  • If is a whydunnit, the murderer may be known and the question becomes which of the motives is the reason the crime was committed.

The Anatomy of a Mystery

Mysteries are works of creative fiction and therefore the tools and techniques for STORY are the same in many ways.

Like most novels, mysteries can be either plot- or character-driven:

Plot-driven mystery emphasis on puzzle. The author predetermines the sequence of events and then chooses the characters on the basis of how well equipped they are to carry out the plan.

Character-driven mystery focus on the psychology emotions and motivations of the protagonist and the people around him or her.

Mysteries do have some fundamental differences from other genres, however; the most obvious being the necessity for there to be a body – appearing as early as possible, preferably between pages 30 and 50 (pages 60 to 100 of a typed, double-spaced manuscript).

Types of Mystery Plots

This is not a complete list but the five most common plot categories and may present a starting point for new mystery writers.

Puzzle: Agatha Christie novels. A crime is committed under impossible circumstances, for example, in a locked room. The detective’s role is to solve the puzzle and make the impossible plausible. Agatha Christie novels. Puzzle always stresses plot over character or style and the puzzle is the thing.

Backgrounder/Oedipal: This is the core principle of most detective plots. Present crime is a consequence of an earlier, forgotten one. Push far back into the past to explain the present. Present crime is a consequence of something that happened in the past. The detective must delve back into the past to solve the mystery.

Interruption of Everyday Life: This is where an ordinary person, most likely an amateur sleuth, is involved in a crime and is transformed into a stronger person.

Caper: This is the simplest of plots. It's basically serial: You know what the goal is: To rob a bank or steal something like jewels, Cruise's Mission Impossible or Connery's Entrapment. Or to assassinate someone, King's The Dead Zone or a whole crowd of someone’s in Harris's Black Sunday. The appeal of this plot comes from our vicarious delight in planning and constructing schemes and structures.

Ticking Clock: In the plot, the main question is will they get away with it? The “it” may be anything with a built in deadline: a robbery [the caper mystery], a kidnapping, or a terrorists attack. Built in suspense of a deadline. James Patterson's Kiss the Girls is a prime example. This simple device of date, place, and time of day makes it so much easier to plot.

Also called Saved by the Bell: Hero(ine) is captured and imprisoned, and is saved by the "sleuth" in the nick of time. Patterson's Kiss the Girls; Koontz's Whispers; Harris's Silence of the Lambs. This is where an ordinary person, most likely an amateur sleuth, is involved in a crime and is transformed into a stronger, harder, more dangerous person. Dietz's Stab a Cheesecake to Death and Beat Up a Cookie.

Reflective Plots: The main mystery plot and personal subplots converge in the resolution, which changes the protagonist’s life. The subplots and main mystery plot must converge in a resolution. First person plot requires that the subplot also concern the detective or narrator and they can only describe what they actually witness. Grafton's ABC Milhone books or Janet Evanovich’s books are prime examples.

Some of the common craft techniques are particularly well suited to the mystery genre, such as foreshadowing, flashbacks or dream sequences, to heighten suspense or plant clues.

Foreshadowing is letting the reader know that something is going to happen at some point. What and when is not yet revealed. Foreshadowing is a good plot tool, opening up the possibilities for the reader and giving them something to think (or worry) about before it happens. For the mystery and suspense writer, foreshadowing places doubt, fear and suspicion in the reader's mind, or can links seemingly disparate events and scenes together into an unexpected conclusion. For many writers, it will be easier foreshadowing events during the later revision stages when the sequence of events is settled.

Flashbacks or dream sequences are most effective (and most obvious) when they present a highly charged scene, such as in suspense, mystery, thrillers novels. They should be used sparingly or they may slow down the action.

The Mystery Arc

All stories have arcs: a beginning; complications in the middle; and an end. The mystery arc provides a scaffold on which to build the story and explore the characters. Generally, it includes

  1. Character and setting introduction

  2. Discovery of a body or other crime

  3. The protagonist’s initial status and commitment. Status doesn’t mean social position; it is where the protagonist is in his/her life when the story starts.

  4. Collection of evidence, clues, and red herrings, complicated by procedural delays, unavailability of interviewees, fuzzy focus, or personal issue escalation.

  5. Discovery or second (or more) body or other crime.

  6. The protagonist’s second commitment. He/she realizes the danger, but now cannot pull away from solving this.

  7. Revisiting the evidence, clues, and red herrings. Secrets began to be revealed, complicating the investigation by providing conflicting data and a need to change directions. This part of the arc often includes rising physical or psychological danger to the protagonist or those close to him/her.

  8. The final clue drops into place.

  9. Confrontation with the villain at the risk of physical or psychological damage. Sometimes, the final clue turns out not to be the final secret.

  10. Resolution: justice triumphs, or not; protagonist satisfaction, or not; happily ever after or happy for now.

Personal arcs:

Romance and relationships

Danger to family

Danger to community

Personal fortunes

Living conditions

Contrast to: personal fortunes decline as a result of seeing justice is done. The characters sacrifice personal happiness for the good of the community.

Synchronization with: personal fortunes rise as a result of seeing justice done. The characters’ personal lives improve when the community is protected.

In some cozy series, not much changes in the protagonist’s life as a result of their encounter with murder. Mostly their lives return to normal without changes.


Traditional Mystery (cozy)

Middle of the road

Very mean streets

Introduce protagonist and discover body

Characters are prime; body is secondary (body off stage or clean)

Body tends to take on more importance. Messier; Characters have real life problems

Characters have serious problems and body is messy

Police Procedure

Off stage, accidental, or friendly sheriff

Knowledge of process as an overview--some details

Full frontal autopsies Intricate process details

Introduce suspects and red herrings Secondary arcs are developed here

Quirkier the better -- the better writers aim for real people, quirky but real

Tangled web of people's lives

Raining downtown on drug dealers and pimps

First significant threat to protagonist –mystery arc and personal arcs often intersect here

A dark spot in an otherwise cheerful story


Physical damage to the protagonist

Raise the stakes

At least one new complication

One or more complications

Looking like the St. Valentine's Day massacre!

Confrontation that puts protagonist in real danger

Real fear, another dark spot

Significant danger, but protagonist often emerges unhurt

More physical damage, torture, rape

Revelation and resolution—all of the arcs come together

Characters regroup, and may or may not have life changes

Characters have life changes and a commitment to go on

Life has changed, usually for the worse (hard won and transient happiness)

Sample list of Authors

Anne George

Mary Daheim

Elizabeth Peters

Janet Evanovich

P. D. James

Carolyn Graham

Susan Albert

Patricia Cornwall

Kathy Reichs

Dashell Hammett

James Lee Burke

Point of View in Mysteries

Who will tell the story?

First person

Very common in mystery; strong and involving way to tell the story.

Readers experience is direct and immediate. Produces high level of intimacy with characters.

Can’t hide anything from reader even if hiding it from other characters

Narrator is readers only source of information and must be consistent ‘voice’

Third person

Sets characters and reader at greater distance

Gives writer more flexibility and larger sphere of operation; can listen in on thoughts of more than one character, or show what is happening in two places at the same time.

Restricted third person POV: follows one characters thoughts and actions but as if from “over their shoulder”. Allows you to conceal information about viewpoint character without making readers feel cheated. You can give the reader insights into POV character that s/he himself is not aware of.

Multiple POV

Well suited to mystery genre

Choose carefully, pick those that have unique and important perspective to contribute

Be economical about how much you reveal

Assign each character certain chapters and scenes

Present each character using restricted third person. Allows you to achieve first person intimacy with several characters.

Omniscient third person

Most difficult for mysteries

Works best if authors perspective is not simply all knowing but flavored with strong distinctive attitude that guides readers’ response.

Key Characters in a Mystery


Usually the detective who ultimately will solve mystery. The author needs to carefully match the detective to the story. All protagonists must have personal motivation to investigate the specific crime, even if it is their regular job - curiosity, vague desire to see justice done or even challenge of outwitting an evil doer are NOT sufficient.

Public Professionals: Solving the crime is their job. These people are police officers, coroner investigators, district or Crown attorneys, RCMP, CIA/CSIS operatives or FBI agents, etc.

They must investigate according to well-defined laws, regulations, and standards or must be a maverick operating outside the norms of their job. Have the weight of official authority behind them.

Writers must have a reasonable understanding of police or agency procedures.

Private Professionals: Solving the specific crime becomes a part of their job. These people are private eyes, lawyers, journalists, bounty hunters and insurance investigators.

They have independence and freedom to take action that would land public employees in trouble. In fiction, these people may violate the usual boundaries for these types of professions.

Requires writer to have a reasonable understanding of professional standards and investigative techniques used in these professions.

Amateur detectives: Solve the crime because of a personal interest or stake.

These protagonists are not bound by rules of evidence or to protect license or livelihood. They require the skills to be able to conduct investigation and require the writer to give them a plausible background for getting involved and having the skills to investigate. However, they do not automatically have access to evidence like autopsy reports that professional investigators would have; the writer must come up with plausible ways for them to get all the evidence they need.

Secondary protagonists (Optional)

People whose lives are turned upside down by what happens and who have a connection to the protagonist. What happens to these people is often linked to why the detective gets involved.

Sidekicks and supporters like family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, etc. add texture to primary characters, often provide motivation for solving the crime, and provide input to resolution of puzzle. Watson allowed Holmes to appear more complex and intelligent and provides more reasonable challenge to readers as he gets same clues as they do.


Person who is killed or otherwise suffers wrong at the hands of the villain. The Victim is the catalyst who sets the story in motion and it therefore really the most important character of all even though they may never appear alive in story. The victim's fate incites the story’s main action and his or her actions, relationships and circumstances are scrutinized in solving the crime. Readers must care about victim so has to be well drawn.


Perpetrator of the crime whom the protagonist seeks to unmask and bring to justice.

Must be worthy opponent, someone whose strength, resources and power are equal to or greater than those of the protagonist. Should be complex and realistic human being; not purely evil. Psychology of villain is often most interesting part of mystery. Must have adequate motive for crime; be cautious with using mentally incompetent or casual violence as motivation.

Have a backup villain in case your first one doesn’t pan out. Make him or her viable with means, motive and opportunity.

Supporting Cast

In most mysteries there are a limited number of supporting players, including, witnesses, police and others who add texture and may present obstacles, subplots and sources of support to detective.

Sources of Conflict

Where there are characters, there is potential for conflict. And where there’s conflict there is the opportunity to build the tension in mysteries. There are two main sources of conflict. The first type of conflict is the one that has caused by one person (the villain) to commit a grievous offence against another (the victim) – The Hidden Story. The villain feeling in some way threatened or impeded by the soon-to-be victim, resorts to violence believing that this will resolve or eliminate the problem.

The second is the battle that ensues as the detective works to identify the killer and the killer tries to get away. The problem posed by the killer is the primary source of but not only source of tension, such as;

  • other characters (who distract the detective while s/he is trying to solve the mystery, who the detective should be able to trust but can’t for some reason, who impede investigation for reasons of their own, or who conduct parallel investigations and are threatened by the detective),

  • societal attitudes, expectations, and trends,

  • forces of nature,

  • internal struggles, like the detectives own flaws and weaknesses getting him or her into trouble,

  • moral or ethical dilemmas.

The depth and integration of the character arc has become more integral to the mystery genre in the last decade [see Appendix A] and is now critical to an author’s commercial success. . Personal stakes give the character more depth, helping readers identify with the characters. This will then make readers CARE what will happen to characters if they make a bad decision.

It is critical in that the author build TENSION within every decision; make it hard for the character to make the right decisions. Pit the personal stakes again the greater good

In fact, most mystery plots, murder in particular, are often about the rights of the individual versus the rights of the community, the battle between good and evil, and the triumph of justice.

The personal is played out in contrast to, or in synchronization with, the righting of wrong and the triumph of justice. Personal stakes are played out in contrast to, or in synchronization with, righting wrongs and the triumph of justice. Personal arcs include romance and relationships; danger to person, family, or community; personal fortunes; and living conditions. Here are some examples;

Louise Penny: The Brutal Telling — #5 in the Armand Gamache/Three Pines series. She took four books to set up the killer in this one, and by the time she got to the fifth book, readers were hooked.

Paying the price: personal fortunes decline as a result of seeing justice done. The characters sacrifice, either permanently or temporarily, personal happiness for the good of the community.

A. D. Scott (Pen name of Ann Deborah Nolan): Joanna Ross, a woman in rural 1950s Scotland defies convention by taking a job at the local newspaper. Over the series, her life changes completely.

Reward for a job well done: personal fortunes rise as a result of seeing justice done. The characters’ personal lives improve when the community is protected.

Anne Parker: Inez Stannert’s husband abandoned her and her young son in Leadville, Colorado, circa 1870. The only thing she has is part ownership in a saloon, so she becomes a saloonkeeper. Over the series, she makes a new life for herself, and reconciles with her estranged family.

Stasis: in some traditional (cozy) series, not much changes in the protagonist’s life. Some readers like this; some do not.

The late Father Andrew M. Greeley: Bishop Blackie series – Blackie is always his same jovial self.

M. C. Beaton: Hamish MacBeth series — wants to stay in the same place, do the same things, and not be bothered by the outside world.

There are generally 2 types of conflict found in mysteries:

Clues and Red Herrings

No matter what the genre, an author spends enormous time and effort giving depth to their characters’ behavior through their emotional responses, idiosyncratic movements or dialogue and their unique reactions to the story developments. These elements of character development also provide some of the best hiding places for clues – whether real or false. The author’s skill in weaving the clues through the story will be critical to the success of the mystery.

A clue helps a person find something or understand something; or guides or directs someone towards the solution of a problem, mystery or puzzle. A clue can be a physical object or something intangible; anything from the murder weapon to the state of a personal relationship, overheard dialogue, a character’s behavior, weather conditions at a specific time, etc.

A red herring is simply a false or a misleading clue. That is, something unimportant that is intended to divert attention from the real problem or matter at hand. Think of red herrings as bait, leading the detective (and reader) away from the truth. But, as an author, treat them like any other regular clue for the best effect.

The clues – whether real and red herrings – should be placed so that they are revealed gradually through the story.

Here are a few of the ways an author can manage the placement of clues to best effect:

  • The suspect’s behavior regarding the clue may mislead the sleuth as to its importance, or lack thereof.

  • The sleuth can misinterpret the meaning of the clue.

  • The real clue can be placed right before a red herring; people tend to remember what they hear last.

  • Camouflage a clue with action so that the action distracts from the actual clue.

  • Have the clue turn out to be what is not there.

  • Create a time problem, especially for alibis. E. g. the broken clock.

  • Hide the clue in plain sight.

  • Draw attention elsewhere.

  • Have the clue be the sum of its parts which are scattered or out of order.

  • Establish the clue before the reader can know it might be significant.

  • Emphasize the unimportant while de-emphasizing the important.

10 Tips for a Successful Mystery

5.Play fair with the reader

6.Raise the stakes

7.Control the pace Impose a deadline

8.Make the interrogation physical as well as verbal

9.Threaten the characters

10.Challenge the characters’ ingenuity

11.Allow characters to make mistakes

12.Limit detective’s options

13.Isolate detective physically

14.Isolate detective psychologically


The current popularity of the mystery is not surprising. We live in difficult times when real wrong-doers frequently get away with their crimes, and the difference between right and wrong is a matter of opinion. But for a mystery reader, there’s always that absolute certainty that, somehow, things will be set right; that evil will be punished; and that justice will be served. There is great comfort in that.

This paper is a consolidation of all the great reference books available to aspiring mystery authors from libraries and bookstores. The following are the ones sitting on my keeper shelf within easy reach:


Berry, Jack, and Debra Dixon. When You're the Only Cop in Town: a Writer's Guide to Small Town Law Enforcement. Gryphon Books, 2002.

Ellis, Sherry, and Laurie Lamson. Now Write! Mysteries. New York: Penguin Group [USA], 2011.

Ephron, Hallie. Writing and Selling your Mystery Novel. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 2005.

Hayden, G. Miki. Writing the Mystery. Intrigue Press, 2001.

Ray, Robert J., and Jack Remick. The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery. New York NY: Dell Publishing, 1998.

Roberts, Gillian. You Can Write a Mystery . Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer's Digest Books, 1999.

Roerden, Chris. Don't Murder Your Mystery. Rock Hill, SC: Bella Rosa Books, 2006.

Wheat, Carolyn. How to Write KILLER Fiction. Palo Alto Santa Barbara: Perserverance Press, Daniel& Daniel Pubishers, Inc., 2003.

APPENDIX A: History of Mystery


1841 Edgar Allan Poe credited with being the first mystery writer

Introduced concept of series character, amateur detective, Watson-style narrator and the locked room puzzle.

1887 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published first appearance of Sherlock Holmes (A Study in Scarlet), one of the most influential fictional characters of all time.

1920’s – 1930’s

English ‘Cozy’ established by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayer

American “mean streets” and creation of ‘private eyes’ by Rex Stout and Ellery Queen.

1940’s – 1970’s

Paperbacks made books inexpensive and easier to obtain.

Cold war gave rise to espionage novels from Ian Fleming and John le Carre

Also Gothic novel-romantic suspense of Mary Stewart and Phyllis A. Whitney

1970’s mystery genre overtaken by romance and science fiction.


Mysteries were revived by the introduction of smart-talking and feisty female PIs by Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton.  Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who series revitalized flagging sales and a new trend for in one setting with recurring characters in the 90’s.

2000 to present

As a greater emphasis on writing craft within the mystery genre became apparent, the lines between genres began to blur as it did within other lines; historical mystery made its debut with Anne Perry and Ellis Peter, all the way to romantic light paranormal mystery.

The trend shifted from the earlier plot focused stories of the past, to the character-driven mystery. Our psychologically-informed society wants to know more about the personal lives and private pains of our modern-day sleuths. They wanted somebody to root for, someone with whom they can somehow identify like Sharon McCone or Harry Bosch or Mathew Scudder or Kinsey Millhone, who might live next door, not a Hercule Poirot or the Lone Ranger or Sherlock Holmes or Jane Marple.

APPENDIX B: Mystery Terms

Crime: any story of a wrongdoing with consequence

Most of the time a murder is involved and other crimes may be significant (kidnapping, fraud, robbery, terrorism and so on.)

Story becomes a mystery when the efforts to solve the crime are foremost to the story.

Means, motive, and opportunity are integral to the story.

Secret: the process of uncovering a secret drives the plot. The secret can be the circumstances of the crime, the identity of the perp, the motive for the crime, or other secrets not directly related to the crime but which must be revealed because the crime has been committed.

Detective: is the primary character or protagonist who is actively trying to uncover the secret and solve the crime.

Orderly resolution: In most mysteries the crime is solved and order is restored. However, in some of the darker mysteries justice may not prevail. Often the resolution to the crime involves resolving important personal issues for the protagonist. Whodunit? Howdunit? Whydunit?

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