Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mystery Structure

Tip of the Day: get out your sleuth hats and your magnifying glasses because it's mystery time!

Since I've been working on a middle-grade mystery book lately I've been studying up on how to write an effective mystery. I know not everyone out there reading this blog writes mysteries, but I thought someone might find this helpful. So for the next few weeks, Tuesday is going to be Mystery Central.

The first thing I wanted to share is basically my Mystery Bible. One of my writing friends passed this mystery structure along to me a few years ago. I have no idea where it came from originally (but I did find a more detailed list here), so I can't give credit where credit is due, but whoever compiled this thank you! This small piece of paper has been like a life saver and a very good starting point when I'm planning a mystery.

Because starting a mystery without having a plan, is somewhat pointless to me. Some books you can get away with without knowing where the book is going, but that is very difficult to do in a mystery. You kind of have to know "who did it" and "why" otherwise you can't lay the groundwork for the sleuth or the reader to solve the crime.

Classic Mystery Structure

An “act” is traditionally 3-5 chapters long (but can be as long or as short as it needs to be for the story.)

Introduce the crime

  • Disclose the crime/mystery to be solved.
  • Initial clues revealed.
  • Set the sleuth on the path toward solving the mystery.
  • Something should occur which makes the reader know that the crime is more complicated than initially suspected.

Direct the investigation toward a conclusion that later proves to be erroneous

  • Reveal facts about suspects
  • Flight or disappearance of one or more suspects
  • Investigation should broaden to put suspicion on other characters
  • Develop a sense of urgency.
  • Make clear the sleuth has a personal stake in the outcome (his own life may be in danger).
  • The sleuth comes to an erroneous conclusion about the crime

Change of focus and scope of the investigation. This is the pivotal point in the story as it becomes evident that the sleuth was on the wrong track

  • Something unexpected, such as the appearance of a second body, the death of a major suspect, or discovery of evidence that clears the most likely suspect. The story must take a new direction.
  • The sleuth reviews the facts of the investigation.
  • The solution seems to be impossible. Attempts to solve the crime have stymied the sleuth. Misinterpretation of clues or mistaken conclusions have lead her in t he wrong direction, and logic must be applied to force a new way of looking at the clues,
  • Review of chain of events that provoked the crime.
  • The crucial evidence is something overlooked in Act I, which appeared to have little consequence at the time it was first disclosed. That evidence takes on a new light with information disclosed in Act II. The solution remains undisclosed to the reader.

  • Based on what he or she now knows, the sleuth must seek positive proof of the as-yet undisclosed solution.
  • The climax: dramatic confrontation between the sleuth and the perpetrator: the sleuth prevails.
  • Resolution: Revelation of clues and deductive process that lead to the solution.

--Emily, Miss Querylicious


Alissa Grosso said...

I think it was Agatha Christie who gave my favorite bit of mystery writing advice. I am paraphrasing and probably getting this all wrong, but in order to write a mystery the bad guy has to be the person who couldn't have possibly committed the crime and you just have to figure out how he or she did the crime.

Anonymous said...

I've been doing my own analysis of mysteries. I've been reading tons and trying to give myself some direction. Thank you for posting this. It really helps.

Teagan Oliver

DeenaML said...

This is brilliant and I'm glad you posted it!

Emily Marshall said...

Alissa, I love that piece of advice. Thanks for sharing. Agatha Christie rocks!!

Teagan--if you want to share what you come up with during your analysis, I'm all ears. I love hearing what other people find out.

Thanks Deena!!

Lisa Schroeder said...

Very helpful - good luck with your story, Em!

Kate Fall said...

Wow, this is great stuff! I don't think I've seen this before. I'm looking forward to Mystery Tuesdays.

Frankie said...

This is really helpful :) I've not looked too much into mystery as a writer before and this article has really been useful in figuring out order and plot points. Thanks for putting it together!