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It’s a Mystery to Me

I’ve had a few of my SF/F books veer off into the mystery genre before, but they weren’t what you’d call “well crafted.” Fortunately, I’ve read enough mysteries that my subconscious had a good grasp of framework so I didn’t make a complete hash of it.

But now I’m trying to do it on purpose, and I’m finding it heavy going.

I mean, going around questioning people? Okay, my MC is pretty social and could get people chatting but even so, having (1) zero police authority to investigate (2) a suspected crime (long term, well-established, espionage network) means she’s going to have trouble asking the right questions without some undetermined number of people deciding to kill her. Heck, I’m looking forward the Enemy agents trying.

And she’s busy. A University Professor with a baby who’s about to become a toddler.

So my problems are (1) Weaving her daily routine into figuring out _if_ the problems she’s running into are deliberate sabotage by a foreign agent, or whether it’s pure stupidity. (2) Then starting to winnow through the suspects.

And . . . it feels flat. And I just figured out why. All the suspects are cardboard jerks. I need to both make them into real people, and I need to make at least one of them into a friend, someone she really, really, doesn’t want to suspect.

So I’ll need to back engineer that. And . . . eight suspects is going to get tedious. I think I’ll drop a couple, eliminate a couple. Surely four or five people who are credible perps are enough to investigate. Right?

I’m by nature a pantser, and this planning ahead and doing things consciously is unnatural and awkward. It looks like my method on this book is going to be pantsing away full stream for several chapters, then stopping dead and see what I’ve been doing wrong and fix it. Take a good look at where I’m headed, then put on the blindfold and start running again.

Hopefully not off a cliff!

I’ve never mapped a mystery against the Hero’s Journey, but I may have to give it try this time. Hmm . . . find three objects, or three people . . . it might actually work.


For those unfamiliar with it, this is the version I use:

(1) Start in the ordinary world. This establishes what your hero’s life is like, before the adventure. Often, these days, stories open with an action sequence to hook the reader, then show the more normal life. Think about the opening of most James Bond films. Most of them are not _just_ a fantastic action scene, but help set up the main story problem.

(2) The call to adventure comes. “Help me, Obi Wan Kenobi, you are my only hope.”

(3) Refusal of call. The character refuses the call or hesitates to go. This is sometimes short or even implied. “I can’t go to Mos Eisley!”

(4) Meeting with the guide. This is not necessarily a guide. Some processes call him a mentor. Think Merlin to Arthur. Gandalf, Obi Wan . . . they tend toward short lifespans, as the Hero needs to take over and be the leader.

(5) Crossing the Threshold. “Uncle Owen? Aunt Beru?” There’s no going back now.

(6) Tests, Allies, Enemies . This varies with the novel, but think of the fairy tale. The character meets with three people. Each of them gives him or her something that can be used on the journey, or teaches him a skill he will need. You get the point. Send your character to school, hand him a magic sword or BFG 3000, have him find companions, vehicles, whatever your story requires for the MC to win.

(7) Try-fail sequences. At least three for a novel, some of the low points being caused by the previous attempts. Interleaving these with the acquiring of allies, skills, knowledge and equipment is useful.

(8) Approach to the inner-most cave—the black moment—the nadir—the “mirror moment”—the realization—the reimagining—the commitment. Call it what you will. Your character needs to emotionally crash, then come out of it energized and determined.

(9) The TEST. This is the greatest battle. The biggest love trial. Whatever. This is where your character is put through the white hot furnace and melts or not. What the trial is has been set since the beginning – the meeting with the villain, the crossing of the perilous chasm. The hero wins, story over . . . except if you do end it immediately the reader will be upset. A gradual let down is needed.

(10) Reward. Show what the hero gets out of it, immediately. Freedom, money, kiss, whatever. The awkward version is the end of the first Star Wars movie. Try for something more emotionally satisfying than an awards ceremony.

(11) Return to the new normal. This can be going home—or not. Or a marriage proposal. Or goodbyes. It needs to show the development the characters have gone through, how they adjust. Give the reader a glimpse of the future.

(12) And sometimes, the refusal of the return. The character isn’t ready to go back to the ordinary world. This can inspire your readers to reach for something beyond the ordinary.

Or it may be a sign that you have a series on your hands.


I can see where (6) and (7) are going to work pretty good for a mystery.

The Guide? Got him. Not going to kill him, though. But duty can call him away, for long enough that the MC solves the mystery herself.

Okay, maybe I can write a mystery after all.

Now I just need to pump up some characters and make one suspect a good friend.

And my first “Wait! How did this turn into a mystery? Book:

  1. I prefer the seven point novel structure.

    Hook, plot turn 1 (there’s a problem), pinch (it’s not that problem, it’s this problem), Mid-point (try/fail cycles), pinch (the problem now is), plot turn 2 (I’ve fixed it), Resolution.


    Character in a setting with a problem (3); try/fail, but things get worse; or try/succeed, but things get worse (2); Climax with success (1); Time jump and validation (1)

    September 20, 2019
    • Oooh, I’m not sure I’ve seen that version before.

      September 20, 2019
      • Draven #

        but its a different way of saying the same thing… just with some steps concatenated/removed

        September 20, 2019
  2. carlton mckenney #

    I have always though that Dancer was a fine example of the the Clouseau school of detectivateing. See the fallen leaves until you fall over the downed tree in your path. Much hilarity ensues as well as a satisfying denouement. Doesn’t require a stupid protagonist just one that is not used to or trained in the art of investigation from a position of ignorance of the local environment.

    September 20, 2019
  3. Christopher M. Chupik #

    Almost read that as: “A University Professor who’s about to become a toddler.” Which was quite a mental image.

    September 20, 2019
    • BobtheRegisterredFool #

      *writes insane incoherent mismatch*

      *looks at it*

      *puts up “It’s magical realism, Okay!” sign*

      But seriously, I am going to screw this up. I’m already ticked off with the lack from progress from my main business taking up my time and energy. That smart money, given that I have not and probably will not seriously narrow the scope, is that I would produce something seriously imperfect, and would not be able to simply edit it into a functional level of quality. Finish it, get it out the door, start on the next project, and apply the lessons learned from the flawed first project.

      September 20, 2019
      • Some early work needs to not be seen. On the other hand, we are not the best judges of our own work, and you may find that readers enjoy incoherent mishmashed magical realism.

        September 20, 2019
    • Never been to a departmental budget meeting, have you, Christopher? “Mine! No, mine, mine mine, no touch, minnnnneeeeeee!” Ad nauseam.

      September 20, 2019
    • rmtodd #

      Heh. Sounds reminiscent of ST:TAS “The Counter-Clock Incident”.

      September 20, 2019
  4. Zsuzsa #

    Okay, my MC is pretty social and could get people chatting but even so, having (1) zero police authority to investigate (2) a suspected crime (long term, well-established, espionage network) means she’s going to have trouble asking the right questions without some undetermined number of people deciding to kill her.

    This is my problem with writing cozy mysteries. I don’t have any issues reading them, I don’t have any problem believing that Miss Marple can solve the mystery better than the police, I just can’t seem to write it in such a way that I believe in my amateur’s investigation.

    September 20, 2019
    • Jane Meyerhofer #

      Nailed it! Why do I like Other people’s mysteries but can’t write my own. Why can’t I have that suspension of belief in my own head for my own work? In one WIP I’ve got two dead people, and a slightly different way of killing the first one, olus a third in danger. I’ve got lots of characters (set in a school so lots of choice) in one case. But I’m stuck. In my other WIP I have a limited number of characters and no dead people, just a mystery, and still stuck.

      September 20, 2019
      • My main problem _reading_ mysteries is the number of amateur detectives, being questioned by police, actually ask the police detective what it looks like from their perspective. And the police tell them.

        I just . . . can’t. However handy a device it is to give the readers needed info, I just can’t.

        September 20, 2019
        • Jane Meyerhofer #

          I’ve been trying to imagine what it would be like, or at least what I can plausibly suggest it would be like, to have the police investigating and my character doesn’t know much of that at all. However she does know a crucial overlooked fact that allows her to discover whodunit without knowing any of what the police think. I just can’t get some of the intermediate steps working.

          Someone read a bit and asked if I was trying to do chick lit instead of a mystery. Tough love!

          September 20, 2019
  5. Reziac #

    “This is where your character is put through the white hot furnace and melts or not.”

    My MC went into the furnace as slag iron, and came out a sword.

    Okay, a swordcane… seems there were some flaws in the forging…

    September 20, 2019
    • So your MC stuck it to the Bad Guys with style? No problem.

      September 20, 2019
  6. It looks like my method on this book is going to be pantsing away full stream for several chapters, then stopping dead and see what I’ve been doing wrong and fix it.

    Many of my stories have elements of mystery in them, but I remember when I wrote my first full-on mystery that I found it very challenging.

    For the longest time, although I knew what had happened, I didn’t know who had actually done it. I was really thrilled when I figured it out, but I hadn’t put in enough clues for the reader. My first beta reader pointed out the problem (the big reveal of the guilty party felt like it came out of left field to her), so I went back and inserted the necessary clues in about half a dozen places.

    My second beta reader said that my fix worked: the big reveal felt right to her, but neither had she seen it coming. It was the right blend of surprise along with a feeling of “of course.”

    So my problems are (1) Weaving her daily routine into figuring out…

    Yep. I remember having to really work on that, too. The mystery was smack in the middle of his “day job,” so he could encounter many clues as he pursued his daily responsibilities, but I still had to figure out exactly how to weave in enough of his job that it felt real, but not not too much (because that would be dull), plus ensuring that he could get free often enough to go question suspects.

    September 20, 2019
    • Yeah, I’m dragging badly on the day-to-day routine. I need to cut her class load down to reasonable numbers.

      September 20, 2019
      • Tenure? She’s on a two by two (two courses each semester, one of them has to be an intro course unless she’s very, very high ranking), plus departmental service and research. Service can be as time consuming or minimal as needed.

        Contract only? Probably three by three, with two intro courses/semester one semester. Plus research, but possibly no departmental service.

        Adjunct? As many classes as she can scrape together, at as many colleges as she can find within driving distance. I’ve heard stories…

        September 21, 2019
        • That is, unless she’s been hired as research faculty, in which case the load is supposed to be 70% research, 15% teaching, 15% service. As one research prof put it, “50% teaching, 60% service, 100% research.”

          September 21, 2019
          • For better or worse, I’m 14 centuries in the future and can play fast and loose with the rules.

            September 21, 2019
  7. Mary #

    Remember G.K. Chesterton’s advice about the mystery — or, as they were called in his day, shockers.

    The discovery at the end should not merely unravel a riddle, it should SHOCK.

    September 20, 2019
    • Oh, I like that! I’d not encountered that particular snippet before, but—wow! That explains why, as a reader, some mysteries feel like such a letdown for me. It’s because the riddle is solved, but I’m not shocked. And I want to be shocked or feeling some kind of strong emotion. Solving the riddle is not quite enough on its own. I’m going to remember this when I write my next mystery! I think I got it in my first two mysteries (shock present), but I was lucky. Now I won’t need to rely on luck! 😀

      September 21, 2019

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