Nathan Bransford, Author

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How to Craft a Mystery in a Novel

Charles Wauters, "Der beim Diebstahl ertappte Hausdiener"
One of the most important skills every writer has to master, no matter their genre, is how to craft a mystery in a novel.

Mysteries are the lifeblood of stories. They're the lure that keep us turning the pages and keep us glued to the book because we're dying to know what happens. Are they going to find the murderer? Are they going to get together? What happened that fateful night?

I crafted the Jacob Wonderbar series around a central mystery: Is Jacob going to find his dad? And is he in outer space?

When it comes to crafting a mystery, I think sometimes aspiring authors get distracted by the bodies and murders and the actual plot mechanics of mysteries, and miss what really drives a great mystery.

Mysteries are about people. And more specifically, they're about people wanting something, whether it's an object, person, or knowledge (see also: Do You Know What Your Characters Want?). The character wants the woman to fall in love with him or to catch the killer or find the truth about what happened. We keep reading to find out if they're going to get it.

Here comes the word math:

A character's desire + Consequences/stakes + Obstacles + Delay = Mystery

So the first step in crafting a mystery is showing what your character wants and what the stakes are. Showing your character caring and demonstrating the stakes plants the appropriate question in the reader's mind: Are they going to get what they want?

The next step is placing road blocks in front of your characters that prevent them from immediately getting what they want.

This is the part where I think sometimes beginning writers go astray. A great mystery is not built by withholding information, and especially not by withholding information that the main characters know but the author isn't sharing with the reader (unless there's a very very good reason for it). I would think instead of a mystery as being built through obstacles. The character tries to get what they want and we know what they know, but the truth is obscured or confusing or surprising or not what was anticipated. The truth/object of desire lies just beyond their grasp.

A character keeps moving in the direction of the mystery, but that delay before they get there is what prolongs and deepens the mystery, often with reversals.

The more the character wants what they want, the more significant the stakes, the more tangled the obstacles, and the longer it takes to get there, the greater the mystery.


Mr. D said...

I love your Math, but when I was in school, Math was always a mystery to me!

BP said...

I think this is a very relevant viewpoint; so many books these days are lacking plots in general that it can be hard to remember what a good mystery looks like, let alone how to build one. Mysteries also have to do with how much you care about the characters. If Jacob W. wasn't such a lovable kid, nobody would give a hoot if he found his dad or not. You kind of have to build a premise that makes you want to care about the characters in the first place, right? Speaking of which, I'd love to see a post on how to make villains lovable, or at least bearable, or likable??!

Liz Fichera said...

Excellent word math. And I also think that the less predictable the obstacles and outcomes, the better.

Jennee said...

Great equation. I'm working on my first mystery now and it is harder than I expected but I'm having fun with it!

Cathy Yardley said...

Love this. I am always trying to bump up conflict, which I think ties into your word math. (Although I flinched a little. Word problems make me antsy! ) Only thing I'd add is that the obstacles should increase in intensity, and they should be related to the central goal. I've critiqued a lot of manuscripts where people threw in random obstacles and subplots that felt repetitious: the same level of conflict. (I may not be making sense - need coffee!)

The English Teacher said...

You said, "This is the part where I think sometimes beginning writers go astray. A great mystery is not built by withholding information, and especially not by withholding information that the main characters know but the author isn't sharing with the reader...."
But it's not just the beginning writers who are guilty of this! I've read a fair number of books where authors do this. (In fact, I just reviewed a novella yesterday wherein this very thing occurred.)
And it DOES frustrate a reader.
Have you ever seen the movie "Murder By Death"? (Or better yet, have you read the book?) The murderer/victim/strange evil dude, Lionel Twain, rants on at one point about Agatha Christie novels doing this very thing, leaving out important information/clues until the dramatic revealing of the solution right at the end. That character's anger at the habit causes him to set up his whole elaborate mystery and is the basis for the plot of the book/movie.

Serenity said...

In my WIP I'm withholding info the MC knows. But my intention is more about easing the back story in and avoiding the info dump. I wonder if it's working...

In it the MC keeps referring to a boy, and his identity, his place in her life, and the status of their relationship now is reavelaed through brief flashbacks.

Do you think this is different than what you're talking about? Have you seen something like that work without being frustrating?

Matthew MacNish said...

Another good one. In fact, I often find it most fun when as the reader I know something about the mystery the characters don't, or maybe can't admit to. That can make it lots of fun.

In my own writing, I know that these parts are important (even though I don't literally write mysteries) but I have a hard time finding a balance of implied versus overt. That's what critique partners and beta readers are for.

Thanks, Nathan!

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

I believe the best mystery for the readers is how is the character going to get around these obstacles.
Thanks, Nathan for giving me something to ruminate on.

abc said...

True Dat!

My personal mysteries:
Will I ever stop procrastinating and finish the damn thing?
Will I ever stop eating so much sugar?
Will that house be ours?
Will my daughter not be like me and actually be good at math and science?
Did the bat in our house last night bite the cat?
Is the cat ok or will he get rabies?
Stay tuned.....

P.S. Nathan, I'm itching for some query or 1st page reviews. Coming soon?

D.G. Hudson said...

Liked this post, Nathan, and your points about knowing the characters wants, or motives.

I can recommend one book that I've got in my library which discusses the crafting of mysteries from the POV of various mystery writers.
That book is Writing Mysteries, edited by Sue Grafton, it's a handbook by the Mystery Writers of America.

The reason mysteries are well-loved? They pique our curiosity and make our brain work, in other words they keep us thinking.

About that photo: Is that guy in the attic trying to hide something or find something? Hmmmm-mm.

Emily said...

I agree with this. I get so frustrated, as a reader, when I'm not getting enough information. I feel like the author's holding out on me.

I prefer conflict getting in the way.

Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Your blog topic is very interesting. Every writer knows mystery is what attracts readers to read their books. As a matter of fact to continue reading it...and crave for some of their next book if there is any.

Donna K. Weaver said...

I wish you'd been my math teacher. Maybe it would have been easier. Great post.

Steph Damore said...

Hmmm, wonder if my MC has enough at stake. Yet another thing to look at with my rewrite. Thanks.

Janice Hardy said...

A good friend of mine (and crit partner) is a mystery writer, and I started reading mysteries to better understand her genre. (I write SFF for teens) And you;re right, a lot of what she does transfers to all genres. There is mystery to every story because if readers aren't wondering what's going to happen they won't stick with you and keep reading.

I also agree about not withholding info. One little trick I leaned there is to slip in a new mystery or puzzle before you reveal an existing one. That keeps something there for readers to wonder about but still gives them a sense that they're figuring things out and the story is progressing.

Marsha Sigman said...

It would involve math, wouldn't it? As an account you would think I'd love that. But I don't. I really don't.

Great post though.

J. T. Shea said...

'Der beim Diebstahl ertappte Hausdiener?' I couldn't have put it better myself! I think...

And the inside of my house looks exactly like that painting, lectern and all. Except the tricorn hat. Note to self:- MUST GET TRICORN HAT IMMEDIATELY!

Speaking of roadblocks, life has temporarily taken me away from JACOB WONDERBAR. Bad life! Naughty! Naughty! But what I want to find out is how does Jacob fix the Universe?

As for entanglements and reversals, I'm currently polishing a scene in my WIP where the giant ocean liner carrying my young protagonist runs into a roadblock in the middle of ocean, but cannot reverse either. Which sounds unlikely, but I found a real life early twentieth century historical precedent. And not an iceberg. The liner hits an iceberg later...

The English Teacher, indeed Agatha Christie could be quite postmodern! One of my favorites is the novel (and one of the best Agatha Christie movies) where it turns out they ALL did it! I'll reduce the spoiler factor my not specifying the title.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Excellent post! I think my issue when I was just starting out (I say, as if I'm not still an amateur/aspiring author) was being too heavy-handed, especially when trying to create an actual mystery of the whodunnit variety. I was so worried that whatever plot twist or resolution I had decided upon would seem too random or out of nowhere, and to compensate, I'd hammer the reader over the head with clues and ruin the mystery altogether. Once I started looking at crafting it as a series of obstacles, the writing not only got stronger, it got easier.

@Serenity: I think it depends on how you handle it. If withholding some of the information makes sense (say maybe your MC has difficult thinking about the boy, let alone talking about him (though obviously I don't know if this is really the issue in your WIP)), then I think your strategy could work, as long as we eventually find out the information at a well-plotted point. If, however, you're setting up situations where the reader feels information is being withheld just for the sake of a shock later, then maybe you should reevaluate.

Tory Hughes said...

If I were the servant caught stealing, I'd change my facial expression.

Provocative, then useful, post! Thank you for articulating this.
As a non-fiction writer, there is overlap: maintaining the reader's investment of time by letting them know that their problem is solvable, the more so the longer they keep reading.

Especially if they then tweet and facebook everyone they know with the benefits.

Will build that in. Community and personal integrity are key, and developing them, in whatever our field, turns out to be vital. Just like Mrs Serafia told us in first grade. Gosh.

Mira said...

Good post. I think the idea that all genres need mystery in order to keep the reader hooked is a really good one!

I also agree it's not a good idea for the protagonist to know something the reader doesn't - that tends to be really irritating. It's much better if the AUTHOR knows things the reader and the protagonist don't know - that's fun and works well - espeically if the protag must travese great obstacles in order to learn it.

Great topic, Nathan - thanks!

taniadakka said...

Love this! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Posts like this one are the reason your blog is the only one I read consistently.

I do write mysteries, and it's nice to see that I may actually be on the right track.

Now if only I could finish the novel instead of being sidetracked by short stories....

Christy McCall said...

I'm taping this one to the top of my WIP:

The more the character wants what they want, the more significant the stakes, the more tangled the obstacles, and the longer it takes to get there, the greater the mystery.

wry wryter said...

Gee Nathan, I wish you were still an agent.
No mystery, no conflict just
miss you as a one of my top five to query.
Oh well, that's got one and that's great.

Nathan Bransford said...


Sorry for the late reply! I think it's okay to withhold information as long as the info isn't contextually relevant. You also can kind of ease into backstories and don't have to worry about spilling everything up front. I think it's more of a problem when the mystery is created by withholding info the character knows rather than not giving everything away up front. Hope that makes sense.

Serenity said...

Thanks for the response, Nathan! Yours helped as well, Kristin. I appreciate both of you taking the time. I think I'm on the safe side at the moment, but I'm definitely keeping this in mind as I decide how and when to reveal.

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