Mystery Solved

by limebirdamber

Mystery, suspense, they go hand in hand. The great sleuth Sherlock Holmes is enjoying a resurgance in both America (Elementary), and Britain (Sherlock), who have revamped the characters for a modern audience. I have seen the BBC’s Sherlock through, and I noticed something in action that I’d read about a few years ago regarding detective stories. However, this tip will fit any story.

Make sure the audience, the reader, has a way to solve the puzzle, or at least aspects of it. Reveal hints and clues enough to keep the reader a hair ahead of your main character.

“Won’t that detract from the story?”


Ok, ok, I’ll give an example. In “A Study in Pink”, episode one season one of Sherlock, Sherlock poses a question that reveals the nature of the killer, that he is unable to answer until late in the episode. When he first asked the question, I’m pretty sure I yelled the answer at my video. When he figured it out, and I was right, I was elated.

Every time I solved a puzzle, my enjoyment grew.

Then, when the major cliffhanger came for season two, I wasn’t upset at all at not knowing the trick. I didn’t feel any kind of cheat. It’s made waiting for season three that much more salivating.

When a question is only a question because your protagonist isn’t looking for common sense answers, (whatever common sense in your world is), it cheapens the narrative. Don’t over rely on deus ex to propel the plot to the end, and don’t save the plot with a deus ex.

Your protag doesn’t have to be a genius like me or Sherlock to know that some questions are more important to ask than others.

So, recap.

1) Don’t withhold information that would unravel your plot early, that the protag should have found out.
2) Don’t deus ex the ending.

Do you agree or disagree? Would you add any rules?

20 Comments to “Mystery Solved”

  1. I’m desperate to know how he did it, hurry up season 3!

  2. Good point, well addressed. I get frustrated when reading or viewing some mystery stories that I’m not told key information that the detective reveals he somehow knew all along. Another example that springs to mind is the recent UK comedy / mystery show (I think it’s called Paradise?) where the detective solves the mysteries in such a crazy, whack and elaborate thought process that, even though the viewer is given all the facts, it’s often impossible to work out who dun it, until all is revealed (although, saying that, it’s a lot of fun trying… And you do eventually end up thinking like the author). It would not be as fun if it wasn’t possible.

    • That show sounds amazing! Figure out the title for me! I wanna watch it. πŸ™‚

      Things like that seem ok to me. It gives you a chance, but keeps you surprised.

      Thanks for coming by, Scree. Why haven’t you been around Twitter?

  3. I think this goes along with why authors shouldn’t withhold info from the reader if the POV characters have that info. For the same reasons readers feel elated to know more than the protag, they also feel cheated when they aren’t let into every piece of info that the protag has.

    Good post!

    • Good point, Kate. I agree. I like knowing everything about everyone in my real life, I want it in my stories as well.

      Thanks for stopping by. πŸ™‚

  4. I agree with you, and I admit to having no “clue” as to how to write a mystery! I’ve read quite a few in my earlier days, but I never could see how you ever construct the plot. I would like to write a termite Sherlock Holmes – wouldn’t that be neat? “Murder in the Holy Chamber” or “The Charnel Hall Mystery” or something. But I honestly don’t think I would ever be able to do it without having it end up really lame.

    • Never sell yourself short, Lorinda. πŸ™‚ A person never knows what they can do without trying. Passion is important over anything when doing a creative work.

  5. Yes! Here, the suspense, the exquisite tension, is in knowing what the main character doesn’t. And it makes the reader feel intelligent as long as it’s not too obvious. Nice point.

    • Yes yes YES Jilanne! I loved feeling “smarter” than Sherlock. The brilliant character, through me, became even more brilliant. Best. Feeling. Ever.

  6. You have to leave breadcrumbs. They need to be partially obscured and not easy or obvious, but I think you need to let your reader know at the big reveal they can think back and think “of course”

  7. I love this post! I’m not sure I could ever pull off a mystery where the sole purpose was to solve one. It seems so intricate. I was reading the other day, however, that all stories are mysteries in that there needs to be suspense in the plot. There has to be something to motivate the readers to keep going. If it’s too predictable, in any genre, the reader will put the book/story down.

    That said, I completely agree with you! I remember watching the old Ellery Queen mysteries on TV and while it was rare, I always got so excited when I could figure out the mystery before Ellery did. Every once in a while, throwing the reader a bone isn’t a bad idea at all.

    Brandon Sanderson from says to never ever use deus ex machina for an ending. He believes that the reader should have as much information as the detective to be able to solve the mystery. The clues are best, in my opinion, when so delicately woven in they are hard to distinguish from non-related details. Then the detective looks like a genius at the end and so does the writer!

    • I think I need to read more mysteries. I’m finding I really do like them! I would love to take a stab at one someday, but I still feel like I’m not smart enough in the end!

      I love getting confused by a good red herring when its properly done. Even when you’re wrong, when done right, its still fun!

  8. Interesting post Amber. I’m never any good at figuring these things out whether they leave clues in them or not, so it doesn’t make too much difference to me when I’m watching! When I lived in Las Vegas for a few years, I was an actress in one of those murder-mystery dinner theatre groups. There was a lot of improv in there, but there were clues that had to be incorporated – the problem was, there were clues that pointed to each of us, and the Director would never decide until after the show which one of us had done the deed! And would then reveal it at the end – I always used to think that was pretty bad because there were prizes for the table that guessed right, and some of them would really take it seriously and try and figure it out when really it was just luck if they picked the right one!

    • Wow, that kinda sucks! Completely unfair, too. I would feel jipped if I found out it didn’t matter at all.

      I’ve wanted to see a dinner theatre for a long time, I’m not so sure now.

      I’m sure it was a fun experience for you over all though.

      I’ve been to Vegas once. I was too young to really enjoy everything that was there. Maybe I should go back someday, haha.

      At least you learned what not to do, though. πŸ˜‰

  9. I recently finished and sent off my first crime story (if you don’t count the SF one where the ‘murder’ victim managed to upload his backup into the hotel room microwave and so was watching and second guessing the detectives all the way through..) In my latest story I did drop some clues, but the point of the story was that the protagonist was useless (think an egotistical, misanthropic, psychologist with a thing for Theakstons Old Peculier – sort of a crap Cracker) internally narrating a case like a noir private dick. He gets things pretty wrong but manages to stir up things so that others solve the case. It was only a short, 3,100 words, so I could get away with it. I am thinking about something longer and I’m working on the plot now, trying to work out how to give those early clues that result in the Aha! moment.

    They are showing Murder in Paradise in South Africa at the moment and I liked how the fish-out-of-water Inspector Poole continually shaded his eyes from the sun in Episode 2, this was natural for the character and so it passed by, only to be key in the ‘reveal’!

    • Those stories you have written sound so interesting. I love the idea in your SF one very much. Poor dear, being stuck in the microwave.

      I like the bumbling, semi-useless character type. I don’t think it’s used enough as a main character. I suppose it would be angering to watch for an entire novel. I think the short story was the way to go. πŸ™‚

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