I would like to write a story (a series of stories really) about Spooky Hawkshaw, an undead detective. My parents loved Mysteries and my mom was friends with two mystery writers, so it was a common topic around the house. Now days, the mystery has been over taken by the thriller, so much so that we’ve kind of lost track of what a mystery is. I may be mistaken on the exact definition, but I tend to put it like this, after reading the story, you have to ask yourself if the story left clues along the way. If it did, it’s a mystery. If not, it’s not. I realize that that is curt, but I mean no offence to the thriller. I love them too, but in the case of this instance, I would like to write a mystery.
It’s always seemed like a pretty big bag to unpack. The main issue for me is, if I need to make it confusing to the reader, it’s going to be confusing for me too. Plus I can only assume that a poor mystery would be panned pretty bad. Now that I say that, it’s not 100% mystery that I’m going for… maybe a three way split of pulp fiction, gothic romance, and mystery… I’m starting to understand why I might be having a problem here… it’s not the genre, it’s me. So, let’s get back on track.
Below I’ve put together a little comparison of what several sites say is a good structure.
Some Possible Act Structures For a Mystery Story
|The Three Act Structure
|Act 1: Setup and Complicate
— The Inciting Incident
— The First Plot Point (the dramatic event that must be answered in the climax)
|Act 1: The Hero Accepts the Mission to Catch the Villain and Solves the Case
— Starts at the point of action and ends with the hero accepting the case, committing to solve the mystery
|Act I: The Set-Up
Exposition. The status quo or ‘ordinary world’ is established.
Inciting Incident. An event that sets the story in motion.
Plot Point One. The protagonist decides to tackle the challenge head-on. She ‘crosses the threshold,’ and the story is now truly moving.
|Act 2: Conflict and Rising Action in Discovery
— Pinch Point (Along the way, things don’t go smoothly)
— Midpoint (A realization of the gravity of the struggle or some advantage is taken)
|Act 2 –The Hero Is Tested and Changes. Dies and Is Reborn in the Pivotal Scene
— The hero detective is tested by the new rules of this new alternate world. The villain puts the hero through a series of trials, some of which are passed, others failed.
|Act 3 – The Hero Is Tested Again and Succeeds
— The cat and mouse game continues but the hero is taking on the task with a renewal and the advantage of everything they learned from the pivotal scene. Act Three ends with the discovery of the villain.
|Act II: The Confrontation
Rising Action. The story’s true stakes become clear; our hero grows familiar with her ‘new world’ and has her first encounters with some enemies and allies. (see Tests, Allies, Enemies)
Midpoint. An event that upends the protagonist’s mission. (Similar to the climax in Freytag’s pyramid)
Plot Point Two. In the wake of the disorienting midpoint, the protagonist is tested — and fails. Her ability to succeed is now in doubt.
|Act 3: Crisis
— Pinch Point
— Plot Point (personal change or change to new approach)
|Act 4 – How the Hero Traps the Villain
— the hero is returning to the normal world, resetting the rules set up by the villain by bringing him or her to justice.
| Act 4: Climax and Wrap Up
— Rising Conflict (A path to success presents itself)
— Revelation and Wrap Up (wrap up your mystery and bring your story to a quick conclusion)
|Act 5 – Shows How the Events of the Story Have Impacted the Major Characters
— A brief section after the villain is caught showing what happens to the characters after these events. We see how the changes in the characters will carry on into their everyday.
|Act III: The Resolution
Pre Climax. The night is darkest before dawn. The protagonist must pull herself together and choose between decisive action and failure.
Climax. She off against her antagonist one last time. Will she prevail?
Denouement. All loose ends are tied up. The reader discovers the consequences of the climax. A new status quo is established.
It’s possible all this means nothing to you, but I find it helpful to look at. One of the hardest things for me to do is grasp all the levels. A common term in business is “The Fifty Thousand Foot View”. Basically, be aware that everything, including story writing, looks different from the sky to the trenches and it can be very difficult to switch.
Next I’ve listed out some story elements that can help a mystery. Mysteries are kind of like ska music, if it doesn’t sound exactly like ska it ain’t ska and if it doesn’t read like a mystery, it ain’t a mystery. Maybe… I dunno, I just came up with that…
Common Elements of a Mystery Story
An isolated location or An atmospheric setting
- And Then There Were None – set on a small tidal island off the coast of Devon, inaccessible by boat unless the tide is low;
- Murder on the Orient Express – set on the Orient Express train, which is stopped mid-route by heavy snowfall;
- Murder on the Nile – set on a cruise boat on the river Nile.
- Eerie country house
Revealed in the first chapter, a crime creates the central conflict
The author should introduce the characters in the
story with enough information that the reader can visualize each person.
A trail of clues
Narrative momentum: A mystery plot is in constant motion thanks to a cat-and-mouse narrative thread. The pacing will quicken the closer the plot moves towards the climax and the closer the main character gets to solving the crime.
Possible Mystery Motives
- To hide a secret
- Greed, pure and simple
- Obsession, Frustration & Hate
- Love, Sex & Jealousy
- Crime of Passion
- Psychosis & Mental Disorders
- To protect personal status
- To protect a loved one
- Empathy or Sympathy, protecting the victims best interest
- Covering Up Another Crime
- Mistaken Identity
Questions to ask about the story
- Why now? Why kill instead of settling for a less lethal resolution?
- Why did the killer not confess? In real life, most murders are crimes of passion and the killer is rarely in doubt.
- If the killer bonds or stonewalls the investigator, why?
- What motivates the killer to go on as if nothing happened
- Why doesn’t the victim sense the growing danger?
- Why does each witness step forward or not?
Common Tropes and Possible Twists for a Mystery Story
- Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap reveals that the murderer was the man pretending to be the policeman/sleuth all along;
- J.K. Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling exposes the culprit as the man who hired the detective in the first place;
- Woody Allen’s movie The Curse of the Jade Scorpion sees an investigator discover that he himself has been committing robberies while unwittingly hypnotized.
- A strong hook: A great mystery should invite the reader to try to solve the crime,
- Starting with a corpse
- A Mysterious Injury – explain away mysterious injuries as an unfortunate accident
- The Absent Murderer – Keeping the eventual murderer absent from the main action of a plot is a useful trope in keeping the audience from guessing too early on.
- Lights Off – While not necessarily needing to involve literally turning off the lights, this trope usually involves a reversal of fortune for the detective.
- Everybody’s Guilty
- The Unsympathetic Victim
- The Faked Death
- The Alibi
- The Stately Home
- The Big Reveal
- The Red Herring
Need more tropes? Here’s a big list of them at tvtropes.org