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I'm looking for books, essays and articles on plotting mystery/detective/investigation stories (and novels). The type of story I'm aiming for is in the vein of Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, or Asimov's Robots/Elijah Baley novels.

It seems to me that plotting out mysteries is a very distinct, specialized form of plotting, with its own tools and guidelines. Building intriguing logical puzzles; extrapolating an intriguing solution from an intriguing conundrum or vice versa; laying out clues; discovering the clues and drawing conclusions from them; choosing suspects and methods and motivations; storytelling within very narrow scope, but revising it entirely with every new discovery - I can speak about these intuitively, but they seem unique and important enough that there should be a fair amount of existing discussion and advice. I haven't been able to find much.

So I'm looking for any resources you can point me to discussing the plotting, the design, of the mystery itself. I'm not looking for general writing advice specialized for the mystery genre (although a resource that has both is obviously fine). If there exist any lexicon/taxonomy-type articles, of the sort that try to identify common tropes and concepts, those would be very welcome.

Books on Amazon that looked promising included William Tapply's The Elements of Mystery Fiction and Carolyn Wheat's How To Write Killer Fiction; recommendations for/against these and other books, in regards to the particular subjects I'm looking for, would be appreciated as well.

Bounty Notes

In May, I posted a bounty with the following guidelines. A week after the bounty deadline expired, I got a great answer from Taryn East, so it's only fair I award her her due - the current bounty's all hers.

  1. Persuasive recommendation for a resource (print or online) that extensively discusses the construction of a mystery plot.
  2. Resources in which a mystery author details how they constructed a particular plot - provided the plot is reasonably good.
  3. Recommendation for resources with advice that apply specifically to writing mysteries, which I'll define as: advice which probably would not be immediately useful to somebody writing something other than a mystery.
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8 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted
+100

I have been working on exactly the same problem. What I've found so far are below. I've only just got these books, so I can't tell you how good they are apart from first impressions, but here goes:

1) The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery

Which is a step-by-step program to help you develop your characters, your murder, your plot and everything else. Looks fantastic and seems interesting so far

2) How to Write a Damn Good Mystery

I read his How to Write a Damn Good Novel which was awesome - so I figure this will be a good one to work with too.

3) Plotting the Mystery novel

Which is an online description of the classic 12-chapter Mystery-novel formula.

4) Plot & Structure

which is about plotting in general and helped me figure out what was important to make a good plot.

Anyway - those are my recommendations. Good luck

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Taryn, these are great! Very much what I was looking for with this question. The "Weekend Novelist" Amazon page mentions explicitly many of the topics I'm looking for input on, and says that it uses Gorky Park and a Christie for demonstrations - that's exactly the type of resource I'm hunting for! –  Standback May 17 '11 at 15:10
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Maybe you can look into how Memento was written and use that as a framework?

Stefano Ghislotti wrote an article in Film Anthology which discusses how Nolan provides the viewer with the clues necessary to decode sujet/plotline as we watch and help us understand the fabula/story from it. The color sequences include a brief overlap to help clue the audience in to the fact that they are being presented in reverse order. The purpose of the fragmented reverse sequencing is to force the audience into a sympathetic experience of Leonard's defective short-term memory, where prior events are not recalled.

sujet vs. fabula of Memento

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Do you mean this: dinamico2.unibg.it/fa/fa_mem01.html ? –  Standback May 9 '11 at 14:57
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EDIT: In reconsidering this question and a conversation I had with a colleague the other day I believe I have something to add on this. He mentioned reading about the way Agatha Christie used to construct her stories. He made the assertion that she used to write the whole thing without actually knowing who the murderer was, then analyse what she had written to find a suitable murderer as she approached the end and then quickly "plant" the clues along the way.

Whether this hearsay is true or not I cannot say but it did make me wonder if there was anything about Christie's methods on line I found:

http://www.christiemystery.co.uk/method.html

And from the same site:

http://www.christiemystery.co.uk/plot.html

Hope those help!

-END EDIT-
FINAL EDIT

Just to put the lid on this and make it complete, following the Christie search I just did a generic one for whodunnit plot methods and the best link, despite feeling a little spammy, was:

http://www.squidoo.com/writing_whodunit_mystery

-END EDIT-

When I wanted to write a crime novel I didn't worry overmuch about the "whodunnit" aspect of the novel as the crime I was describing was so bizarre it was more of a "whatexactlyarewedealingwithhere". However I did want the rather surreal situation I was describing to have some sort of psychological veracity and for the police procedural details to be accurate. Perhaps these desires were born of the bizarreness of the actual incident I was describing. (It's that odd that I'm not even going to attempt to describe it here.)

In preparation for that I consulted the Writer's Digest volumes Scene of the Crime and Armed and Dangerous. The former was considerably more helpful than the latter and my actual weapons reference for firearms is a rather scary volume called the D20 Modern Weapons Locker which is for a role playing game but contains a great and accurate write up of almost every firearm in the known world (I told you it was scary). The Weapons Locker also points out matters for simulating the realism of weapons in games and deals in points of fact like there being no way to silence a revolver.

Finally for a psychological aspect I read many of the behavioural profiling memoirs of FBI Behavioural Profiler John Douglas. His books with Mark Olshaker give Douglas a chance to discuss the psychology of the criminal in depth that is more than sufficient for an author to know their criminal. He mostly talks about serial killers obviously but also about particular single murders and even a few "nuisances" like the profile of the kind of guy who would add a urine kicker to the office coffee pot (similar psychological make up to the unabomber for the record).

What all this taught me was that if your crime is compelling the "mystery" aspect kind of takes care of itself. A story in which you just ask "who" dunnit is not as exciting as one that asks "why" they dunnit and "what" they tried to do to cover it up.

From that time whenever I design a crime story I always walk through the crime from the perspective of the criminal and allow the detectives to work back to the crime from the evidence.

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Hi, thanks for the answer :) Those are good resources you're pointing to, but I'm really not looking for criminal research material - I'm looking for discussions of plotting, structure, and pacing. A brilliantly compelling crime isn't what I want if it doesn't have plot hooks for the detective to discover it; or without a web of potential suspects; or plot twists and revelations along the way. Obviously, a lot of this is "plain old" storytelling skill, but some of it is unique and specialized, and I was hoping to find some resources on that particular subject. –  Standback Feb 8 '11 at 11:09
    
There's no magic bullet there. A story is a story. –  One Monkey Feb 8 '11 at 11:14
    
I agree entirely, and I'm not looking for one. I just want to see what other, more experienced writers, have said on the topic. I figure if I can write a page about it, somebody good can probably write at least a chapter or two. :P –  Standback Feb 8 '11 at 11:18
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I read through those and, to my surprise, most detective fiction I have ever read is apparently not detective fiction... who knew? –  One Monkey Feb 8 '11 at 12:06
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I highly recommend reading related articles / forums in one of the many Role-Playing Games Communities.

Since writing adventures for a group of gamers often include mystery elements, lots of good advice on design and writing can be found there.

While using a lot of Gaming Language, these resources are highly readable even to someone not familiar with Role-playing games.

A quick search on Google yielded:

How do you write mystery adventures from http://www.enworld.org forum, and Mystery plots from one of the designers of the d20 Modern Roleplaying Game.

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Thanks :) I'm an RPGer myself, so I've no difficulty with the terminology. But RPG mysteries are a whole 'nother thing, in my experience - because the players generally can't be guided into the dramatic logical acrobatics that detective novels go through. RPG mysteries are much simpler, designed to be solved - often a simple crumb-trail of clues pointing to the next scene. Lots of the relevant advice is often about how to let the players make up their own clues and deductions, like fictional detectives do. I don't see that swinging in a novel. –  Standback Feb 24 '11 at 11:48
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Specifically on Tapply's Elements of Mystery Fiction, I bought the book, and was disappointed to find almost nothing concerning the plotting issues I raised in the question. Alas.

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The two biggest insights I've had into plotting a mystery are:

  1. Think about the mystery as two stories: the crime and the detection. Obviously, these are tightly intertwined, but I've found that thinking of them as discrete stories helps spark better ideas. If you just plot the detection story, then every aspect of the crime ends up being a straight justification for the detection plot. By plotting the crime independently, you get a richer story to unravel, which makes the detection story better, even if the entire crime plot happens before page 1.

  2. Give almost every character a secret--any secret. When everyone has information they are trying not to reveal, it's easier to make them look like suspects, even when they had nothing to do with the crime. Conversations and interrogations get more interesting as they detective and the suspect dance around each other, and conflict.

I blogged about these insights in more detail a few years ago, but the blog was lost. :-(

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Oh! I'd dearly love to read such a blog - I really like the points you've given here; they're exactly the type of discussion I'm looking for. Any chance it's been preserved on the Wayback Machine? –  Standback Feb 10 '11 at 18:34
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I don't know of any online resources, but I would offer a couple of my own suggestions:

1) Before you begin the story, you MUST know how the crime was actually committed. This is because stories of this type can require complex choreography to get the various characters into the correct positions. If you realize too late that you have to change the circumstances of the crime, you may be in for quite a bit of rewriting.

2) Begin with the actual crime, which should be fairly straightforward. Once that's done, you can the obfuscate what actually happened. Work backwards, in other words.

3) Make sure that facts that appear obvious during the setup may not be what they seem. Be sure all the characters - not just the villain - have plenty of secrets to uncover. Why was the upstairs maid in the garden at 3am, anyway?

4) Read lots of locked room mysteries. There are a couple of good collections that are widely avaible, THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF LOCKED ROOM MYSTERIES AND IMPOSSIBLE CRIMES and THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF PERFECT CRIMES AND IMPOSSIBLE MYSTERIES. An author you didn't mention is John Dickson Carr (aka Carter Dickson).

5) Remember, the plot isn't the story. A good story can sell a mediocre plot, and an ingenious solution can't save a bad story.

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A) There is no resource in the world that will make you a writer like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, or Isaac Asimov. You are going to be the writer that YOU are going to be. Being inspired by the greats is fine and a good thing.

B) The best resource anywhere for tropes is tvtropes.org, and specific mystery tropes may be found at http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MysteryTropes

C) Now considering that you already knew the term "trope", you likely already knew B.

D) The butler did it. Elementary.

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A) But of course. My intention was only to clarify the type of mystery/detective stories I was interested in writing - as opposed to suspense, noir, procedural, etc. –  Standback Feb 8 '11 at 10:18
    
B-C) Heh. I know the site well; hadn't thought of looking there, though. Thanks for the suggestion. –  Standback Feb 8 '11 at 10:21
    
D) Shhhh! You'll spoil my story's ending for everybody! –  Standback Feb 8 '11 at 10:22
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