Facets of a Muse

Examining the guiding genius of writers everywhere

Anatomy of a Mystery


Sounds like I know what I’m doing, doesn’t it?

Ha! Fooled you!

The idea for this post came as I drove to work this morning pondering again how to strengthen my revised outline for my next WIP. Right now, I’m writing mystery (as opposed to fantasy, my other main genre). In general, and specifically for mysteries, I’ve received guidance from my wonderful writing sisters.

You gals have no idea how much I appreciate your help!

There are a few things I’ve learned about writing, and writing mysteries in particular:

  • Deadlines. There should be some time limit the protagonists are up against, whether it’s a bodily threat or some other threat. It could be anything from the killer striking again to Uncle Buck getting full possession of the estate or the wedding that can’t be rescheduled.
  • Dead bodies. My very first draft of the WIP I’m now working on had no dead bodies. There were threats, and a deadline, but no dead guys/gals. Yeah–no. It’s like a prerequisite. If there’s no dead bodies, it’s less a full-out adult-level mystery and more Encyclopedia Brown or the Three Investigators. Enjoyed those stories, but I don’t write MG or YA, where dead bodies are discouraged (real life is violent enough). Even cozy mysteries have dead bodies.
  • Chapter Hooks. Remember that book you started and couldn’t put down? The one where you had to read just one more chapter? Then just one more? Then there’s only a couple chapters left. Then your alarm clock goes off and you realize you stayed up all night reading. I remember the first book where I really noticed that: Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind. Yes, it’s a fantasy, but I had to keep reading because at the end of (just about) every chapter there was a question I needed to find the answer to. So, especially with a mystery, the more chapters you can end with a question that lures the reader to keep going, the better.
  • Stakes. In the very first draft of the manuscript I recently completed, the plot involved the main character’s BFF from high school. My writing sisters straightened me out. “Best Friend” isn’t close enough to the main character. Family is better. The main character should be tied to the mystery through a family relation of some sort (at least in the first book of many, if there is more than one). Why? Because the main character has a greater stake in the outcome if it involves family. So, I adjusted. The main character is now tied to the mystery via her brother. This also allowed me to add the additional threat of putting suspicion on the main character, which also jacks up the stakes. The deeper the crime/mystery affects the main character (higher stakes) the more tension you can create, and the more the reader cares if the main character succeeds.
  • Twists. Wow, didn’t see that coming, did you? This kinda goes without saying. Red herrings, false accusations, and soft alibis all contribute to misdirection. In my opinion, Agatha Christie was a master at this. I could never figure out who did it until the culprit was revealed at the end, then I would trace back to find the little clues she dropped along the way. And it always seemed like the innocuous detail was the clincher. This isn’t limited to mysteries, either. I’m sure there are romances out there where the “other woman (or man)” is someone the protagonist least expects. Or fantasies where one of the biggest allies turns out to be a major enemy (LOTR: Saruman, anyone?)

As I work on re-re-re-revising my WIP outline, I’m trying to keep all these things in mind so I can (hopefully) avoid yet another major plot revision.

Dead body? Yep. Died about 70 years ago, ruled accidental, but was it?

Deadline? Yep. My MC has a window in which to solve the mystery, and if she blows the deadline, she loses, like, a six-figure inheritance and a nice chunk of farmland with a house and everything.

Chapter hooks? That’ll come when I redo the draft. Again. Sigh.

Stakes? I’m trying to raise them as much as possible. I think I’ve got a pretty good handle on them. It’s another instance of family being central to the mystery.

Twists? Ooo, I’ve got a lot of opportunities for misdirection. The trick will be to keep the misdirection believable without giving away too much too early.

And there you have it. And just because you aren’t writing mysteries doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. All of these (except the dead body) can be applied to almost any genre. You’ll also notice I left out conflict. That goes without saying. All stories need some sort of conflict, and if you’re a writer, you know that.

I’m almost done with my outline, and I’m aiming to start re-drafting this weekend. Besides, with the arctic cold and the snowstorm tomorrow, it’ll be perfect weather to stay inside and write. How about you?


Author: Julie Holmes, author

A fiction writer since elementary school (many years ago), and NaNoWriMo annual participant for over a decade, I have been published in small press magazines such as "Fighting Chance" and "The Galactic Citizen". I write adult mystery with a touch of romance, mystery with extrasensory elements, contemporary fantasy, and epic fantasy, and I'm represented by the fabulous Cynthia Zigmund of Second City Publishing Services. My debut novel, "Murder in Plane Sight", has been released by Camel Press (an imprint of Coffeetown Press/Epicenter Press). In real life, I am a technical writer and empty-nester with a wonderful hubby, one cat (what writer doesn't have cats??), one dog, five chickens, and more chipmunks, squirrels, and rabbits than any garden should have to deal with. My garden, our hobby farm, and Nature's annual seasons are some of my muses.

13 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Mystery

  1. This is such a great post! I feel like we have very similar minds. Your blog is actually pretty similar to mine, we should follow each other and leave feedback on each other’s posts?!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A snowstorm tomorrow? Ugh! Although that does make for great writing weather (much like rain). It’s going to be bitter cold in my area, so I’ll be tucked inside editing.

    These were great tips. I love mysteries and chapter hooks are one of the things that really keep me reading. I also love when an author sprinkles clues throughout that finally come together in the end. I’m going flag this post for reference for when I start my next book. They’re great reminders of what goes into good fiction, especially mysteries.

    Happy re-drafting this weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Coming from a mystery writer such as yourself πŸ˜€ It’s been nasty cold here the past few days, or rather the wind has been strong and cold, with windchills in the single digits. And Monday we had 40s. Nothing like Mother Nature deciding to drop the hammer all at once!

      My writing teacher always brings up chapter hooks. Some chapters work better than others for ending with a hook, but as one of my beta readers suggested, sometimes it’s good to let go of the reader for a moment or two to let them catch their breath.

      Happy editing, Mae!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great list, Julie. I was going to mention that the ideas apply to more than mysteries and then you did! I’m getting better at the cliff-hangers or questions at the end of chapters. I remember getting editing advice that recommended looking at how much of a chapter start and finish I could cut and still get the information across. Sometimes it seems that ending a chapter before the scene was tidily wrapped up, added quite a bit of suspense. I don’t do that with every chapter, but trying. Happy Writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Diana! My writing teacher is always reminding us to end chapters with a hook, but sometimes it just doesn’t work for a particular chapter. It always reminds me of that Terry Goodkind book and how he ended each chapter with a hook. I try to notice it now whenever I read a book no matter the genre. Of course, I usually get so caught up in the story I forget to pay attention! Have a great weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. You’re right. All good stuff to keep mind regardless of the genre. Thanks for the tips!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you like these! I finally finished working through my revised outline. Now to settle down and write; I’ve been getting grumpy from not writing. Of course, Dopey shows up, too, and makes me feel like I should work on the outline some more πŸ˜€ Have a great rest of your weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: β–ΊMythology: “Arachne, The Greek Spider Woman”πŸ•·.- | La Audacia de Aquiles

  6. Oh, Agatha Christie had twists and plotting down to a fine art – I read all her books avidly when young and recently caught up on many for fun when I could appreciate her skill even more. Since you know her work well you’ve had an intensive course in plotting & twists already! I had to smile at your lapse of any dead bodies in your WIP first draft…yep, probably a requirement for mystery books – what is your body count up to now? Great post, Julie with lots of useful advice – I’ll keep this in mind as it’s helpful for lots of writing genres as you point out. I feel that unless it is a mystery I don’t want too obvious chapter hooks in novels as they can become rather forced. Artic weather perfect for writing – here wet, grey and just cold…also in process of redoing hall flooring so house a slight tip amongst the Christmas decorations.sigh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I always loved Agatha Christie novels, and going back to read them again to pay attention to the structure of them is a great idea. We got hit with another snowstorm, and once the white stuff stops falling, the wind is supposed to pick up and the mercury is supposed to drop to far below reasonable πŸ™‚ Then on Monday it’s supposed to be almost 20F! A temp swing of 25 degrees in less than a day! And they’re predicting a day at the freezing temp next week. Nothing like going from below zero to thirty inside a week!

      Have a great weekend, Annika! Redoing the hall floor? Don’t drop any Christmas balls unless you have a gutter to catch them (like a billiard table) πŸ˜€

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Even though I don’t write mysteries, these are great tips to keep in mind while I revise! (Except the body count, since I do write MG ;))

    Liked by 1 person

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