The Mystery Puzzle

Before I start, I want to point out a new link on the page, right below the two websites, which will take you to an interview with me.  I hope you’ll check it out – and then come back.
This week I’m combining two questions.  On December 11, 2009 Amanda posted this comment:  I’m thinking about writing a mystery novel but I’ve never written a mystery before. Do you have any tips on how to write one?
And on December 23, 2009 Curious Mind wrote:  I like a bit of mystery in my writing, but cannot seem to hold back information very well, and there is no suspense.  Any suggestions?
Taking the second question first, a lot can be fixed in revision, so putting everything in is fine in the first draft.  Sometimes I include information simply because I need to know it, and I’m discovering it on the page.  When the story is written, or when I’m far enough along to tell what’s necessary and what’s not, I prune.
Heaps of background can bog a story down, without a doubt, but suspense and withholding information aren’t necessarily the same.  Sometimes the more the reader knows about a problem the more worried he will be.  Giant spiders in the house are scary, but giant spiders who can find their way through a maze faster than a rat are scarier.  Throw in a main character who is deathly allergic to spider bites, and the reader should be wringing her hands in fright.  I don’t want to keep this information to myself, and I particularly don’t want to whip it out at the last minute.  The reader should have time to stew in fear.
Lawrence Block writes a mystery series about a crime-solving thief, Bernie Rhodenbarr.  I don’t like Block’s technique of skipping over details that help Bernie solve the crime and then letting the reader in on them later when the truth comes out.  Unfair! I yell at my book – and continue reading, because the story is too much fun to put down.
Amanda, I have written only one mystery, so I’m no expert.  Right now, I’m writing notes and exploring what may be my second.  I’m feeling at sea, the way I usually feel at this stage of any book.  I don’t even know what the mystery will be yet.  I have an idea who some of my main characters will be, but I don’t know which are good and which are evil.  At least two will have secret identities, but I don’t know which character will attach to which secret identity.
Some mystery writers have it all plotted out before they start.  I’m sure they’re initially confused – or I hope they are – but they wait for certainty and an outline before they begin the narrative.  Others just plunge in.  I’m in the middle but closer to the plungers.  Still, I need more of a direction than I have so far.
Ambiguity about who’s bad and who’s good can work in your favor and mine in a mystery.  A character can act with kindness and then turn around and do something terrible, leaving the reader mixed up.  You can maintain the uncertainty and push the character to finally reveal himself – and then you can cover up the revelation so your reader doesn’t even notice it.  For example, suppose something very valuable goes missing and your villain is a thief.  Suppose also that the owner of the object has just moved and the movers put boxes everywhere, kitchen boxes in the den, bedroom boxes in the kitchen.  Throw in that the owner is super forgetful and could have put the precious thing in any box or have left it behind in the old house in a dark corner of a closet.  To make matters worse, the owner has a new puppy who’s prone to eat almost anything.  By now there’s enough dust in the reader’s eye to conceal a league of thieves.
At the heart of a mystery is a who question, of course.  Who committed the crime?  The crime can be anything from murder to a stolen cupcake to a betrayed friendship.  In the mystery I just finished, A Mansioner’s Tale (tentative title), the crime that starts the mystery off, the theft of a dog, isn’t the main crime.  The first is a precursor to the second, but Lodie, my main character, doesn’t realize that.
Underlying the who question is the why question.  Why was the crime committed?  What was the motive?  It’s probably possible to find out who without ever learning why.  I bet this happens often in actual crimes, and I suspect it’s frustrating for a jury.  Still, I think a successful whodunit might be written without ever answering the why question.
In most cases, however, the why question is answered.  In the mystery I just finished, the victim is hated by many.  There are legions of suspects, and the reader doesn’t know whom to trust.  But you could go the other way.  The deceased could be beloved by everyone.  Who would hit such a saint over the head?
You can pile on puzzles and possible clues.  In A Mansioner’s Tale several characters wear rings and bracelets made of twine.  Lodie wonders if the wearers belong to a secret society that has it in for the victim.  A character who presents herself as poor is seen haggling with a jeweler over an expensive bracelet.  A honey-tongued man speaks harshly.  A gate is left open.  An ox is mauled.
It’s fun to confuse the reader.  Going back to Curious Mind’s question, extra information can add to the confusion.  Your main character can hear gossip about someone that may be entirely false.  Or the gossip can be contradictory.  Or the intelligence can be true, but the source can be a known liar.
You can fool around with all the elements, not just who and why but also how, as well as opportunity, alibi, ability (a small woman overpowering a big man, for example).
Even in stories that aren’t primarily mysteries, there are likely to be puzzles.  Somebody dislikes the main character, and he wonders why.  He gets straight As on all his Chemistry tests, yet the teacher gives him a C on his report card.  His sister keeps coming home late from school.  His mother has begun to sew although she used to hate domesticity in any form.
For a little more on this subject, you may want to revisit my post of May 27, 2009 called Mystery Mystery when I wrote about another aspect of mysteries. 
Here’s a prompt:  Think of someone you know but not very well.  Invent a secret for this person, one that goes with your idea of her.  It can be a dark secret or not.  Turn her into a character.  If she were going to commit a crime, what would it be?
Now do the same for four more people.  If you are inspired, write a mystery story involving one or more of them.  Have fun, and save what you write!
  1. Just FYI, the link to the interview loads but doesn't show much of anything when I used Safari 3.1.2. When I opened it in Firefox 3.0.1 it told me it couldn't load because blah blah blah. Easily fixed if I update stuff, but I can't because I'm on a work computer.

    Anyway, just letting you know that it doesn't work for all browsers. I'll try it again later at home.

  2. April–Thanks for letting me know. I had to install a plug-in to view it initially. I'm pretty low tech, so I don't have advice for other low-techers. I hope some will be able to manage. If not, there's always the blog, which is the main event.

  3. Re: Writing surprises & twists

    From my reading experience, the biggest surprises come when the author asks a question, answers it, and then has the characters act throughout the story how they would if that answer was correct. The surprise is sprung when the characters discover that what they'd thought all along really isn't right. I find this method to be more surprising than just witholding information.

  4. Hi! I just wanted to say thanks so much for the helpful blog! It means a lot to hear some real professional advice about writing, and I've been enjoying your posts! I can't wait to read more. Thanks again!

  5. Thank you so much for answering my question! You're right: I don't need to keep all the secrets. That's going to help a bunch.

    I actually found your blog from reading Rick Riordan's blog, but now I'm a regular reader! When will your new book be published, do you know?

    (p.s. I'm Curious Mind but changed my username is all.)

  6. I'm so glad I stumbled across your blog! I found it a few days ago, and love it already.

    Even though fantasy is my usual genre, I've played around with the idea of writing a YA mystery, and this post has really helped me! Thank you.

  7. I'm glad I found your blog, too! I arrived here from Rick Riordan's blog:). Thanks so much for answering writing questions– it's so cool to for fans to be able to get close to an author!

  8. I have read your books Ella Enchanted and Fairest and I loved them. I have written a book and I am trying to get it published. Everyone I talk to tells me I need an agent. Since this is my first book do I really need an agent? Are they that helpful? So far they haven't been very helpful because all the ones I have sent a query letter too tell me they only want vampires and my book is not about vampires. I thought I did my research before sending it to them but I guess it wasn't good enough. Thanks Gail Zuniga

  9. I found that magical secrets were best for close friends, and dark secrets were easiest for those who are practically strangers to me. Thank you so much for the help, Gail!
    I really enjoy these exercises. You are an amazing teacher. 🙂
    @ Gail Zuniga: I think that's awful of them, only wanting vampires. They should at least give your book a chance. And vampires are so overdone now. My book-loving soul is screaming for something new, like a YA good science fiction novel! (So I would probably buy your book.) 😀

  10. Gail Zuniga–It's hard to get a book published with or without an agent! I hope you have joined or will join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, which helped me enormously when I was getting started. I'm still a member. You can get information at

  11. Very good interview. You were engaging, charming and inspiring (as usual). I belong to a list-serve (midsouth kidsbooks) and would like to post this there for our members. Would that be okay?

  12. Ms. Levine-
    In my story I'm revising, I've decided to have my princess meet a dragon. This creates two questions:
    1)If I have her answer a riddle, how do I come up with one no one knows?
    2)Should I just describe the dragon and have my readers create their own picture or should I illustrate her?
    Thanks for the help!

  13. Mary–Try making up your own riddle. Look at something and think of a way to describe it that's true but misleading, like, What's a roof that has no house? An umbrella. I think either describing or illustrating are equally excellent.

  14. Horseriderreader–I do visit schools and libraries. The person to contact about this is Tony Hirt at HarperCollins, and his email address is on the right above, at the bottom of the About Me section.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.