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Category Archives: Mystery Writing Advice

Help for your suspense, mystery & cluetrail writing

If you want to write a ‘fairplay’ mystery – where your reader has all the clues to solve the mystery- the earlier you plant the clue that will give away the solution the better. Below is a case in point. Good old Sherlock!

Sherlock StarsSherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a camping trip. After a good meal and a bottle of wine, they were exhausted and went to sleep.
Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend.
“Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”
Watson replied, “I see millions and millions of stars.”
“What does that tell you?” Holmes said Watson pondered for a minute.
“Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Timewise, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that The lord is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have, a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?”
Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke. “Watson, you idiot, Some ——- has stolen our tent.”

The very first piece of information you were given is that they were camping. But after the good meal, the bottle of wine and the lengthy discussion about the meaning of the universe, you forgot that. Ta Da.

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Mysteries are incredibly flexible. They can bend and twist to fit any circumstances or situation. If you are writing an interactive question cube4mystery event, you just have to know what you have to work with in the beginning to save yourself the work of adjusting elements later on. If you are writing a book, you have much more freedom – but you still need to know where you are going to end up. One of the great joys of being a writer is being able to lay the infrastructure so that it supports all the twists and turns you are going to pull your reader through on their way to solving the crime.

This does not mean you are married to a rigid outline or structure. Yes, you do have to make one, but if along the way a better idea pops up, follow it as far as you reasonable can. If this bright new idea is asking you to rearrange just about everything – it’s probably a different book. If you can easily tweak existing ideas to support the new twist – by all means follow it if it improves the story.

The Grave Truth – To have a plot you need to dig up some dirt.

  grave dig female2 We have all been betrayed by something or someone. At least we think we have – close enough. Then that betrayal is buried … or forgotten about … covered over by time and other troubles. Dirty deeds lie all around us, drifting up dark corners, lurking inside a locked drawer and hidden behind hollow eyes and false intentions … just waiting to be revealed.

Capture your readers’ attention by digging up dirt that gets under your nails, coats your hair and clogs your skin. Sift through rumours and search the debris for those gold nuggets of murderous motivation that will make your story unforgettable.

Grab your tools, roll up your shirt sleeves and start shovelling some dirt around. This is where your plot begins. You need something to write about.

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Some things have changed since S.S. Van Dine gave us his 20 rules for detective fiction writing. Some things have not. The rational behind many of these rules still hold true while some are hilariously dated and reveal the bias from the time they were written.

“Twenty rules for writing detective stories” (1928)

(Originally published in the American Magazine (1928-sep),
and included in the Philo Vance investigates omnibus (1936).

by S.S. Van Dine
(pseud. for Willard Huntington Wright)

THE DETECTIVE story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws — unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them. Herewith, then, is a sort Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author’s inner conscience. To wit:

1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.

5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.

6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.

7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.

8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic seances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.

9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his codeductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.

11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.

12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.

13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.

14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.

15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.

18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.

19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic seance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.

Plot Point #4 – Everyone Has a Motive

           In murder mystery entertainment every suspect has a motive. For every motive you need a piece of evidence. I write mystery entertainment so that some of the evidence is spoken dialogue, some of the evidence is hardcopy clues and much of the evidence is covered both ways, just to make sure no one in the audience misses anything.

If the clue is verbal only then it must be included in a ‘scripted’ scene. All scripted scenes must be on microphone. There is nothing so detrimental to murder mystery entertainment as the audience not being able to hear what the characters are saying. Except a boring script. My scripts are never boring.

The actor who is giving out the ‘verbal only’ clue must also make sure it is relayed to every group of people as he ‘works the tables’. Mingling should take place between the scripted scenes as well as at the beginning of the evening.

           Included in this posting are the motives for three of the four suspects; Nadia, Shyster, and Samira. The fourth piece of evidence, although addressed to Samira is a clue to something that Shazam is trying to hide. His motive is covered in the dialogue with the other characters during the scripted scenes.

For all your mystery entertainment needs: www.mysteryfactory.com

Plot Point #3 – Who are the suspects?

Now that we know who dies, who are the suspects? The best mystery entertainment is always over the top! Colourful characters are just more fun and able to get away with extreme behavior. This helps your audience relax and enjoy themselves; it makes it easier for them to participate as well. Since no one is acting ‘normal’ it gives guests permission to act a little melodramatic as well.

In mystery entertainment, every character has a motive for wanting the villain dead. Here’s the cast / characters for Midnight at the Oasis.

  • Deanna Berrington as Nadia of the Night – Betrayed by the Sultan
  • Tony Berryman as Sheikh of Shazam – Robbed by the Sultan
  • James Lazarus as Sheihk of Shyster – Blackmailed by the Sultan
  • Judy Smith as Samira of the Sunset – Cursed by the Sultan

The Arabian Mountain Spice Belly Dancers play the harem. Cam Berry as the Sultan of Haberdashery is not in this photo but you can get a glimpse him with Alice the drug sniffing camel in Plot Point #2 Who Dies?

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Plot Point #2 – Who Dies?

Who dies can be quite different in a written story than at a mystery party. In fiction writing, a writer has the ability to be subtle; in live events, not so much. The dead person in a novel can be good or bad or both. At a party, there is no room for subtly.  The dead person is always the deepest, darkest villain who truly deserves to die. Not one tear will be shed as he (or she) drops down in pain, rises up gasping for breath, pulling over chairs and knocking over lamps as he finally stumbles his miserable way out of this world.

Case in point: In Midnight at the Oasis, the Sultan of Haberdashery with his drug sniffing camel Alice, is the villain. Well, the camel gets to live. The Sultan – no. A truly detestable bad guy, he gives everyone he comes in contact with a good reason for wanting him dead. Blackmail, burglary and betrayal are just of few of his horrendous habits. The Sultan has control over something which the killer and other suspects want; their hearts, their freedom, their pocketbooks. Motive is all about being in control at its bottom line.

Visit mysteryfactory.com for all you mystery needs.

Over the next however many blog entries I make I will be taking you through some vital points that need to be addressed as you create a murder mystery party. Since I am currently creating such a party, it seems like an excellent time to share some key pieces of information and to be able to show you what I am doing as we go along.

Plot Point #1 – What is the Event?

If you are thinking about writing or putting together a murder mystery entertainment party the first thing you need to think about is this:  What interesting occasion is happening when the murder occurs? For instance just having someone die at a regular house party or awards ceremony is boring. There must be some exciting reason for people to be gathered together. This is a fictional event on top of if it is for someone’s birthday or anniversary.

The project I am currently involved in is a fundraiser for the community arts and culture centre and the local belly dance group. With a combination like that the title ‘Midnight at the Oasis‘ immediately popped into my head. Now what could be the fictional reason for the gathering? After about a week of thought and trying things on I made up my own tale out of the Arabian Nights and set about using that as the basis for the mystery reason to be. The fictional reason for the gathering is that it is the one day out of the year that the Midnight Genie can be enticed out of his genie bottle to grant three wishes.

The Tale of the Midnight Genie
If the adventures in the Arabian Nights had been 1002 nights long, instead of 1001, you would have heard the incredible tale of ‘The Midnight Genie’. This genie was not trapped in a bottle, but he hid in one. Tired of constantly being besieged to grant wishes, curse enemies and find lost camels, the genie escaped into the solitude of a bottle refusing to come out. For thousands of years no one saw the magic jinn.

Then, one midnight, a ravishing princess was dancing on the sand outside of the cave where the genie’s vessel was sequestered. The pulsing rhythms of the dance, road the wind into the still air of the bottle. Something inside began to awaken. The genie grew curious. For the first time, in a long time, the enchanter was enchanted and left his dwelling to gaze upon the form of the dexterous dancer.

Smitten by the sultry seductress, the genie offered the princess three wishes. For her last wish, in hopes of repeating her good fortune, the woman wished for the genie to be forever enticed by dancing.  Whenever someone’s dance beat could match the rhythm of the jinn’s mood he would be obliged to leave his bottle and grant them three wishes. The magician had no chose. He did make the wish provisional though. The dancing could only entice him on the anniversary of the night that the princess first charmed him from his bottle.

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One of the trickiest parts of writing a ‘fairplay’ whodunnit is creating clues. One way you can compose a clue is by using anagrams; a phrase or sentence formed by rearranging the letters of another group of words. Sort of a cross between scrabble and … um  … scrambled. So unscrambled scrabble. (There’s a bit of a tongue twister.) And in the creation of an anagram there’s a bit of sudoku thrown in too. But back to the clue.

Suspects, involved as they are in nefarious pursuits, can’t just leave straightforward messages lying around. That sweet young psychopathic teenager would be deceptive in her diary doodles.  The two-faced politician would be indirect in his daytimer. Maybe there’s a clue in the classified that’s begging to be decoded.

To create the clue you would start with the final phrase and rearrange it to make the phrase that the detective finds. Especially clever people can come up with phrases like these:

FORENSIC EVIDENCE:
When you rearrange the letters
SCIENCE OVER FIEND

COMPUTER STATION MELTDOWN:
When you rearrange the letters
WE LOST IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS

ASTRONOMER:
When you rearrange the letters:
MOON STARER

DESPERATION:
When you rearrange the letters:
A ROPE ENDS IT

THE MORSE CODE:
When you rearrange the letters:
HERE COME DOTS

DORMITORY:
When you rearrange the letters:
DIRTY ROOM

SLOT MACHINES:
When you rearrange the letters:
CASH LOST IN ME

ELECTION RESULTS:
When you rearrange the letters:
LIES – LET’S RECOUNT

SNOOZE ALARMS:
When you rearrange the letters:
ALAS! NO MORE Z ‘S

A DECIMAL POINT:
When you rearrange the letters:
I’M A DOT IN PLACE

THE EARTHQUAKES:
When you rearrange the letters:
THAT QUEER SHAKE

But don’t worry if you don’t have time to be that clever. The scrambled letters can just seem like a bunch of jumble. Then it’s your detective that has to be clever figuring out there is a message hidden there and not just a bunch of nonsense.

After having immersed myself in locked room mysteries I have come to the conclusion that most of the deceptions involve an accomplice – who usually ends up dead. In one entertaining story, The Triple Lock’d Room by Lillian de la Torre – the locked room had been searched prior to leaving the terrified victim alone to sleep and no one was found to be hiding. No one full size that is as the murderer turned out to be a dwarf type person masquerading as a child. Spaces a child could fit in where not searched and therefore the killer escaped detection. This picture, from a 1926 Chatterbox reminded me of the story, though it has nothing to do with it.

On the subject of locked rooms, I like what Michael Collins has to say in No One Likes to Be Played For a Sucker. “The locked room is an exercise in illusion – a magician’s trick. Otherwise it’s impossible, and the impossible can’t be done, period. Since it had been done, it must be a trick, a matter of distracting attention, and once you know what you’re really looking for, the answer is never hard.”