Monday, September 9, 2013

Plotting a Mystery (for Non-Mystery Writers)

One little admin note before we get down to business: I recently discovered that Google's insistence that I switch to Google+ comments was a VERY BAD IDEA. Hence, I've returned to default comments on Seeking the Write Life. So, please, when you've read Mary's AWESOME post here, get involved! Let us know what you think, or ask Mary questions. Technology will no longer be your gate keeper. Promise!

Now back to our previously scheduled viewing, fresh from the keyboard of Delacorte's Next Big Thing: Mary Elizabeth Summer.

Take it away, Mary!

Plotting a Mystery for Non-Mystery Writers

I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m not really a mystery writer. Yes, I wrote a mystery, and yes Delacorte Press is publishing it, and yes I will write more mysteries in the future. But the truth is I accidentally fell into writing mystery. I always thought I’d be a sci-fi or fantasy writer. But then I had this crazy idea for a mystery story, and well, here we are.

I’ll let you in on another little secret. Writing a mystery is hard. You actually have to plot, like in advance. For a pantser like me, it was a steep learning curve. My point in writing this post is to give you a few tips that helped me write mystery. Because let’s face it, every book in every genre has some hint of mystery to it.

Preplanning, Planning, and Post-Planning

Writing a mystery by the seat of your pants is asking for trouble. Can you do it? Sure. Can you dig a hole by moving each individual grain of dirt by hand? Of course, but why would you want to? All writing is pantsed, whether you plot it out in advance or not. The difference is that plotters have figured out the shortcut to a well-structured draft.

Don’t panic, pantsers. You probably already plot and just don’t realize it. That was the case for me, anyway. All your scribbles and research and daydreaming while driving to work counts as preplanning. Plotters just formalize their preplanning by calling it that. For an exhaustive list of plotters’ tools, check out 25 Ways to Plot, Plan and Prep Your Story.

The preplanning/post-planning that works best for me:

·         Create a mind map (or multiple mind maps) of plot, theme, and character development before writing the first draft—this takes less time than you think.

·         Create and keep updated a storyboard while drafting (I use an Excel spreadsheet for this).

·         Create a reverse outline/timeline before drafting the end of the story to make sure every loose end is addressed.

Reversals, Twists, and the Unexpected

The best mysteries are the ones where you never saw it coming but you totally should have.

Example 1: In The Sixth Sense, **spoiler alert** the protagonist is actually dead himself and doesn’t know it until the end of the film. We as viewers should have guessed, since he never holds a conversation with any living person but the kid, and the kid gives us several clues during the film as well.

Example 2: In the Star Wars trilogy, we’re shocked when we find out Darth Vader is Luke’s father, but Obi Wan gives us foreshadowing about that in the first film by bringing up Luke’s father in the first place. We as viewers should have guessed that something was up with Luke’s dad, because enough time was spent discussing it in the first film to indicate its importance to the plot. The goal is to create effective reversals, twists, and the unexpected, to hint at it just enough in the beginning so that readers say ‘Oh, snap!’ when they get to the reveal.

It’s a balance, though. Don’t show readers all your cards. You have to give them bits of the truth, but lie your face off the rest of the time. Misdirection is the key.  Distract them with shiny bits of characterization, voice, subplots, etc. to keep them from seeing your evil author machinations. This is where scene layering is your best friend. Make every scene responsible for doing at least three things at once—for example, further the romance subplot, show the protagonist dealing with her identity crisis, and foreshadow plot-reveal #2.

In terms of coming up with reversals/the unexpected, I just ask myself, what is the craziest thing that could happen right now that would throw me, the protagonist, and the reader for a complete loop? For example, when I re-re-rewrote the first chapter of Trust Me, I’m Lying, I asked myself, what could Julep’s missing dad have left her as a clue that would absolutely turn her blood cold? The answer: a gun.

One giant, flashing-neon-lights warning in regard to reversals, et al. Do not make the antagonist the protagonist’s father. It’s been done. In general, avoid all cliché reveals, like ‘oh my gosh, the guy she likes is actually a vampire!’ because you’ll bore your reader. Instead, take conventions and turn them on their head. For example, change it to the much less obvious ‘oh my gosh, the protagonist is actually a vampire and the guy she likes is actually just lunch!’

What the heck is foreshadowing anyway?

Well, I’m sure if you’re reading this, you already know that foreshadowing is a signal or indication of a future event. But how do you implement it effectively? What does it actually look like?

 The answer is it could look like anything. And chances are, if you’ve got some idea of where the protagonist is going to end up, you’ll plant little bits of foreshadowing without even meaning to as you draft. (See preplanning/post-planning tip above.) This actually happens to me all the time, so I’m speaking from experience here.

To give you an example, one of the side characters in Trust Me, I’m Lying has been betraying Julep from the beginning. I foreshadow the eventual reveal of her/his betrayal with small comments the person makes (or doesn’t make when she/he should), with facial expressions she/he makes during conversations with Julep, with seemingly inexplicable actions/reactions to things through the course of the story.

Here are some techniques I’ve used for foreshadowing:

·       Bring back a seemingly innocuous character in seemingly insignificant ways, i.e., mention him/her in one sentence every other scene or so.

·       Mention a significant person or plot point once in the beginning in an off-hand way (I call this technique the Obi-Wan-Kenobi).

·       Have the protagonist observe the (usually unexpected) facial expressions of the character they’re interacting with when said character is hiding information from the protagonist/reader.

·       Reveal something shocking about a character that is not THE reveal about that character so that readers think that character is already accounted for. Then BAM, hit them with the real reveal they’ll never see coming.

·       Sprinkle your secret antagonist’s name/signifier in innocuous places throughout the story (e.g., her name on a plaque on a wall, its symbol on canned goods in a marketplace, his face on a poster on the wall of the post office).

·       When all else fails, have your protagonist feel off about something, i.e., have her feel leery at first of a character who turns out to be shady, have her instincts warn her that something about what another character has just said is not quite right.

One final note about foreshadowing: it’s okay to come completely out of the blue with something, no foreshadowing or warning at all. But don’t do it more than once, and don’t do it for anything important to the main plot of the mystery. The reader is most satisfied when they could have figured out whodunit but didn’t until a page or two before the protagonist does.

The Tight End

Fiction is not real life for a reason. Real life is chaotic and random. Fiction (at least commercial fiction) is very much NOT random.

Everything in fiction has a purpose, a thread connecting it to The Way Things Are Meant To Be. That doesn’t mean chaos isn’t a force the protagonist fights against. And it doesn’t mean everything has to end up sunshine and roses.  What it means is that your story must end as it must inevitably end. Your job as the author is to get the reader to buy into your ending so that they feel satisfied and respected and will buy your next book.

The good news is that you get to decide what the inevitable ending is before you even start writing. Even if you don’t know all the logistics of how you’re going to get there, the ins and outs of everything that will transpire, or which hot guy your protagonist ends up with, you DO know (or should) what the resolution of the mystery is. You know whodunit before the thing ever got dunned. So now all you have to do is get your character to that same place of knowledge in the most twisty, convoluted way possible, throwing up roadblocks that would take Sisyphus light-years to remove.

When you’re drafting the end of Act II is when you need to start worrying about connecting all the dots to the conclusion. This is when I bust out the reverse timeline. The beauty of the reverse timeline is that it gives you a birds-eye view of where you are and where you need to go. Mapping the steps to get there is much easier when you see all the pieces at a distance.

For example: when I was drafting Trust Me, I’m Lying, I got to the last scavenger-hunt clue Julep’s dad has left her and I didn’t quite know how to wrap up all the subplots that had cropped up during the course of drafting the story up to that point. So I created a reverse timeline to see all the pieces I had dangling that needed resolution. I looked at those pieces and asked myself, if I were Julep and I knew everything that Julep knows, how would I use all these things to accomplish what I need to accomplish?

Then it hit me. Julep could actually use one of the subplots I’d developed for an entirely different reason to take down the antagonist and save the day. From a reader’s perspective, it looks like I developed the subplot specifically so Julep could use it at the end, but I actually did the reverse—I used an already existing subplot to help tie up the end.

Remember, one of the secrets to tight, elevated, professional storytelling is to constantly keep bringing everything back to the center. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Reduce every chapter to its essence by combining and deleting unnecessary scenes (same with sentences); reuse as many characters and plot elements you’ve introduced as you can; recycle subplots by using them for more than one purpose. The result is both a simpler and a much more intricate story, a world that feels as real as our own, and an ending that was inevitable from the very first word.
Mary Elizabeth Summer is an amazing writer who forgot to send Aimee her bio, so Aimee is just letting you know that she isn't the only one who thinks Mary Elizabeth is amazing: Mary Elizabeth's YA Mystery will be published by Delacorte Press next year. Because she's awesome. If you hadn't already noticed...

Your turn! Any questions for Mary Elizabeth? What do you do to create the mystery in your stories?



  1. Oops! Sorry about that, LOL. I'll just put my bio here in the comments, because I love the bio you have and wouldn't want to lose it! :-) Thanks again for the opportunity to share!

    Mary Elizabeth Summer contributes to the delinquency of minors by writing books about unruly teenagers with criminal leanings. She has a BA in creative writing from Wells College, and her philosophy on life is "you can never go wrong with sriracha sauce." She lives in Portland Oregon with her partner, their daughter, and their evil overlor—er, cat. TRUST ME, I'M LYING is her debut novel. Follow Mary Elizabeth's latest exploits on,, and @mesummerbooks on Twitter.

  2. I'm so glad you came by, Mary. Seriously. This is one of those posts I'm going to be studying and coming back to.

    One question though: I always struggle with making intentional foreshadowing subtle. You mention the "accidental" foreshadowing, and I do know what you mean. But I often sit at the end of a draft and think "I need to foreshadow the fact that that character isn't telling the truth..."

    The trick, of course, is figuring out a way to do that without writing it in neon letters for the reader. Do you have any tips?

    1. Aw, Aimee, you're too kind. :-*

      You bring up a good point about weaving in foreshadowing with a deft hand. In my opinion, there are two things to keep in mind. One--it's more about quantity than depth of information given. In other words, sprinkle 3-5 little observations of facial expressions, gut feelings, and/or mentions of objects/people throughout the first hundred or so pages per reveal, but the words you use for those observations should be few and give almost no information. They should just be part of the fabric of everything else going on in that moment. In fact, the more distracted you can make the protagonist while the foreshadowing hint is being dropped, the better.

      Two--it's perfectly okay for the reader to NOT NOTICE the foreshadowing. YOU know it's there, and that's all that really matters. If the reader bothers to cry foul, you can cackle at them in evil glee and say they just didn't read carefully enough. But more often than not, if you foreshadow the same thing in several places, they will pick up the mood of it, that there IS something coming even if they don't know what, and then when it's revealed, they'll feel vindicated that they could tell something was up with XYZ. Then you've done your job right. :-)

  3. This this is great, great advice! *saves* I wish I'd had it before I wrote twt, haha. :) The hardest thing I found was how to allow for unbelievable things while still foreshadowing their eventual reveal. Hard! I like the method of reverse plotting; I need to do that more often. Isn't it funny how many things we {well, I} unintentionally set up that become so perfect they ha to have been planned...but they weren't? :)

    1. Yes! I'm continually amazed that everything just Works Out. Like, all by itself. I swear it's magic or something. So glad you liked the post! I hope the info proves helpful!

  4. Thank you for this article. I am a Fantasy writer with a desire to feature mystery in it. But, recently, I am planning a mystery featuring a serial killer. This information will come in handy. Thanks again!

  5. Hey!

    I have great difficulty in switching from one genre to another due to the fact that I create a comfort zone or a layer to whichever genre I choose.
    But this helped me in understanding on how to loosen up the shackles and write freely.A great share I must say!

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