expr:class='"loading" + data:blog.mobileClass'>
Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Guide to Writing Great Mysteries, Part 2

**FYI: I'm out of town this week so while my posts are going up automatically, I won't be doing as much commenting/ communicating this week. I probably won't get around to many emails until after memorial day. Sorry for any inconvenience.**


This is the second in a series called Writing Great Mysteries. I'm going to go over the story structure of mysteries, revealing clues bit by bit, and a few other things. While this is about writing crime or mystery, it can actually apply to any genre. Often in other genres you have minor mysteries you want to reveal gradually, like who betrayed your main characters or what someone's surprise motivations are. In other words, these posts can be adapted to any mystery or slow-reveal in any genre you may happen to be writing. As such, I'll call my villains perps or killers, because that's what is usually the case in mystery/crime, but again you can adapt this to any antagonist.

So, now that you know what kind of reveal you want, (recap the three kinds here) it's time to move on to how to accomplish this reveal a little bit at a time in order to keep your readers engrossed.

We'll be using my 9 points of story structure to do this. Also, I'm going to use Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in order to illustrate this. I figured this would be a book/movie story most people are familiar with. But warning: there will be spoilers!

So, quick recap. The 9 points of story structure are:

1. The World Before--how your story starts before conflict is introduced.
2. Intro of Conflict--villain, new ideas, or other major conflict introduced.
3. Escalation #1/Call to Adventure--Character's world turned upside-down. They react to it.
4. Turning Point--Character goes from reaction to action, takes fate in own hands.
5. Escalation #2/Tragedy--Things get worse: bad guys win, good guy dies, etc.
6. Climax--Confrontation of main character and major conflict
7. Uber Despair--character doesn't think they can win; all is lost.
8. Ah-haha Moment--they find the one thing that will help them succeed.
9. Resolution--closure of major issues addressed in book.

(For a more in-depth recap, click HERE.)

Okay, so we're going to use this structure to help reveal our mystery. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the major mystery is about what really happened the night Harry's parents were betrayed and killed. Many things happen in this book, but we'll be ignoring most of the major plot in favor of how Rowling reveals the mystery. So think only in terms of that mystery, not what's going on in the story at large.

1. The World Before--Harry starts school with all the normal worries, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Again, normal conditions before conflict is introduced.

2. Intro of Conflict--Sirius Black escapes Azkaban.

Harry doesn't know right away how this will affect him, but it's a major worry going into the school year, especially with the dementors hovering (literally). 

3. Escalation--Harry learns that Sirius (everyone thinks) betrayed and killed his parents. He learns that Sirius is his godfather and was one of his parents' closest friends and allies.

This is more an idea than a call to adventure, but it stirs Harry's emotions up and is definitely an escalation in what he knows of his own history.

4. Turning Point--Harry vows vengeance on his parent's behalf.

He doesn't know how to go about doing this, but just being on the watch for how is action (vs. reaction) on his part.

5. Escalation#2--Harry starts to see a large black dog hanging out around Hogwarts. It seems only he can see it, though, and those around him think that either he's crazy/seeing things, or that it's the Grim, an evil omen.

Often this step involves tragedy, and it isn't blatant here, but especially when it comes to how others react when he tells them about the dog, this is depressing for Harry and makes him doubt his own sanity.

6. Climax--Begins when the dog drags Ron into the secret passage under the Whomping Willow, but with Sirius' escape being the main conflict, the climax is really when Harry (MC) confronts Sirius (main conflict), and that's exactly what Rowling gives us.

7. Uber Despair--This happens when Lupin shows up and then hugs Sirius

Because of what Harry believes about Sirius, he thinks Lupin has just betrayed him and gone over to the dark side, if you will. He can't believe someone who's been so kind and supportive of him might have just betrayed him. This is Harry's "dark night of the soul." It only lasts a few pages/seconds, but it's there.

8. Ah-haha Moment--When Sirius and Lupin reveal that Ron's rat is the real culprit.

The rat was with them all along. His ubiquity, age, and missing toe were clues all staring Harry in the face since book 1, he just didn't know what to look for. But this is the answer to the mystery--the way it can be proved. (Totally would love to ask Rowling if she planned this from the beginning or not. :D)

9. Resolution--After seeing Pettigrew's transformation and speaking to him, Harry comes to realize that Sirius is friend not foe

He now has family he didn't realize he had before, and even the offer of a place to live. So we have a happy ending, a character arc for Harry (he went from family-less to having family. Yeah, the Dursleys don't count) and all the major issues for this book were resolved. Obviously Voldemort isn't beaten yet or anything, but the prisoner of Azkaban and the mystery of what role he played in Harry's past were the major issues for this book and it was resolved.

So, whether you're writing an all out whodunit or murder mystery, or just have a shocking reveal for any other genre, use the 9-point structure to reveal your mystery piece by piece, keeping the reader not only interested, but salivating for what comes next.

This is a great example of what I mean by using the 9-point structure for every aspect of your story. Obviously there's a lot of other stuff going on in this book than just what we've gone over, but Rowling unfolds every aspect of the story masterfully. Use this structure for every character, plot line, and mystery/reveal. The reader will feel the momentum and just naturally keep turning pages until the end. Then, they'll want to come back for more.

How do you think Rowling did with her mystery reveal?


  1. Great breakdown. I really have to read this series or watch the movie sometime...

    1. Thanks Julie! And yes, you really should! :D