Mystery Elements in A Novel

The Writing Excuses podcasts have several times talked about Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient: four different kinds of plot arc. The “I” was originally Idea but the podcasters, particularly Mary Robinette Kowal, now use it for “Inquiry.” An inquiry arc starts with a question; the obstacles and complications in the middle prevent answering the question, and the arc ends with answering it. Two of my recent (very drafty) novels have inquiry arcs – one a significant subplot in an otherwise character- and event-driven story, and one the main arc of a murder mystery on a starship. I wasn’t entirely happy with how the mystery arc progressed in either story, so looked into advice for writing inquiry arcs, primarily from Writing Excuses.

There are two reasons you might want to learn about mystery writing even if you don’t intend to write detective fiction:

  • First, writing a mystery is valuable even for people who don’t plan to follow in Conan Doyle’s footsteps. One podcast quoted an interview with David Brin , where he said (paraphrased): “New writers? Sit down and write a mystery, because you’re going to need that element in just about everything you do.”
  • Second, not all mysteries inquiry arcs are murders; for example, figuring out how a disease works and spreads is a medical mystery. In my current novel, where it is a secondary plot, the mystery is about the meaning of a prophecy and the role certain people are supposed to play in it. This meant that the volumes of advice on the Internet about plotting murder mysteries weren’t quite as useful to me as they would be for people working on detective stories. So I focused mostly on advice that seemed to apply to variant kinds of inquiries.

The main sources I consulted were:

Mystery can be mixed with other genres. Mystery is a journey, with the type of reveal at the end depending on the sub-genre

  • If the reveal is an eldritch being, you have horror.
  • If the reveal is a city of gold, you have wonder.

You can also relate mystery to other kinds of story based on how much the reader and the character know:

  • In a thriller, the emotion you want to achieve is anticipation, so the reader should be one step ahead of the character, anticipating what is about to happen.
  • In horror, everyone is on the same page, feeling dread.
  • In a mystery, the writer is one step ahead of the reader, but since the reader usually want to figure out the mystery themselves, you want the reader to figure out the story either just before or just after the character does, so the reader is normally just behind the character until the very end.

In an inquiry you start with the question and the questioner.

  • The questioner has to have a reason to be curious. This is obvious for a detective, but you might need to think harder for other kinds of inquiry. You may need to consider all the issues you’d deal with in a character arc: What does the questioner want? What drives them to find an answer? What information do they lack to achieve that goal?
  • The question has to be something where there are engaging stakes to finding a solution. General stakes are obvious for “who killed this victim” or “how do I prove the known/strongly-suspected villain did it.” You should maybe develop some stake or stakes peculiar to the story. You need multiple possible answers so there will be uncertainty.
  • One piece of advice I confess to not quite understanding: Some pieces of information might be best as exposition, rather than having the character figure them out. Perhaps this includes things about police procedures or other background that the character would already know?

You then work backwards, starting with the solution. Consider all the clues that lead the questioner there and make the answer obvious: all the pieces of information the reader needs to learn.Clues are steps along the way to the solution, and must in themselves be interesting, preferably pointing in multiple directions. When you have enough to make the answer unique, you can remove a clue and ask, in the absence of that one piece of information, what else do the remaining clues point to as the answer? There ought at that point to be some other possibilities, or else that last clue wasn’t important. You do this a couple more times, then add some red herrings: clues that distract or mislead the investigator. Some red herrings might lead to entire other subplots. One podcaster suggested adding obscuring clues in a second draft.

There were several mystery-related elements in podcasts whose main topic was something else.

  • In 10.27 Why Can’t I Just Jump to the End? : The middle of a mystery has try-fail cycles , but mystery writers think of ‘trying’ as finding clues. Sometimes the character thinks they’ve solved it, but it’s a red herrings or dead ends, all of which are failures.”
  • In 13.19 Backstories : You can pose a question and provide a clue or even answer it fully with a flashback.
  • In14.13 Obstacles and Complications , both were characterized as people, things, or circumstances that impede the character or plot. You need to make judicious use of them.
    • An obstacle is something a character can overcome and keep moving: in terms of MICE, you keep on the same thread. Too many make the story feel linear or that it’s going nowhere.
    • A complication is a detour; it makes the story take a turn, onto a different MICE thread (either a different kind of thread, or a different inquiry). Too many and the story can get too convoluted and the reader loses track of the stakes.

It’s apparently normal for a first draft to be too hard or too easy. You rely on beta readers to solve this. If it was too easy, ask them what clue or clues gave away the ending, and make them more obscure, distract from them with a misleading red herring, or bury them in the midst of a list of other observations so they seem less relevant than they are. You can later have something happen that makes the character realize an earlier thing is actually important. Alternatively, you can make a cluesignificant but for some apparently unrelated reason. Or, you can give the reader a plausible explanation that turns out to be wrong. One podcast mentioned a story where everyone assumed that magic going wrong caused a (supposedly) natural disaster, when it was really the other way around.

My head is currently whirling with all this advice. When my current writing class is done, I plan to sit down, reread all of it and maybe re-listen to the podcasts, and re-plot the inquiry arc within my current novel.

(A-Z challenge M logo)

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