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Mystery Writing: The Plot and Sub-Plot
Mystery Writers : Plot and Sub-Plot
This article gives practical advice on how to develop a plot that works. Interweaving sub-plots can be difficult, so helpful tips and pointers are given to help a writer with any level of experience to blend multiple storylines together. In the mystery genre, the plot often needs to be intricate and involving - a difficult task unless organized and structured.


A mystery story is only as good as its plot. The following is a guide to how the accepted classic mystery story plays out. This is not a set of rules, but it should be used to give you an idea of how to plot your story.

1. The mystery is introduced to the reader. There is an unusual crime and a victim that inspires some sort of sympathy or understanding, so that the reader wants the villain to be caught.

2. Introduce clues. These may be obviously useful, or seemingly unimportant. Give the reader some food for thought regarding what could be the motivation for the crime. Further introduce the time and place in which the story is set.

3. The detective or sleuth should be introduced. He or she should intrigue the reader in some way, but don't give away too much, too soon.

4. The sleuth begins to solve the mystery. At this point there should be a number of suspects for him to investigate. The reader should not be able to discern the guilty party at this stage, but should be encouraged to wonder "whodunit" -- and why.

5. Complicate things! When the main characters have been introduced, a twist of plot should take the reader by surprise and complicate matters for the sleuth. This is likely to result in a sub-plot -- a smaller story that runs along with the main story, but connects with it either thematically or by helping to reveal crucial information. Often the sub-plot (or B-PLOT) is a result of some challenge in the private life of the sleuth that causes personal introspection or difficulty, and results in personal development or growth.

6. The wild goose chase. Red herrings (more on this later) should pull the sleuth in a particular direction that turns out to be wrong. This is often where a character or object involved in the investigation goes missing, or another smaller crime is committed that points the sleuth in the right direction once again.

7. Up the ante! Show the reader what the sleuth has to lose or gain by not solving or solving the mystery. This should increase the pace of the story and heighten the sense of urgency.

8. Reveal some secrets. Something must come to light that gives the sleuth an insight into the mystery, often in the form of grievances or shared history between characters. Clues or items identified early on should suddenly make more sense as parts of the mystery fall into place.

9. Let the reader think. Lead them to the solving of the mystery, in part, and make them want to tie up those last few details. The final answer to the mystery seems completely unobtainable, the only solution can be if the sleuth has got something wrong.

10. Reviewing the clues and evidence enables the sleuth to form the story of the crime, defining the motivation for the crime in a logical way. A seemingly unimportant clue takes on crucial meaning.

11. The sleuth knows the solution to the mystery, and the reader may have discerned the answer. The sleuth seeks proof of his suspicions.

12. Climax: The mystery is revealed to the other characters and the reader. The sleuth triumphs over the villain in a confrontation. This is a dramatic high in the story.

13. Catharsis: The reader is satisfied that the good have prevailed, the mystery is solved, and the perpetrator of the crime is punished.

Using a chart like the simplified one above can help you put elements of your story together. This way you can organize your ideas into a visual timeline of your story, adding other elements as they come to you and slotting them in where they best fit. You may be able to draw this out immediately and find that it works for you, but it is much more likely that you will find yourself revising your chart as your story develops. Creating a visual representation of your story can help you envisage your plot as a unified whole, rather than a series of incidents.

The Importance of Sub-Plot

If you find that your fiction runs out of steam, then it could be you are not weaving sub-plots with your main storyline effectively. The following exercises and techniques will help you make sure your main storyline is supported and complemented by sub-plots without being overwhelmed by them.

  • Know the difference between the two main types of sub-plot and try to fit both into your story. The first type of sub-plot is one that runs alongside the main plot or other sub-plots, affecting one another in all kinds of ways. The other type of sub-plot is one that runs parallel to the main action, or other sub-plots, but does not affect them. The purpose of parallel sub-plots is usually to provide a point of comparison for the reader in order to further their understanding of the thematic or symbolic significance of the story as a whole.

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  • Keep a watchful eye out for any sub-plot that is not adding to the story. This might seem obvious, but often writers find they have a sub-plot that is precious to them and inspires their creativity, but it just doesn't fit into the current project. When this is the case, be brave and cut it out! Keep the sub-plot for a future project, develop it into a short story, or shelve it. But be careful not to ruin your mystery story with storylines that do not add to the overall affect. Think of these out of place sub-plots as an added bonus to take out and muse over another time. Who knows, they could be the framework for your next mystery.

  • Link your sub-plots and your main plot with common elements. These might be setting, a particular character or a symbolic motif that repeats and gives a sense of unity and cohesion to the piece.

  • When resolving sub-plots, don't do it all at once; make sure the resolution of each is coherent, and always aim for clarity. Don't rush any one storyline or you will damage the credibility of them all. Ending sub-plots before the main plot usually has a greater effect on the reader but there are no hard and fast rules. Read over the places where plot and sub-plot meet and overlap to ensure there are no halting, awkward joins that may distance your reader from the mystery as a whole. Remember a mystery is more than just the sum of its parts.

  • Use sub-plots to alter the pace of the action. By switching to a sub-plot, you can keep your reader in suspense about events in the main plot, give them welcome relief when things are getting overly serious, or provide a contrasting point of view. Just take care not to frustrate the reader by making them want to skip a section in order to get back to the main action. If a reader feels they are being confronted by "filler" material, they will immediately feel cheated by the story and this, again, subtracts from the credibility of the mystery and the quality of the reading experience. Remember that the reader is investing their time, effort and concentration in your story.

  • Three is the magic number; too many more sub-plots than this and the reader may feel pressurized, confused, or completely lost. On the other hand, fewer than three additional sub-plots to the main action may make the story feel a bit empty. Again this is a guideline based on the type of mystery stories that prove most popular. Don't be afraid to go with your instinct and revise later in order to get the level of sub-plot just right.

    Storytelling: Characters

    Creating meaningful, multi-layered characters is essential to a piece of mystery writing. This section shows how characters can be developed, and getting to know your characters, so they can be well-rounded and three-dimensional. This is crucial for the reader to feel an affinity with those he or she is reading about.

    Collecting Character Ideas

    Keeping a character notebook is a great way of generating inspiration and storing up ideas for future projects. Keep pictures that inspire you, descriptions of people, and ideas for character types. You should know everything about your character, even if it doesn't directly affect the story. Use the notebook to let your imagination run riot.

    Ask yourself;

    • What was this character's childhood like?
    • What do they love/hate?
    • How do they interact with strangers/with people they know?
    • Who is their mentor/role model?
    • What are they afraid of?
    • What is their favorite book/color/smell/item of clothing, etc?

    There are thousands of questions you can ask about your character and every single one has the potential to lead you to new and fascinating discoveries and ideas, not just about your characters, but about how their personalities could impact the story in new ways.

    Mysterious Characters

    There are three stock characters that all appear in one form or another in the Mystery story, and each one must be treated in a different manner in order to create a mystery that works because the characters are believable.

    The Victim

    This is often the unfortunate person who is murdered. Murder is the most common crime in mystery stories, because murder tends to be considered by most people to be the most "serious" crime that can be committed. This "victim" character could also be the victim of a kidnapping, a strange disappearance, or a remarkable theft. The key to creating a victim character is summed up by this acrostic:

    V Is for VICTIM

    I is for INTRIGUE – The victim of the crime must attract the interest and excite the curiosity of the reader immediately. The reader must be intrigued by the crime, but also by the person who has suffered as a result of the crime. It is simple psychology that a person is more fascinated by a crime that victimizes someone interesting: Think of the interest generated when a celebrity is a victim of crime, and compare this with the same crime happening to an average person.

    C is for CARE – It is absolutely essential that the reader care about the victim. They simply won't invest their energy in following a potentially very complex mystery if they don't actually care whether or not they see justice done. It is very often the need to see a satisfactory conclusion that drives the reader of the mystery novel, and they won't feel this pressing need if the victim of the crime does not inspire any feel any care or concern over.

    T is for TIMING – Introduce the victim close to the beginning of the piece so that the scene is set and the sense of mystery is generated early on. Leaving the introduction of the victim until later in the story can make the story seem slow to start.

    I is for IMPORTANCE – There must be a sense of importance attached to the victim. This doesn't mean the victim has to be important; indeed they could be of any class, race, or standing. The importance must be attached to the crime that befalls the victim so that it engages the attention of the sleuth who is to solve the mystery. Something must make the sleuth see the victim as a person of importance, whether it may be because the victim is a millionaire or because the sleuth has a personal interest or sense of duty to fulfill, for example.

    M is for MYSTERY – Well, of course it is! Don't give away everything about the victim too quickly; by all means describe the crime and disclose information that the sleuth encounters at the crime scene if you feel you should, but keep some hidden surprises about the victim until later in the story. The victim should excite curiosity all the way through the story, so don't give it all away too soon!

    The Sleuth

    The Sleuth, detective, or amateur who pursues the truth and solves the mystery is the character you will write about most, so they need to be a very well-developed, rounded character.

    S Is for SLEUTH

    L is for LIFE – You have to give the sleuth a life outside of the mystery.A person who comes on the scene, hunts for clues, solves puzzles, and succeeds before disappearing again is not going to hold the reader's attention or excite their imagination. Give the sleuth a background, a story that influences his character and decisions so that his own nature comes into play when he is working on the mystery.

    E is for EGO – Take care not to overdo your sleuth's self-belief. When questioned, mystery readers and fans of the genre find that egocentric detective characters who "know-it-all' are one of the main reasons for a reader to abandon the story altogether. No one wants to feel patronized by a character they are reading about! The detective character need not even have any particularly outstanding ability to solve crime or see things others don''t. They simply have to be dedicated to solving it.

    U is for UNDERSTANDING – The sleuth character should not be incomprehensible to the reader. There are no extra points for writing your mystery in such a way that the sleuth is the only one who knows what is going on. One of the reasons a sleuth appeals to a reader is that they share their understanding with the reader, perhaps not giving everything away, but certainly not keeping it all to themselves. The reader should be able to understand the mental processes of the sleuth, at least sometimes!

    T is for TIMING – Again the issue of timing is crucial here. The character of the sleuth should never be revealed too quickly. Another timing issue in regard to the character of the sleuth is his introduction to the story. It is essential that the sleuth is introduced early on, but take care not to have his arrival overshadowed by the sensationalism of the crime.

    H is for HUMAN – Above all, the sleuth must be human, recognizable as one of us! The reader shouldn't feel like the sleuth is being handed the answers on a plate or has super-human deductive abilities, he must have human nature like the rest of us. As such, he should get things wrong, he should have doubt, anxiety, or confusion; perhaps his motives are not entirely honorable, or he has some personal affliction he must struggle with. As readers, we all want to identify with the hero of the piece.

    The Villain

    The final of the three crucial mystery story characters is the villain of the piece, the one the sleuth is searching for, and the perpetrator of the crime suffered by the victim.

    V Is for VILLAIN

    I is for INVISIBILE – The villain must be an expert at becoming invisible. They must be quick-witted, either by nature or by necessity. No reader should be able to spot the villain before time and the character of the villain must reflect this; it takes certain character traits for a villain to evade detection and capture. What is the character trait of the villain that enables him to evade detection for the period in which he is being sought?

    L is for LAST – The villain must be the last character to be revealed fully, he must have the most mystery surrounding his personality, his motivations and his background. His true nature should remain secret for longer than any other character.

    L is also for LIFE – The villain needs a background, a life separate from his crime. Without this, he becomes a caricature, a cartoon villain with just one side to his character. To create a well-rounded character, credible and three-dimensional, he needs a life outside the mystery.

    A is for ACCIDENT – The villain usually makes a fatal mistake, otherwise he would never be caught. There is no such thing as a perfect crime, but this doesn't mean the mistake of the villain should be random; it should reveal him further to the reader, bringing a particular side of his character to light.

    I is for INNOCENCE – In every villain there must be innocence. Sounds contradictory? Good – every character should have a contradiction within them. Think of people you know that demonstrate two contrasting qualities. No villain should be entirely guilty; a good mystery writer creates duality in their villain, as well as in their other characters.

    N is for NEXT? – There should always be a sense that the criminal or villain of the piece is a danger, a sense of "what will he do next?!" to create a sense of urgency. Build this into the character of your villain, the sense that he may be driven to further crime because of his own particular nature.

    These ideas should help get you thinking about your characters and how they can be developed in terms of enhancing the mystery and building the suspense in your writing.
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