Mapping the Mystery Novel
I’ll be frank. I don’t consider myself a mystery writer, and I never set out to write a book in that genre. Yet when I created my debut novel, which is simply a collection of all my favorite elements rolled into one story, mystery naturally flowed into the plot. I figured if it was going to be there, it should be effective and surprising. I didn’t really know the tricks most mystery novelists used so I did one simple thing in my debut that made it all function together. I outlined my reader’s train of thoughts through the entire novel.
Different than a plot outline or scene sketches, this is a map detailing what I want my reader to be assuming is going on, what they should be thinking about this hint or that character. The key here is focusing on, and then upending, what your reader thinks is happening.
First, I dealt with the main story question. What did I want readers to think was the solution to the mystery posed as the story progressed? In my first novel Lady Jayne Disappears, the mystery centers around the missing Lady Jayne, mother to the heroine. Several hints point to evidence of a murder while others indicate possible villains, and I send the readers on a hunt for Lady Jayne’s killer. It’s a mystery of who killed Lady Jayne. Readers would analyze each character’s motivations and opportunity to kill her, thinking up various possible explanations for the mystery. Then when the heroine discovers partway through the novel that the victim is someone else entirely, it completely changes the significance of every clue, every character, and every situation. It also keeps the story fresh and interesting with a nice little twist.
Next I put my characters through this analysis. What do I want readers to think is this character’s purpose in the novel? Readers unconsciously label all the characters with roles as they keep track of motivations, relationships, and possible villains. If you disguise your villain as, say, a friend of the hero, you can then weave in plenty of lies that your readers will catalog as truth because they think this character’s purpose is to deliver hints or advise the hero.
Hints are easy to assess with this method, too. We’ve all heard of red herrings, those clues tossed in to purposefully send your reader-sleuths on the wrong trail—but take it further. What do I want the reader to believe is the significance of this item or that information? Have it clearly in your mind, then make sure to change directions on a few of them.
Knowing what the reader believes and assumes throughout your novel also makes it easier to see where you need to throw in a twist or a shock. If the story’s becoming too slow, look at your reader assumptions for that predictable point in the book and throw in the exact opposite of they would expect.
In Lady Jayne Disappears, my beginning few chapters seemed to smooth out into a nice little rut. The heroine had gone to live with her relatives and begun to search for information about her mother, and things were going as expected on a nice little mystery trajectory. I broke up that pleasant introductory section with the random intrusion of a man named Nathaniel Droll—which was the pen name her father had used to write his anonymous serial novels. It was a very nice “didn’t see that coming” moment right near the beginning of the book that opens a whole new thread of curiosity for the reader.
As you outline what you wish readers to know through the book, let the hero help you, too. He or she can “paint” what the reader is picking up on the same way music in a movie can tell you when to look for an ominous moment, a tender one, etc. Internal thoughts, physical reactions, and dialogue will set the tone of the scene. The hero’s “perceptions” might not always be right, but you’re painting a picture with them all the same—use that influence.
Mapping out your readers’ assumptions helps you roughly guide their journey through your novel, allowing you to make it surprising, thrilling, tense, or fresh whenever it’s needed. The key to all of this is to simply give readers something in the distance to stare at so they miss all the real clues when you drop them into their peripheral vision. They will be utterly surprised at the ending you’ve created but unable to deny the plausibility of it because of all the real clues you offered along the way. It’s not your fault if they missed them.
Well okay, maybe it is.
Joanna Davidson Politano is a freelance writer and debut novelist who spends as much time as possible spinning tales that capture the exquisite details of ordinary lives. She lives with her husband and their two babies in a house in the woods near Lake Michigan. Learn more at jdpstories.com.
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