#23: Constructing a Satisfying Mystery

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m writing a short murder mystery story, ten people trapped in a house style. I want the murderer to turn out to be another person who was secretly hiding in the house the whole time, but… if I overdo the hinting, it’ll be pretty obvious, and if I don’t talk about him at all it’ll be cheap when it’s revealed at the end.

The main characters are all friends and knew the murderer personally before the story, so there might be good reason for them to mention him casually. I just don’t know how to do that without letting out huge warning bells! Especially since he has the most clear motivations to do the dirty deed, and there aren’t any other (living) outsider characters.

The murderer is the twin brother of the victim, so the characters toss around a few “maybe they swapped places”–style theories, which wouldn’t really work if he was right in front of them. I suppose I could do something like have him be in the house, but in such a state of “shock” that the characters can’t tell which twin he is or extract any information from him? But I don’t know, it still feels like as long as he’s directly around, he’s the most obvious killer.

—Clued Out (she/her)

Dear Clued Out,

You’ve painted yourself into a corner by eliminating all sources of tension from your story. Fortunately that’s pretty easy to fix.

Here’s the setup you have right now:

  • Someone was killed
  • By the person most motivated to do it
  • Who is so obvious a culprit that if he appears in the story he will be immediately identified as the killer
  • So you leave him out of the story

That’s not the setup of a murder mystery, because there’s no mystery to it. You need multiple plausible solutions and perhaps some implausible ones as well. And you’re right that if there’s only one plausible solution and the only reason characters (and readers) haven’t figured it out is that they’re missing information, the revelation of that information will probably be unsatisfying.

Satisfaction comes from sustained tension leading to a climax. The tension in a mystery is usually an unanswered question: whowhy, or how. It sounds like how isn’t so much the issue in your mystery, and right now who and why have only one possible answer. So you need to set up some alternatives. Continue reading

#22: Passion Projects and Practice Projects

Dear Story Nurse,

In post #2, “Facing the Challenge You Set for Yourself”, you said:

“I’m working on two novels at once right now; one involves putting characters I’m very invested in through some difficult experiences with strong echoes in my own life, and the other is much more of a technical exercise.”

I’d like to know more about the latter one. What is it like? How is it a technical exercise? I would be interested in trying this approach myself, so any details would be much appreciated. Thank you very much!

Best,
Jenna (she/her)

Dear Jenna,

Thanks for asking about this; working on a practice project alongside a passion project is something I’ve alluded to in a few posts, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to go into more detail.

Continue reading

#21: Stopping and Starting

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently living at my parents’ house and working part-time. I’ve been trying to work on my fantasy novel more since I have more free time, but I keep hitting a wall. The first time I tried to write it, it was a disaster. I had no plan, nothing about it was pleasurable. I started again, it went better this time, but eventually it stopped working. Instead of pressing on, I started over again. I started at the point I was most excited about, instead of trying to do back story or following a formula.

I wonder if this stop and restart habit came from my Creative Writing degree. I revised many short stories, so starting over might have become habit.

Now, you’ve probably guessed what I’m going to ask next. How do I stop myself from stopping and starting over again? My novel is never going to get finished if I keep doing this! I want to have this first draft finished by the end of the year.

Thank you for your help,
Third Time’s Hopefully the Charm (she/her)

Dear Third Time,

Novels are definitely a different animal from short stories, and it’s hard to make the jump. It sounds like you’re accustomed to writing short fiction off the top of your head and then revising as needed, but that approach isn’t working for your longer project. And when you’re doing something different from what you’ve done before, nothing gets in your way more than a creative writing degree and a lot of practice doing other kinds of writing, both of which fill your head with all sorts of ideas about what writing should be like—how you should experience the act of writing, what sort of work you should be producing, how long it should take you, and so on.

Continue reading

#20: How to Choose a Title

This question came from the priority request queue for $2+ Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Hello, fabulous Story Nurse! I was wondering if you have any advice about figuring out titles for pieces of writing. I feel like the titles that naturally come to me are either vague and unremarkable (e.g. my story “Free State,” which is about a queer woman shapeshifter in Bleeding Kansas, but you wouldn’t know that from the title) or entirely too on-the-nose (e.g. I was trying to come up with a working title for my novel-in-progress so I can put it on my CV, and the best thing I could come up with was “Stolen Sisters,” which is kind of okay, I guess, but one of the inciting incidents of the story is the protagonist’s sister getting abducted, so again, it feels a little obvious). As a result, then, any advice you might have about titles would be most welcome!

—What’s in a Name (she/her)

Dear What’s in a Name,

This is definitely a challenge, and it can feel like a really big challenge. A title is your very first interaction with the reader, and it carries significant weight. But if you think of it as communication, rather than as a summary that is somehow meant to encompass everything the story is while not giving anything important away, that can help you decide how to shape it.

Continue reading