#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