Some thoughts on writing mysteries
A pdf of the slides.
There are two sets of rules for writing detective fiction, which are still widely quoted on the web and in books, even though they're both about 80 years old. The Twenty Rules of detective fiction were written by SS van Dine, an American academic and practising mystery writer (and the creator of Philo Vance); the Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction were written by Monsignor Ronald Knox who, besides writing mysteries, also edited anthologies of detective stories.
Both sets of rules are similar in content and, although some have been superseded—and some, like van Dine's rule that a detective novel should contain no … subtly worked-out character analyses are more or less inverted in modern mysteries—many of the rules have stood the test of time, and still provide an interesting check-list of dos and don'ts, so I’ll be quoting them in this talk, and I've listed them in full at the end of the post.
Van Dine and Knox were concerned only with detective fiction. As fan fiction writers, we might prefer to define ‘mystery’ more broadly, to include not just the classic murder, but also the sort of demonic and alien encounters we see in TV series like the X-Files and Supernatural. So it seemed to me that the best way to talk about writing mysteries was as a plot structure that might be applied in any fandom. And I drew a diagram…
… which shows the underlying pattern of a mystery plot.
It begins with a period of normality, which is interrupted by some unexplained event; the event is investigated by one or more of the characters, who find a solution, which restores normality, or something like it.
This plot structure is common to many stories—you can fit a Mills & Boon romance into it if you think of the event as the hero, the solution as the proposal, and the final period of normality as happily ever after—but a mystery plot has three special emphases.
- First, there's the nature of the event itself, which is ‘mysterious’ both in the context of the story and in the context of the reader’s or the viewer's own experience.
- Secondly, there’s the investigation by the character(s). Every plot invites the reader to speculate and to make deductions, especially if the writer shows rather than tells, but in a mystery it is the characters who investigate, shadowed by the reader or viewer (though the reader or viewer may, in fact, be one step ahead).
- Finally, and most importantly, the mystery must deal meticulously, and scrupulously, with clues. As van Dine says, if the reader, after learning the explanation … should reread the book, he [should] see … that all the clues … pointed to the culprit and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself…
How long should ‘normality’ last? Depending on how you decide to use it, the first phase of the story may be long, medium or short. I've chosen three examples:
- It may last for half the story. The Cure for all Diseases, by Reginald Hill, is a Dalziel and Pascoe story in which the first murder doesn't happen until halfway through the book—almost exactly three hundred pages into a six hundred page novel. Hill uses two not-quite-overlapping first person narratives to set the scene and introduce the characters, forcing the reader to compile the complete picture for him or herself.
- It may last until the first advert break. Taggart is famous for having one of its characters announce that “There’s bin a murrdurr!” just before the first commercial break, but all of the 2-hour British cop series, including Inspector Morse and A Touch of Frost, have a similar structure—the first eighth or so of the programme consists of brief, seemingly unrelated scenes which, the viewer must assume, introduce the characters and reveal clues (or red herrings). If the scenes are not interesting in themselves, however, this approach can become tedious; one series that uses them well is the Swedish version of Wallander, which manages to make each scene feel as though it is building towards a climax.
- It may seem to have disappeared altogether. In the slick American cop series, such as CSI Miami, the murder typically happens before the credits. In these stories, the writers assume that the viewer has already seen previous episodes, and knows the set up, so they omit the introductory phase altogether.
The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow. Ronald Knox
The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest. SS van Dine
And, once you have a culprit, you also need a few non-culprits for him or her to hide amongst. A closed set of characters is one of the most important features of a mystery story, because it allows the reader or viewer to make secure deductions. Even in CSI Miami, in which the plots seems, at first sight, to follow a fairly unpredictable series of leads, the pool of suspects is small and the culprit often turns out to be a suspect who has already been wrongly eliminated.
The additional point that Knox makes, that the culprit must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow, is also important. If you decide to break it, the effect can be very unsettling for the reader. In Seeking whom he may Devour, by Fred Vargas, the culprit turns out to be the first person the reader meets, the person he or she had naturally assumed was the hero. It took me several days to get over the feeling that the solution was 'wrong' and that Vargas had somehow 'cheated'. (We’ll see another, and much more famous, example of this sort of ‘cheating’ later).
Introducing the murder weapon. At this early stage you may also want to introduce—or, at least, allude to—the murder weapon or any other plot mechanism that will seem contrived if it simply pops up at the end of the story. Both of our experts, being concerned with detective fiction, and with logical deduction, reject the use of supernatural agencies:
All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course. Ronald Knox
The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods … as … crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio. SS van Dine
We and our readers, belonging to fantasy fandoms, naturally accept supernatural agencies. But if you have created your own supernatural or alien plot mechanism, which is not part of canon, you may want to mention it now so that, when you actually use it, the reader thinks, “Oh, yes, I'd forgotten about that,” rather than, “WTF?”
Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them. Ronald Knox
No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end. Ronald Knox
The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated… SS van Dine
Of course, you may decide to heighten the mystery by deliberately withholding this sort of information. My favourite examples of this are a 1970s TV series, Kolchak: the Night Stalker (in which a cynical Bogart-type investigative reporter unravels supernatural crimes), and a BBC drama, The Aphrodite Inheritance by Michael J Bird (in which the hero, investigating the death of his brother in Cyprus, encounters supernatural beings).
According to van Dine—talking about detective fiction—the mysterious event must be nothing less than a murder:
There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel… No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader's trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded. SS van Dine
A crime … must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader. SS van Dine
In fandoms where you need to know the plural of the word ‘apocalypse’, a single murder may not be sufficient. In that case, the event must be something sudden, unexpected, unexplained and, above all, abnormal, something that has the same ‘ultimate crime’ status in your alien- and/or demon-ridden fandom world as murder has in the real world.
- It must be sufficiently serious—and mysterious—to warrant investigation.
- It must be sufficiently serious to drive the investigator take risks—perhaps break laws and/or endanger himself and others—in dogged pursuit of the solution.
- It must be sufficiently serious to convince the reader that the investigator's behaviour is reasonable. (The reader/viewer will be carried along by the momentum of the story as the investigation escalates one step at a time, but I think it's also the gravity of the initial event that predisposes us to accept reckless behaviour from the investigator).
- How ‘cruel’ should you make the method, in terms of the mental and physical pain endured by the victim?
- Having decided on the method, how explicit should you make the description: should you describe the murderer's plans, his or her state of mind, the physical details of the method, the victim's suffering, the physical effects of the attack, the trauma of the person who finds the body, the trauma experienced by the investigator, as he or she becomes immersed in the crime?
For a fan fiction writer, explicitness also raises the difficult question of warnings. Mystery stories are designed to thrill the reader by generating and sustaining a level of menace, but some readers find menace more distressing than actual violence.
My own approach to warnings is threefold:
- Rating. I give the story the highest rating possible (NC-17 or the equivalent). Some people believe that a rating of R is sufficient for violence, and that NC-17 should be reserved for sex, but I believe that violence merits a higher rating than consensual sex.
- Warning. I warn for murder. In the recent debate, people seemed less concerned with general warnings of this type than with warnings for specific ‘triggers’, but a murder label at least signals that the story will include violence and threat.
- Summary. In the summary I typically include the phrase ‘murder mystery’ or ‘thriller’.
For van Dine,
There must be but one detective… To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader… It's like making the reader run a race with a relay team. SS van Dine
I’ve already mentioned The Cure for all Diseases. The first half of that book is written from two points of view—two alternating first person narratives—from which the reader has to construct a coherent account. Once the investigation gets under way, however, the reader has to deal with no less than seven different points of view and, for various reasons, is the only person who is party to all of them. Far from dispersing the interest, as van Dine suggests, this makes the reader an active but frustratingly mute part of the investigation, and cranks up the tension to an almost unbearable level.
The detective(s) in love. In addition, for van Dine,
There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar. SS van Dine
I mentioned before that some of these rules are routinely inverted—well, I'm going to invert this one, and put bells on it, and say, But a mystery can really spice-up a love story!
My own first story began as a (very boring) romance; when I wove a murder into the existing chapters the effect was like waving a magic wand—the fluffiness enlivened the investigation, the investigation enlivened the fluffy bits. If you are writing about an established couple in an ongoing relationship, and you want to add some drama without resorting to adultery or separation or any of the poorly conceived plot devices you see used in soaps, a mystery story is a gift.
Character flaw of the month. Detectives, especially British TV detectives, seem to attract character flaws like fly paper attracts flies. The writers seem to use flaws as a shorthand, meaning, ‘the job is stressful and takes a toll, we haven’t got time to show that properly but we can show you Jane Tennison drinking’. Flaws may also be grafted onto an otherwise normal character to make him or her seem ‘more human’. The danger is that the character flaws can overwhelm the plot and turn the mystery into a poorly written character study. A well-written ordinary person is interesting. Making the detective into a compulsive gambler, liar, womaniser, drinker and, above all, a narcissist, like Fitz in Cracker, does not make him more interesting. It makes him boring.
A detective needs to be intelligent, but he or she can never be more intelligent than the writer. If you’re writing a beautiful character, you can close your eyes and ‘be’ beautiful; if you’re writing an athletic character, you can close your eyes and ‘be’ athletic; but you can never close your eyes and be more intelligent. Intelligence can't be faked, and if we try to fake it, our characters will just look foolish.
This is why, for me, TV!Frost is more convincing than TV!Morse. Frost’s methods are crude, but Frost is shrewd, and the viewer never doubts that he'll recognise the clues when they surface, and make the necessary deductions. And I think that's because, when the writers write Frost (or Lewis) they are not trying to show 'intellect', they are just being smart and savvy.
What about the clues? Our experts both insist that every clue the reader needs in order to solve the mystery must be stated in the story.
The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader. Ronald Knox
The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described. SS van Dine Van Dine and Knox were describing the sort of mystery in which all the clues are clearly stated but lateral thinking is required to find the solution that connects them. Modern mysteries tend to have more naturalistic solutions, and the clues need to be hidden in plain sight.
To hide clues in plain sight, you can
- Reveal them piecemeal, and in an illogical order (but always have a good fictional reason for delaying the revelation).
- Mention a clue and then change the subject (but not so abruptly that you draw attention to the thing you're trying to hide).
- Misdirect the reader or viewer with red herrings.
Don't plan too far in advance. The clue-handling technique I personally use (and which is endorsed by at least one mystery writer I heard talking on the radio but whose name I didn’t catch) is don't plan too far ahead. As my anonymous source said, “If I don't know what's going to happen, the reader certainly won't.” What I tend to do is,
- Use the first chapter to set the scene; place the murder at the end of the chapter.
- For the first half of the story, aim for at least one mysterious development per chapter and don't worry too much about anything beyond that chapter.
- Half-way through the story, start looking at the clues and solving the mystery.
- If readers leave feedback that anticipates the solution, adjust the plot, perhaps choosing a different suspect.
Whodunnit? SS van Dine, as you might expect, has a lot to say on the subject of whodunnit!
There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed…
Secret societies … have no place in a detective story… To be sure, the murderer … should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.
A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt… A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal… a murder story must … reflect the reader's everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions. SS van Dine
And, most of all,
The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It's false pretenses. SS van Dine
The detective must not himself commit the crime. Ronald Knox
The person who famously broke this last rule—to all intents and purposes—and made herself famous doing so, was Agatha Christie, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Roger Ackroyd is a Poirot story in which the murderer turns out to be the narrator (and Poirot's assistant). The reader has been inside his head for the entire story, and he has given us all the clues, but he's hidden them so cleverly—so blatantly—it would take a psychic to spot them on the first reading. And, to pile insult upon injury, he spends the last chapter pointing out exactly where, in his narrative, he hoodwinked us:
All true, you see. But suppose I had put a row of stars after the first sentence! Would somebody then have wondered what exactly happened in that blank ten minutes?
It's unexpected, it's clever and it's very, very unsettling. No wonder some of the critics were so incensed by the story!
When we come to the end of the story, and normality is restored, how much angst should we explore?
For me, it's a matter of balance. The investigation will have taxed the detective mentally and physically, and modern mystery writers tend to show something of the consequences, but when a reader comes to the end of one story, what he or she really wants is to start reading the next.
If you have a cracking idea for your next story and are itching to write it, no reader is going to criticise you for having your characters pick themselves up, brush themselves down, and start solving the next mystery.
SS Van Dine: Twenty Rules of Detective Fiction
Originally published in the American Magazine (1928)
- The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.
- No wilful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.
- There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.
- The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It's false pretenses.
- The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.
- The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
- There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader's trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.
- The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se'ances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.
- There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn't know who his codeductor is. It's like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
- The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.
- A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn't ordinarily come under suspicion.
- There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.
- Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.
- The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.
- The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.
- A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no "atmospheric" preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.
- A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.
- A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.
- The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader's everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.
- And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author's ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic se'ance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.
Monsignor Ronald Knox: The Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction
Originally the Preface to Best Detective Stories of 1928-29
- The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
- All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
- Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
- No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
- No Chinaman must figure in the story.
- No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
- The detective must not himself commit the crime.
- The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
- The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
- Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.