Developer Blog

Mystery Discussion

First off, I'm probably gonna ditch the forums since they're dead and all. These blogs posts have been working out as better vehicles for discussion anyway.

Now, writing a murder mystery is not easy. While it is quite fun to think of all the ways the culprit could go about committing murder, there are a few things I've noticed in my progress:

  1. Occam's Razor -- the simplest solution is usually the best. That is, a solution should not prompt more questions than it answers. Otherwise, you're testing your reader's suspension of disbelief too much.

  2. The solution must be realistic and arise naturally from the character's personalities. Trying to fit characters into an already-formed plot only creates a forced plot. That's why it's best to come up with characters first, as I have mentioned previously.

  3. Means, motive, and opportunity are the reasons the mystery is made in the first place. The culprit must come into contact of all three in order to make the story happen, whether by accident or intention.

  4. There must be a "big reveal" at some point which flips the story on its head. In other words, the reader must be led to believe something, only for the opposite to be true. Mystery novels are 20th century trolls, if you will.

  5. The big reveal must be made by evidence which was in plain sight the whole time. Only by viewing the same evidence under a different line of reasoning will the big reveal show itself.

I recently finished reading Hag's Nook, an impossible crime novel by John Dickson Carr. It was a fast read, but that didn't stop it from being entertaining. There was one memorable quote I've taken to heart, and I'd like to post it here:

(The set-up: The characters have gone to investigate the scene of the crime, and after some looking around, began to create theories as to what happened.)

"No, no. I don't mind your being improbable. The point is that you haven't any grounds to be improbable ON. That's where you're far behind detective stories. They may reach an improbable conclusion, but they get there on the strength of good, sound, improbable evidence that's in plain sight. --How do you know there was any "box" inside that safe?"

"Well, we don't, of course; but--"

"Exactly. And you no sooner have the box, than you get an inspiration of a "paper" inside it. Then you get the paper, and you put "instructions" on it. Then [the victim] goes over the balcony; the box becomes inconvenient, so you drop it after him. Splendid! Now you've not only created the box and the paper, but you've made them disappear again, and the case is complete. As our American friends say, Horse-blinders! It won't do."

And that's that. Detective stories rely on evidence that's in plain sight. It can be improbable -- you can have a series of improbable coincidences happen at just the right time for murder occur (that's called "opportunity") -- but as long as it's in plain sight, the reader won't mind at all. That's the important bit. To make sure the reader doesn't feel cheated, put the clues right there, in their face. But if you lead them to believe the wrong thing, they'll think nothing of the clues. Maybe they won't think those were clues at all, at least until the "big reveal" -- when everything finally makes sense -- as if the answer was in plain sight all along!

What are your thoughts on mystery-making? Any tips, tricks, or advice? Or perhaps from a reader's perspective you have something to share? The art of puzzle-making is quite puzzling indeed (and for me, more fun than solving)!

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