Testing the Integrity of Your Mystery – Part 1

WinR Jacqueline Vick shares a writing tool she uses when reviewing her mysteries.

Some writers thrive on it. Some writers dread it. All writers do it.


Mystery rewrites involve an extra step because the story depends on logic. If there are misplaced clues, forgotten hints, or unexplained details, the climatic moment (and the murderer is…) will result in an unsatisfying “Huh?” Unfortunately, by the third pass through your manuscript, your subconscious has a tendency to fill in the missing information, because you know what should happen. This makes it difficult to catch mistakes.

One way to test the integrity of your mystery is make four columns in a notebook (electronic or paper) and then break the story into four parts: Scene, Characters, Information, and Unresolved Questions.


A scene tells its own story; it has a beginning, middle, and end. It may take place over more than one location. For instance, the conversation may start in the drawing room and then move out onto the lawn. The purpose of every scene is to reveal character and/or (but hopefully and) to move the plot forward.

In the Scene column, give a brief description including Action and Location:

Discussing clues in the Garden.

Location is important.

Everytime a new location comes up, the writer must give enough description to convey a sense of place to the reader. An author once said that if it wasn’t necessary for a scene to take place at a particular location, get rid of that location. I think the author’s point was that new locations shouldn’t appear randomly. If deadly nightshade is the weapon of choice, then it would make sense to have a scene in a the woods where the slueth could discover a ready supply of the plant. If she’s simply contemplating the appearance of a new suspect, there’s no need to describe the lovely fauna. If possible, move her to the setting of the next scene–have her ponder this new suspect while climbing the porch steps to her next interview.

And make the location fit in with your character. Poirot disliked the untidy nature of the wilderness. He wouldn’t have gone for a relaxing stroll through the woods, though he might have unwillingly traversed a path if he suspected the existence of a clue.

Action keeps the story moving.

By listing the Action, you’ll notice where the story stagnates. The detective needs to regroup and lay out the information gathered so far and readers appreciate these recaps. However, if you have ten scene descriptions in a row that read “thinks about…”, you might want to reorganize or add some action. Otherwise you’re in danger of the dreaded “talking head” syndrome.

Laying out your scenes will also make it obvious if there are bits that should either be cut or combined.  The sleuth spots a clue in the drawing room fireplace. Later, he runs into the maid and discovers the butler was suspiciously missing from his duties during the critical hours. Why go back to the drawing room twice if you can take care of it all during one visit? The sleuth follows the maid into the drawing room to ask her a question and notices the clue in the fireplace. And if there’s a dangly scene that doesn’t serve a purpose, off with its head! Let’s say the sleuth looks for the maid in the drawing room but doesn’t find her. He comes back later. Why, why, oh why would you waste space on that first trip?

Next week, find out how listing the characters in each scene can help you avoid embarrassing mistakes.

2 thoughts on “Testing the Integrity of Your Mystery – Part 1”

  1. You hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the series of scenes featuring “sleuth thinks about…” When the author has lost his train of thought, he will resort to the evasive “thinks about” until he gets himself back on track. “Action” eliminates the need for killing time. Good points in this part of your program.


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