Test the Ingegrity of Your Mystery – Part 2

Continued from last week.

Now that you’ve listed all of the scenes including where they take place and what action occurs, move on to the second column of your chart.


The point of listing the characters is to help you keep track of everyone who makes an appearance in your story. List every character who appears in each scene. This includes characters who are not physically present but come up indirectly in conversation. Also, if Mr. X speaks to Ms. Y on the phone, add Ms. Y to the list.

This serves a few purposes.

Avoid Irritating Surprises

If your victim has an identical twin sister and that fact is crucial to the plot, it’s not really fair to the reader if no sister has been mentioned until the crucial moment when she pops up. By all means keep the fact that she’s a twin under your hat, but even a casual mention of a sibling earlier in the story will keep your reader from throwing the book across the room when one conveniently shows up. Put twin sister in the character column of the scene where “siblings” are mentioned. 

If you want to make her appearance a complete surprise, there must be a hint that this unknown person exists, such as a conversation the victim has with her over the phone or a letter signed with her initials. The reader gets enough hints from the conversation or letter that the person involved is important even if the reader doesn’t know exactly who it is. Even an ambiguous mention by the detective that “there must have been someone else in that room the night so-and-so died” will do. If the twin sister is on the other end of the phone, has written the letter, or is the unknown someone who must have been in the room, put twin sister on your character list for the scene. 

I also list characters who I assume are involved in the story but aren’t specifically mentioned. For instance, if the victim’s will comes up in a scene, put (attorney) in the character column. The parenthesis show that you haven’t decided how to introduce the character, but that he should exist. Consider it a reminder that your sleuth wants to talk to the attorney. If the will has nothing to do with the murder, it would still be the natural inclination of the police to investigate the angle, even if it’s a dead end. You may decide to handle the will in a clever manner that won’t involve an attorney at all, but it will have been a deliberate move, not an omission.

Keep Suspects on Even Ground

Tracking the number of times a character receives mention will also ensure that the detective gives the suspect proper consideration. If Harry Cheese is the killer, but the sleuth only discusses him once during the course of the investigation, the reader will feel cheated. Conversely, if every chapter includes Harry Cheese, Harry Cheese, Harry Cheese, you might as well light a neon sign flashing Killer over his head.

Balance the Investigation

Listing the characters will also show if your story lacks character balance. Some writers have amateur detectives who assist the police. Stephanie Plum exchanges information with Joe Morelli, Cora Felton has Chief Harper, and Hercule Peroit has Chief Inspector Japp. If your sleuth and the police share an equal number of scenes, ask yourself if you want them to be co-protagonists. If your intention is to include the police officer only as a supporting character, you will have to either condense his scenes or find a way for your sleuth to uncover the same information.

Next week I’ll discuss how to avoid the bad joke syndrome. You know. You get to the punch line and say, “Wait! I forgot to tell you____!” 

2 thoughts on “Test the Ingegrity of Your Mystery – Part 2”

  1. Great points, all. Especially the “Keeping Suspects on Even Ground.” More than once I've found an author who didn't do it, and I always felt cheated. Thanks, Jackie.


  2. Keeping a list of characters and their place in the story is a wonderful idea. I lets you know if you are forgetting someone important or maybe alerts you to the fact several characters aren't earning their keep. And you can keep track of their names so you don't have characters with the same beginning letter (Mary, Martha, Minnie) or similar tone (Bob, Tom, Jack). Good points all around.


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