Solving the Mystery Plot

Last June I decided to write a mystery novel based on a few lines in an obscure book called Witchcraft in the Valleys of Susa and Environs by Massimo Centini. The crime, the tale and the setting were such a gift that it all made my mouth water. A true story! Minimal invention required! Pay dirt!


Witches presenting wax dolls to the devil, featured in The History of Witches and Wizards (1720) — Source (Wellcome Library)


There was one biggish problem, though, and that was that I had no idea how to plot a mystery. I’m good at poems and  travel memoirs but poems aren’t generally plotted at all, and travel stories have an intrinsic shape (you go somewhere, weird stuff happens, you leave). Mystery, a genre where readers have very specific (not to say rigid) expectations, was familiar to me as a reader but not as a writer.

So, after Googling ‘How to Plot a Mystery Novel’, I spent four whole weeks at the Primo Levi library figuring out all the details. It was me and the regulars—the lady in with a dachshund in a pram, the retiree sipping gin from a plastic water bottle, the cute Chinese boy and grandfather and the studious Sudanese Adonis. I did everything I was supposed to do: mined relevant historical detail, invented characters with compelling backstories, drew a timeline of key events, and summarized 20 chapters following the ‘rising action/climax/denouement’ pattern. At last there was a blueprint ready and it was all going to be so easy.

Seven months and several countries later, I’m halfway through the third draft and realizing with distress the plot needs Major Repairs. The writing has been about as straightforward as Magellan’s pleasure cruise to the Philippines. Help!

Time to abandon the crime scene for a day and go back in search of the Platonic Mystery Plot. I switched on the computer and scoured the internet for clues.


A poster advertises a stage adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, starring actor William Gillette in 1899. Library of Congress


The first page I stopped at was ‘Plotting the Mystery Novel‘, which offers a clear, detailed recipe. Come here for examples of how to build a subplot, how to pace the sleuth’s discoveries and how to emotionally involve the reader and ‘raise the stakes’ (a phrase that keeps coming up–must investigate). It’s a nice, comprehensive overview and easy to relate to my fledgling manuscript.

Next, I enjoyed Hallie Ephron’s essay ‘Dramatic Structure and Plot…or how to keep your story from circling the drain’, particularly the title. It could have been written especially for me; I can hear that gurgle as I lie awake in bed at night. Ephron’s advice seems sound, if slightly sadistic:

‘Drama works in direct proportion to how miserable you make your protagonist….Begin with minor woes and build as the story progresses to its final climax. From time to time, things should improve. Then, just when it looks as if your protagonist is out of the woods, let the next disaster befall him.

‘Finally, keep raising the stakes, insert a ticking clock, and above all, make it personal. Reaching the end goal should feel heroic, worth all the pain and misery your protagonist had to overcome along the way.’


Hopes and dreams.


Taking the Mystery out of How to Write a Mystery‘ by Dennis Palumbo’s’  takes a  psychological view. He argues that a mystery is not simply about a crime, and that the reader wants certain things:

  • order restored, the violator of the social contract caught, our world set right
  • a clever detective-hero as a reader surrogate
  • an exploration and resolution of psychological tension


Finally, I spent some time doodling on Dramatica, an online writer’s tool that offers interesting ways to organize and think about your plot. Even after a couple of sessions, it’s highlighted big gaps in my throughlines. In a plot crisis such as this it seems an appropriate resource.

How I learned about Dramatica is quite a funny story. I was at an actual party (a super-blood-moon-type occurrence) and met a guy who looked like a professional middleweight boxer but who was actually a keen historian and novelist. He said he was writing an alternative history of Rome in the Byzantine age and he knew all about plot-wrangling (hence the bodybuilder neck). ‘Try Dramatica!’ he said. I figured I’d take his advice.

OK, back to the drawing board. The corpse is getting cold!

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