We’ve all experienced (and probably written) stories that were too complicated, but it’s possible to have the opposite problem, especially with mysteries. A mystery has characters trying to figure something out, and if there isn’t enough for them to sleuth through, then the story either ends too soon or it quickly starts to drag. Don’t worry, we’re here with tips on how you can give your mystery more content without feeling contrived or making the plot a total mess.
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Generously transcribed by Paige. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast, with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro music]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, and with me today is:
Oren: And before we get into the actual episode today, we are looking for a new type of volunteer: Audio editing. Basically, you’d be editing to filter out words like, ‘um’, or ‘like’, or, ‘you know’, stuff like that. To make sure we don’t talk over each other, and generally make the podcast more pleasant to listen to.
We already have a few and they have been invaluable, but the more we have, the lighter the work overall. You don’t need any prior experience. We can teach you how to do this. The time commitment is about five hours a month at most. And if you’re interested, you can just go to mythcreants.com/volunteer.
And thanks again to everyone who has already volunteered for us in whatever capacity. We really appreciate it.
Now, it is time for this podcast episode. I’ve got a cool mystery for you folks, and I think it’ll take us a while to solve this one. Which of us loves Discworld the most?
Chris: [Dramatically singing] Dunn-dunn!
Wes: Oh no.
Oren: Do you think that’ll keep us busy for an entire podcast?
Chris: Oh, sure, it will totally keep us busy. Now I’m just going to go shopping. I’ll tell you the answer when I’m done.[laughter]
Oren: Today’s topic is about how to make your mysteries more complex. And also, when and why, and all of those words, to make your mysteries more complex. This happened because Chris and I are doing a Teen Wolf rewatch, because of course we are, what else would we be doing? Watching new shows? No, thank you.
So in season 3.1—because the seasons are split in half most of the time—they have this problem where the secret bad guy is a Druid who wants revenge on this other group of bad guys. But it’s not really hard to figure that out because we can pretty easily tell that the secret bad guy is a Druid because they keep murdering people with Druid paraphernalia.
And we know that these other bad guys kill Druids, so that’s a pretty simple mystery with a very obvious answer. But they have to stretch it over most of the season. And so they end up doing things like having two groups of characters researching the same clue in parallel. And then they happened to find it at about the same time.
And it’s like, you know, we could just cut out one of those investigation lines and the story would be exactly the same because they would just tell their friends about it.
Chris: Oren, I have the answer to this. The complete solution. Okay, so, just add twenty new characters that are each a suspect. [laughter] And then have the character interview each and every one of them looking for small clues. And that’ll just take up the first five chapters of your novel.
Oren: Yeah, there you go. Done. Solved.
Chris: That’s definitely the answer.
Oren: You can also just make your mystery so complicated that nobody can actually figure it out. Like, give your bad guy fifty million backup plans. That’ll take a while, right?
Chris: I love the idea that you find out somebody else was actually behind it all along like five times. So you find the culprit. But then, ‘No. You thought it was another culprit, but it was really me all along.’ And then just keep doing that.
Oren: So this is a problem more common to television shows than to novels. And the reason there is simply that TV shows have to be a specific length. And even now with those restrictions being eased for shows that are designed specifically for streaming, there’s still a general push to keep episodes approximately the same length and to make a certain number of episodes. And so that can end up requiring you to stretch content.
Whereas in a story, if your mystery wasn’t that complicated, you would just make the story shorter. There’s still value in this, even for prose writers, because sometimes you want a longer story. You want a mystery that’s more involved and you don’t want it to be super easy to figure out. So before we get into the solutions, I wanted to talk about what are some signs that your mystery maybe needs a little more content.
And rather than just me talking forever, I figured I would open this up to Chris or Wes. Have either of you ever seen or been reading a mystery and felt like, this mystery is just kind of thin. It just feels like they could have solved it before now.
Wes: Well, yes. Yes, definitely. I was trying to think of a specific example, but I do know that something that frustrates me eternally on this topic is when there is a mystery to be solved, but the showrunners seem much more interested in just throwing interpersonal drama in front of me and filling up space. It’s like, we’re supposed to be researching this, but we have to give you interpersonal drama in order to keep you entertained. Because we can’t think of a more compelling way to make this mystery do that.
And that is annoying to me. I mean, I do like friction in interpersonal relationships in stories generally. But I also like to think that people can put aside their beef when there’s a murderer on the loose, or something else is happening.
Chris: Yeah. Or in Soon I Will Be Invincible where it’s just exposition dump after exposition dump of all of the superheroes that have ever existed in this setting. It was like, will this ever matter? Is anything that we learn about them going to be relevant? Not as far as we can tell.
For me, I think that’s the biggest sign is when we’re spending our time doing things that ultimately just don’t matter to the mystery that much. There can be other causes of it too. Sometimes it might be the writer’s afraid of giving you real information lest you guess their secret villain. I think that one is also a problem.
But that’s the biggest sign, is when we’re just spending our time doing other things that don’t end up making a difference or moving the story forward in any way.
Oren: Those can happen for a number of reasons. I’ve worked with clients who have had exactly that problem multiple times. And sometimes it happens for a different reason entirely, which is that the author isn’t actually that interested in the mystery, and they actually wanted to write interpersonal drama. That’s what they cared about the most.
Or in the case of Soon I Will Be Invincible, the author clearly just wants to expo dump at you about all of the superhero backstory he came up with. That’s the reason that book exists, and the mystery is also just kind of there. But it can just be that there’s not much there in the mystery, so we have to fill up the time somehow.
And when it comes to interpersonal drama, whether that means romance arc, or two characters having a feud for whatever reason, that stuff can work as part of the mystery. The key, as with all inner character drama, is to make it plot-relevant. To make it matter. It starts to feel bad when it’s like, ‘Hey, hang on. We paused the mystery so that we can argue about something.’
Chris and I watched the first few episodes of a Netflix show. What was it, October Project? November Project? Some kind of month project. The first episode was this really cool premise of, the parents work for a monster hunting organization, and the kids are getting involved in magic stuff. And I’m like, okay, this is really cool. And then the next few episodes are full of the kids having regular high school drama. Not magic high school drama, but regular high school drama, where they don’t like somebody at high school or someone at high school doesn’t like them.
And it’s like, these stakes are just too low. You established much higher stakes in your first episode, so bring us back to that.
Wes: I’m going to try to jump on that side to defend it a little bit. If your investigators, for lack of a better word, are doing the hard work of investigating a mystery, there’s a lot of thinking and analysis that goes into that. And a good example would just be, certainly a lot of shows that take place in police departments with detectives. They’re always showing you the action parts of that investigation. We’ll sometimes see them go door to door, but you know, mostly it’s someone else running forensics analysis, and we only go talk to them if they’re kind of weird. [laughs] Like for an opportunity to spark that.
But maybe there’s just a challenge with making investigative work itself entertaining. You want to zip forward to the breakthroughs. So you gotta fill some time until you get there.
Chris: It does matter that the conversations have movement, right? The thing is, you can make anything plot-relevant and interesting. But if you make it so that it matters whether you solve the mystery, then you do have to have the feeling when somebody is interviewing somebody that you’re gaining potentially valuable information that changes the likelihood of solving the mystery, or moves it forward in some way.
And if you have clues that you’re trying to hide in there, that aren’t supposed to look important, then it needs to appear that they serve another purpose instead, or there needs to be something else in the scene that appears to be relevant. And then you go back and be like, ‘Oh, actually it was this other small detail that was really important.’ There has to be that sense.
Wes: I think that’s a really good point because I’m coming at this from like trying to do mystery one-shots and things like that for role-playing games. I feel like I need to put in red herrings, but also, I don’t want to give them a lead that leads nowhere. That’s your advice: Don’t. You’re saying you can toss out things, but as long as there’s something in there that could make them see something in a different light, or another way, then wherever they go, it’s still contributing to the story in some fashion.
Chris: Yeah, and you could probably get away with switching what thing ends up being important in a conversation. Like, you go interview a suspect. They gave you a bunch of information. One thing seems like, ‘Oh, that’s it.’ And then you follow up on that. It turns out that’s not important at all, but at the same time you realize some other detail they said, that’s what’s important in moving the story forward.
The important thing is that it always feels at any given time like that conversation moved the story forward in some way. Because if it just seems relevant at the time, but then later we make it so it doesn’t feel like it matters, that’s really unsatisfying. At the same time, we can’t make it feel like it’s irrelevant when you’re having the interview, or else it will be boring. So at any given time, we always have to believe that that interview mattered, but I think you could get away with changing which things about the interview are important.
Oren: That really is the rule for red herrings. And that’s actually one of my techniques that you can use to add content to your mystery. If you’re going to do that when, for example, if they think that the prince murdered the king and they go and investigate the prince and it wasn’t the prince. Surprise, it was a red herring. Then they still need to get something from that. Maybe the prince has a clue on him to the real bad guy who was, of course, the vizier. Always the vizier.[laughter]
Oren: So maybe that’s how that goes. Or when they, as part of this red herring, they end up saving the prince’s life and then he’s indebted to them. And so his royal privilege allows them to do something they couldn’t do before, or something. You just don’t want it to be like, ‘Well, it wasn’t the prince. Okay. Back to square one, byeee.’ [laughter] Anything that implies that the reader can just skip that part of the story is no, no, no. No, no, no, no, no.
Chris: I think another good way to fill things out a bit is to make it so that characters have to work a little harder for clues. I’ve definitely read plenty of stories where the writer just didn’t know how to provide their character with information, so various knowledgeable or mentor characters just show up and tell them things. [laughter]
And if you do that, then the mystery is going to go by pretty fast. So, for instance, the character might think, ‘Okay, where can we get more information on this, so we can find out what happened when we don’t have enough? I know! They say that this person kept a journal. So I want the journal.’
And then what you can do is you can take the journal and be like, okay, but that journal is locked in a safe, inside a fortress, surrounded by the elite guard. [laughs] So there’s a lot of challenges involved in actually getting the clue before you move on to the next thing. I mean, that one might be a little exaggerated. You probably, to a certain extent will still want to feel like you’re making progress in the mystery, but that’s the kind of thing you can do. You can build up challenges that the character has to surmount in order to get information. And those challenges themselves can be interesting and exciting and take time. The key is that it has to feel like it matters to that mystery. And have some good conflict in there.
Oren: For further advice on how to make getting clues interesting, see our Mythcreants post by one Chris Winkle, on how your characters can earn clues.
Chris: Yeah. I just have a list of ideas. If you don’t know how to give your character clues, here’s a list of like nine different things you can try.
Oren: Honestly, that is the thing we’re where role-playing games can be useful inspiration. Because in role-playing games, there’s this structure. To get a clue, you need to make a skill roll. Now, of course, this can come with its own problems. If we were going to talk about the role-playing theory behind it, because then you can have issues of like, what if you fail your skill roll, do you just not get the clue? But that’s a whole other discussion.
But in a role-playing game, you have this built-in framework where you have to make skill rolls or ability rolls or whatever kind of RPG it is, to get the thing you’re after. And then you narrate how you did that. And that can give you ideas for how your characters can get the clues in your prose story. And the advantage your prose story has is you don’t have to try to figure out what happens if your characters fail their engineering roll to get the safe open after they snuck past the guards. And there were probably some alligators out there too. [laughter]
Another option that I’m a big fan of—and again, this is a use sparingly. This can get out of hand if you do it too many times—but you can add stages to the mystery. The mystery doesn’t have to be all the same thing all the way through. It can be. You can hear that there was a murder and then the mystery can be about solving the murder.
Or, if you want to make this more in depth and make a meatier story out of it, you can solve the murder and figure out why that was done, or who did the murder. But then that leads you to this person who turned out to be a professional assassin who was hired by somebody who was knocking off important government officials to do something.
Now you have to figure out why is that happening? One mystery can lead into another, right? You don’t have to immediately yell at your protagonist how they have to stop a coup from taking over the country. You can discover that, it can start with a murder mystery investigation and move into it.
Chris: Yeah, basically, the murder is a sign of a much larger and more menacing plot or something like that. The other convenience of that is that you have less pressure to make the answer to the mystery super surprising. That’s one of the tough things about mysteries is that, after so much buildup over one question, now it’s unsatisfying if the answer doesn’t feel surprising. But if you solve the mystery quicker and then it becomes about surviving this plot, then you don’t have as much pressure.
Oren: If from the first page, you’re asking who murdered this guy, and then by page 200, you’re like, ‘All right, now I’m going to tell you who murdered this guy. I’ve been asking this question for 200 pages.’ The reader is going to expect a pretty explosive answer. That’s when you have to start doing things like figuring out weird twists, because it can’t just be one of the three suspects at that point. If it was one of the three people you thought it might be, that would be boring.
Wes: As a reader, you’re clicking through a roster of every named character that’s appeared in those 200 pages. And if it’s one of them, not very satisfying,
Chris: It was the dog!
Wes: [laughing] Yeah. And if it’s someone completely random, that’s also not very satisfying.
Oren: This is the problem that Game of Thrones actually had, even though Game of Thrones doesn’t really seem like a mystery. For, like, the entire series, they’re asking the question, ‘Who will sit on the Iron Throne?’ Or, you know, who will become the king of Westeros, since by the end, the throne doesn’t exist anymore.
And it can’t just be one of the characters we thought it might be, because we’ve all considered that possibility. It has to be something else. And they were like, ‘Uhh, okay, we need a twist…’ And their twist was that they invented the Holy Roman Empire. And it’s like, well, that’s not a good twist, but I see what you were trying to do there, Game of Thrones.
Chris: I think it’s worth noting why that came to be. For one thing, George R.R. Martin was really determined that his story not be predictable. And so he introduced tons of different factions, and then started killing the people that seemed like the obvious hero of the story. So he set up that expectation.
Whereas most stories doing this kind of epic political intrigue would pick a hero, and have the readers get attached to that hero. And then have it be about the tension of whether that hero makes it through. And that would be driving the story, instead of the question of who ends up on top.
Oren: Circling back to something you said at the beginning, Chris, you mentioned going shopping instead of doing the mystery. So this actually touches on a point, which is that some authors will try to extend the life of their mystery by adding different conflicts. Like, on the way home, when the protagonist was going to go investigate the crime scene, instead they get attacked by taco ninjas, and now they have to have a taco fight. And that’ll take up a few pages. And obviously if you do something like that, it will seem really disjointed and people will be like, what is this? What does this have to do with the mystery?
Even if you try to do something clever, and at the end, be like, ‘Ah, well, secretly the murderer was a taco ninja!’ If that doesn’t seem clear at the time, that’ll still be weird and disjointed.
Chris: It’s worth looking at TV shows again, because a lot of times TV shows are episodic to a certain extent. So when TV shows end up having a mystery that isn’t front and center, then it’s usually because it’s not super urgent and it’s not actually providing the lion’s share of tension for the show. And instead their episode arcs are what’s important to the story. Whereas we were talking about the show November, October, September, January, whatever it was. They clearly set up something that was a high tension mystery, and then tried to abandon that for lower tension arcs, which doesn’t really work.
If you’re writing a novel, the expectation is that there’s going to be one big mystery, or something that is important. They don’t have to be written that way, but you really have to put in a concerted effort if you want to structure your story so that you can have those exciting one-off adventures.
Oren: To use an example where something like this could actually work, let’s say your mystery is about who killed the ghost that’s haunting this house. We need to bring the murderer to justice, because otherwise the ghost can never rest. And as part of this conflict, you could have someone try to buy the house to demolish it. And if the house is demolished, then the ghost will lose their anchor and bad things will happen to this poor ghost.
And that can be something that your characters have to deal with because it’s related, even though it isn’t immediately part of who did the murder. You could, of course, later reveal that whoever’s buying the house did the murder if you want to. But even if you don’t do that, it’s part of the same story, rather than a completely unrelated taco ninja fight.[laughter]
Chris: As an example of what the episodic formula looks like—you know, for comparison—I feel like we were already talking about Supernatural with a ghost haunting a house, you to figure out how this murder happened. As I used in an example in my posts on episodic stories, Sam and Dean are trying to figure out the mystery of what happened to their dad. Or they’re trying to find their dad. This could also be set up as more mystery. I don’t know how much it was actually strictly a mystery in the show.
But then they have an exciting adventure. They go to a town to look for their father, and there’s monsters in the town. They fight the monsters, because that’s just obviously more urgent than finding their father. And that’s what’s providing the tension, not the search for their father. But then before they leave the town, they are still going to find some information about their dad. So they’re not going to just come out of that right where they started. Even then, when the episode arc is much more important than the mystery.
Wes: That’s a good point, because I was going to ask how that could work in prose. Because I remember something similarly episodic when we played your campaign, Chris, a few years ago. Granted, our characters were growing into weird powers, but we had episodes where we kind of learned a little bit more each time, as we pieced together a few things. But you still had a pretty strong start with that room that was on fire, and that body, even though we weren’t directly connected to it.
So I like the idea of—Oren, I don’t know if this is something that you thought would make it more complex—but kind of doling things out, not slowly, but like you’re spacing out clues more judiciously, I suppose. And having more meaningful conflicts in the interim, or something like that.
Oren: Well, that certainly works in an episodic structure, like what Chris was describing. And role-playing games lend themselves very well to episodic structures. You can do that in a novel. It’s more challenging, but it’s possible.
Wes: Yeah, I see that happening with, I don’t know, a prologue [laughter] that shows you something really bad that’s probably the crux of the mystery, like the gruesome murder. And then, flash! We’re just in high school, hanging out with this kid that has no idea what’s going on. And then that’s just getting at a meta-level mystery that’s just kind of annoying.
Chris: We don’t normally recommend that for starting a book. And again, if we’re talking about TV shows, then we have to get into the ins and outs of how visual media engages audiences versus how narrated stories engage audiences.
But one of the problems with that is that you can start with a big hook and then it’s like, now we’re doing something else. And in comparison, what the main character is doing can seem relatively boring. Whereas I think in a lot of those situations, doing something more exciting with the main character is probably a better way to get started.
Oren: I have a really funny example of that. So, the novel Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone starts with what’s labeled a prologue, but in this essay, I will explain why it’s not a prologue.
It starts with the death of the god, Kos Everburning. And the mystery of his death and his resurrection is the main plot of the story. So even though the main character isn’t there, I wouldn’t consider this a prologue. To me, this is where the story starts. And it helps that the story is an omniscient narrator who doesn’t specifically go into anyone’s POV, even though we follow the protagonist Tara more often than anybody else.
So that, to me, wasn’t a problem. The problem was what came next, which was several chapters of Tara’s unrelated backstory. And it’s like, can we please go back to the dead god plot? I really want to know what’s happening there. And it’s like, no, you need to know about the village that Tara grew up in.
It’s like, do I, though? Do I need to know this? And it’s like, yeah, because at the end, she’ll talk about how she’s not going to run away anymore. And it’s like, okay, well, first of all, I don’t actually see what she’s running from in these early chapters. I don’t make that connection. But even if I did, could you find a way to deliver that, that doesn’t require keeping me away from the really cool dead god plot that you teased me with at the beginning?
And that’s the novel equivalent of a TV show that starts with a murder and then switches to some high school student. The difference is that TV, A.) typically doesn’t take that much time. Usually a TV show, if they start with a murder and then flip to a high school student, usually the high school student will get into the murder story pretty quickly. And also, TV is easier to watch. The conclusion that Chris and I have come to is that certain things visual medium can get away with that we wouldn’t recommend in books, because books take more effort, and readers expect more of a return on their investment.
Chris: Yeah. All I will say is that, let’s say you’re going to start your story with an exciting scene where somebody dies so that your main character can solve their death. So in a TV show, there’s tense music. There’s visuals, to create a lot of tension over the scene. And if it’s actually a mystery, and everybody knows that, then it’s expected that this person is going to die, which is actually helpful. Because otherwise, especially in narrated works, it’s easy to get attached to them. And I’ve heard from many readers who feel very betrayed when they start reading about a character, only to learn that character’s going to die.
Whereas if we have a mystery story, we know what’s going to happen. There’s some level of preparation for that. In a book, a lot of times, that’s not the expectation. It can be, if it’s the mystery genre. But also, when we see an action scene, it just doesn’t automatically have that visceral feeling of like, ‘Oh no, creepy music,’ in the same way a TV show would. So to make it feel like it matters, we have to care more. And generally that’s what the main character is for.
But I think in some cases, again, if you have a book that is all about a mystery, and you really want to start with the murder, I do think you have to get something valuable out of that, right? You have to ask, okay, is this actually good to show this happening? Even though I have to keep it somewhat mysterious and hide things? Or, would it actually be more powerful if I show the aftereffects, and then we wonder what happened. Because that imagining can also be very productive, and create a lot of tension, because things that are mysterious are at some level inherently more threatening. So to make actually showing the murder be better than that, you do have to have things happening that really get the imagination going and add value.
Oren: Now, we are running close to the end, but there is one more thing I want to talk about, which is kind of more from a foundational level. Which is, make sure that the mystery that you’re promising is actually the story that you want to tell. I’ve touched on this earlier, but I just want to get into a little more, because this can be a problem. It’s especially a problem in sequels, but not exclusively in sequels. Sometimes authors will set up a big mystery in book one, and then kind of get bored with it. But the reader still wants to know.
This was the case in book two of the Southern Reach Authority. Because book one is all about, what is Area X? What is that, what’s going on with that? That weird place in the Florida panhandle where weird stuff happens—weirder than normal, I mean. [laughter] And it’s like, what’s going on? And book one doesn’t answer that question. And arguably has a kind of unsatisfying ending. So people who have stuck around are really gonna want to know more about Area X.
But book two’s not about Area X. Book two is about the internal employment structure of the Southern Reach, the organization that investigates Area X. And there is some interesting stuff there. It has some of what I call bureaucracy horror, which is this idea that the bureaucracy is so complicated that no single person actually knows how it works or how to make it do things. Which I find interesting from a conceptual perspective. But that isn’t what everyone came here for.
So it’s really frustrating to watch the protagonist of Authority walk by the creepy scientist who’s like, ‘Do you want to know about Area X?’ And he’s like, ‘No, I’ve got paperwork to do, man. I’m not gonna meet you behind the shed to hear about Area X.’ And it’s like, please go meet him to hear about Area X. And then by the time you get to the end, you realize there wasn’t really any mystery there for him to solve. What happens at the end, spoilers, is that Area X, basically of its own volition, expands and starts swallowing more territory.
So then in book three, we actually get back to Area X. So there really wasn’t anything that the protagonist could have done to investigate that anyway. So, if you have promised a mystery, please actually want to solve it. That will help quite a bit, is all I’m saying. And if you want to do a different story about a spy agency’s organizational structure, maybe save that for another book.
All right. This has been your ‘complaining about the Southern Reach’ section. We’re done with that now. So I’m going to go ahead and call this podcast to a close.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo and she lives at therambogeeks.com.
We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro music]
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