Let’s Write a Mystery Online Together, Part 5

For the last Monday this month, I am wrapping up “Let’s Write a Mystery Online Together”. I’ll post the whole mystery next week, so you can read it in one place. If you’d like to read other collaborative stories we’ve written in past years, click here. Thanks to M. Liz Boyle and Jodie Wilk for playing. I always enjoy reading what other writers can concoct and love the challenge of working with what they propose. Here’s the ending.

I clutched at my hair.

This was too much. Too many secrets, too many lies, too much manipulation.

“I’m done,” I said. “The truth needs to come out.”

Julia stiffened. “You mean …”

“I mean everything.”

Aiden stepped out of the car with his hands up. An officer spun him around.

“You’re right,” said Hudson. “It all needs to come out.” He squeezed Julia’s hand.

I marched toward the officers. If I walked fast enough, maybe I wouldn’t chicken out before I reached them.

Hudson and Julia fell in step beside me.

As the officer handcuffed Aiden, I said, “Excuse me. I think I–I mean, we can clear up this whole mess about the fire at the Kelton Mansion.”

Olivia shoved herself in front of us. “They’re liars. Their whole family are liars.”

“You should know,” said Hudson.

I took a deep breath and felt as if all my clothes had vanished. Funny thing. As vulnerable as I felt, I also felt I was about to be launched into the sky. Free.

“Officer,” I said, “the reason Aiden couldn’t have started the fire is because …”

Disguising the Villain in a Mystery

Disguising the villain in a mystery is the toughest task when writing a story in that genre. Planting clues and red herrings effectively is hard too, but if I don’t correctly handle disguising the villain in a traditional whodunit, I’ve ruined the whole story.

Do’s and Don’ts for Disguising the Villain

Don’t have a very minor character be the villain.

Mystery author Bill Pronzini describes this pitfall in a chapter of his book Son of Gun in Cheek when writing about his love for the old Charlie Chan movies made in the 1930’s and ’40’s. He writes that often the villain turned out to be such a minor character that it was difficult to remember what scenes he or she was in.

Part of the fun of a mystery is to reread them after the solution is revealed, noting how the villain acted and what clues I missed that pointed to his guilt. If the villain hardly appears in the story, the reader has no satisfaction in seeing him unmasked. The mystery’s solution isn’t a revelation but a shock and a cheap one at that. 

Now I can have a very minor character turn out to be an accomplice. That can provide a nice twist to the plot. But this character should still have enough page time for the reader to say, when revealed as the villain’s ally, “Aha!’ instead of “Who?”

Do make the villain a major player.

He should be an important secondary character, someone who has significant interactions with the detective. But if he has too many scenes in which he plays a pivotal role, the reader may get suspicious. So …

Don’t make the villain the only major player.

As I’ve written mysteries, this tip is the one I’ve found helpful: give each suspect almost equal time on the page. Creating suspects with as much reason to be guilty as the real culprit and allowing them meaningful page time helps disguise the true villain. The drawback of this method is that if a character acts suspiciously but is innocent, my detective either has to uncover the real reason for her suspicious activity, or the character must explain her actions. Unlike in real life, mysteries must tie up loose ends. For more on writing about clues and red herrings, click here. For more tips on writing mysteries, click here.

What mysteries had the best reveal of the villain?

Let’s Write a Mystery Together Online, Part 4

Here’s the fourth installment of “Let’s Write a Mystery Together Online”. If you haven’t played yet, please jump in and add your inspiration to our collaborative mystery. The more people who play, the more fun it is to write the story. You can find parts 1, 2, and 3 here, so you can catch up on what’s happened in our story. I’ll take up after the last comment on last week’s post.

Julia beamed triumphantly. “It helps because I think I can get Hudson to admit he was there and you weren’t, Aiden.”

“How?” I said.

“Because Hudson and I have sort of been dating.”

Aiden’s jaw flopped loose like mine did.

“And you haven’t told us?” Aiden yelled.

I flung out my arms. “There are way, way too many secrets in this family.”

“We haven’t told anyone,” said Julia. “Even though our family looks respectable, that’s not good enough for a Whittaker. Hudson’s parents wouldn’t want him entangled with someone who might keep him from going on to great things–whatever those are.”

“Hudson was at the beach,” I said. “Text him and see if he’s still there.”

As Julia typed, Aiden said, “If he beat it before the cops came that night, Hudson won’t jeopardize his future to help us.”

Julia stared at her phone. “He’s not all that crazy about the future his parents have planned for him. He’s there.” She slid her phone into her pocket. “Let’s mount up.”

Aiden pulled away first, and Julia and I followed.

We’d just turned onto the main road to the beach when bright blue lights appeared in the rearview mirror.

Julia turned saucer-sized eyes to me. “Do you think they want us or Aiden?”

“Maybe all of us,” I said.

The Scooby Doo Guide to Mysteries

As a kid growing up in the ‘70’s, I lived to watch Scooby Doo. Little did I know that this first exposure to mystery stories would be a good foundation for trying to write my own. My very first attempt at writing a story was in second grade, and I wrote a homage (that sounds better than rip-off) to Scooby Doo on the front and back of a sheet of notebook paper. The boy I had selected to play the cowardly character like Shaggy took offense and threatened to tell the teacher. Not only was this my first story, but also my first time dealing with an audience and censorship. The Scooby Doo Guide to Mysteries provides 4 basic points to writing a mystery.

Mysteries have a beginning, middle, and end.

  1. Beginning: The premise of the mystery and the identity of the detective(s) are established. “You kids are new to these parts, so you don’t know the legend of the headless vampire zombie, and how it’s been scarin’ folks out of town.”
  2. Middle: Detectives can do any of the following to solve the mystery:
      • Question witnesses and suspects.
      • Examine the site of the crime.
      • Analyze Clues.
      • Run from the villain – a lot.
  3. End: Detectives reason from their investigation and reveal identity of villain. “Mayor Smith dressed up as the headless vampire zombie to scare everyone away while he emptied the mine under the town of its gold.”

Characters should be distinct.

Although Fred, Daphne, Velma, and Shaggy weren’t complex, there was no way to confuse them with one another. Fred was usually the brave one with a plan. Daphne was pretty and danger-prone. Velma was smart, Shaggy was scared, and Scooby Doo was a scared dog. Those characteristics influenced how the gang solved the mystery, so plot points developed from character traits.

When the plot needs a boost, put your main characters in danger.

Much of the running time of a Scooby Doo episode was spent doing just that – running. All the fleeing from the villain of the week not only padded the episode, but placing the detectives in danger raised the stakes for reaching a successful resolution to the mystery. And even though for 453 episodes, Scooby and the gang had solved the mystery, when you’re a kid, you worry that the 454th time, things might go horribly wrong.

When the plot needs another boost, add humor.

Shaggy and Scooby’s cowardly personalities added a lot of humor to each mystery. Humor usually makes a character more believable or likable. For most kids, Shaggy and Scooby were their favorite characters. Humor also adds a contrast to tense or scary situations and makes any story just more fun.

What shows or books from your childhood influence your writing today?

For more tips on writing mysteries, click here.

Let’s Write a Mystery Together Online, Part 3

Here’s the third installment of “Let’s Write a Mystery Together Online”. If you haven’t played yet, please jump in and add your inspiration to our collaborative mystery. The more people who play, the more fun it is to write the story. Parts one and two are here. I’ll take up after the last comment on last week’s post.

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “Olivia is going to blame you for the fire and her brother’s death even though she knows you were at the beach with us that night?”

Aiden shook his head almost hard enough to fling off his crewcut. “No. She thinks the family is lying for me, that I wasn’t at the beach. She’ll reveal the secret if I don’t confess.”

“We can’t let her do that,” Julia said though her teeth. “If we could figure out what really happened, we could clear you and satisfy Olivia.”

“If the cops haven’t solved the case by now,” said Aiden, “how can we in 48 hours?”

I gasped. “That’s all the time she’s given you?”

He nodded.

“I wonder.” I pulled at my lip and gazed up at the darkening hills.

“Wonder what?” Aiden screamed. “We’ve got to do something.”

“I wonder if the cops have talked to everyone who might have been here at the mansion that night.” I started up the steep slope and entered the woods.

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