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?

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.

How to Write a Detective Team

If you want to write a mystery, I’ll state the obvious: you must have a detective. But detectives come in all shapes and sizes, so you have a lot of room to maneuver. As you write, you might find your story is better if you have a duo of detectives. When I began my first novel, my detective was 19-year-old Rae Riley. Since my mystery was aimed at teens, my amateur detective had to be one. But as I wrote, I realized Rae’s father, since he is the sheriff of their fictional Ohio county, had to join her in the investigation or else he’d look incompetent. So I stumbled into a mystery-solving team, and my stories are the better for it. Below are my tips on how to write a detective team.

Decide if you write from the POV of one member or both.

POV (point of view) is critical to how you plot your mystery. Rae is my main character, and I write in first person. The story has to happen to her, and she has to make the story happen. Her father, Mal, can provide her information, but readers only see him through her eyes.

If I was writing from both of their POVs, then I could have scenes with just Mal and have him discover things that Rae may not be aware of, but the reader would be. Who my POV character is and how many I have affects how I lay out the clues.

The team should have contrasts.

If you’re two detectives are too much alike, then you only need one of them. Holmes and Watson have appealed to readers for over a century because the characters contrast.

Rae is a quiet, thoughtful amateur photographer. She has a photographer’s eye for noticing details. She also has a drive to help people, which draws her into cases.

Mal is more outgoing, confident, and carries a lot of authority in his manner. He’s also very protective, especially of his children.

Because of the contrasts in personality …

The team should have conflict.

Nothing’s more boring than two characters who never disagree. One of the delights in the Nero Wolfe mystery series is how the eccentricities and quirks of the great detective Nero Wolfe aggravate his right-hand man Archie Goodwin.

Rae’s desire to help people in trouble brings her into conflict with Mal, who wants her to stay safe. This conflict brings some needed tension to a warm relationship that could get too cozy to stay interesting.

Creating a detective team is a lot of work but a lot of fun. What detective teams do you love to read?

Weapons Resource for Mysteries

If you write crime fiction, at some point, you’ll need a weapons resource for mysteries. If your knowledge of guns and knives only consists of guns take bullets and knives are usually sharp, then The Writer’s Guide to Weapons by Benjamin Sobieck is for you. Like the title says, this book doesn’t just report and explain weapons. It was written for writers to give them a better understanding of how to use weapons in their fiction.

Treasure Trove of Information

The book is divided into three main sections: firearms, knives, and must-know weapons info. There’s also a glossary as well as a bibliography. Along with descriptions of particular weapons, the author lists its advantages and disadvantages and then provides a brief example of how the weapon could be used inaccurately and accurately in a story and an explanation of “what went wrong” in the inaccurate story.

In both the firearms and knives sections, Mr. Sobieck lists must-know laws involving those weapons. The copyright is 2015, so more research will be needed if you think a specific law affects your story. What I found most helpful was the author’s explanation of the “stop the threat” rule. A person has a right to defend themselves as long as the other person is a threat. If your main character knocks out the bad guy, who was threatening him with the knife, he can’t go over and kick him. The bad guy is no longer a threat. The kick is a crime.

I also loved the sections in part three. “Top Weapons Myths” dispels 25 false ideas about weapons, such as the reality of shooting a padlock or how ridiculous or mechanically impossible it is for a shooter to repeatedly click a handgun when it’s out of ammunition.

Another section I found especially interesting is “True Crime Stories from Real Crime Writers”. These are eyewitness accounts of what it’s like to be shot, stabbed, in a gun fight, or attempting to shoot a gun from a criminal’s hand. For example, a friend of the writer’s was stabbed in the back. Although the back of her shirt was soaked with blood, she didn’t realize it. It didn’t hurt.

The list of websites in the back give you a good starting point for even more research.

If you write mysteries, what kind of research have you done or are planning to do?

For more advice on writing mysteries, click here.

Write a Mystery with Me: the Complete Story

After taking turns collaborating on a mystery this entire month, author M. Liz Boyle and I can now post the finished story. If you’ve never done this kind of writing, you should give it a chance. It really exercises your imagination by forcing it to work with what the other author as plugged into the story. If you don’t like a particular turn in the plot that the other writers have thrown in, see it as a challenge to make it work for you. And now … “Write a Mystery with Me: the Complete Story”. And Happy Halloween!

The chilling fall breeze flung the ends of my hair against my cheek and I brushed them away as I stared at the vacation house across the lake. I hadn’t expected the site of a murder-suicide to look so … cheery. Painted bright yellow with smoke curling from its chimney, it didn’t look any different from the other vacation homes nestled between the shore of the lake and the steep hills blazing with autumn colors.

I shook my head. My imagination had run away with me. After the crime, the house wouldn’t have turned black and had vultures circling it. 

Two people stepped out on the little deck that ran along the front.

I gasped.

Ducking behind a tree, I held up my camera and zoomed in for a clearer look. My heart thumped wildly when I recognized the faces. The coroner and the victim’s father. In this small town, everyone knows everyone, and even the tourists that rent these hunting lodges are as regular and predictable as the sunrise. I stare for a minute longer, but it’s definitely Mel Teak and Mr. Dunham, the dad of Jer Dunham, who everybody knows died here last week with his dad. Except, not, apparently. I flick my camera to ON, but before I can start snapping pictures, the screen alerts me that the battery is dead. Again. It only got cold two weeks ago, so I haven’t adapted to my winter practice of keeping a battery charged and in my pocket. Drat. What next? Call 9-1-1? Follow them myself?

I yanked my phone from my pocket. No reception out here at the lake. And the camera on the phone wouldn’t zoom enough to take a photo. 

An engine caught, and I looked up. A black van, just barely visible through the brilliant yellow leaves, rolled up the drive behind the house

Scrambling up the bank, I raced for my car. If I followed them, I had to drive into an area where I could get reception. I threw open my door, fell in, got the motor started, and tore onto the road.

By the time I roared around the lake, I was so far behind that I almost missed the black van turning right onto a gravel road. I kept my distance as I followed the vehicle through the windy woods.

The van turned into the abandoned factory that had rotted and rusted away for twenty years on the edge of the county.

Slouching down in my seat, I peeked through the steering wheel and watched the van pull into an oversized garage door. Noticing a side door, I left my car in the shade of a big, haunting looking tree and hurried along the perimeter of the property until I could make a discreet beeline to the side door. No window, no answers. Should I open the door? Would it open? Thoughts swirled through my mind as my hand hovered above the rusty doorknob. I gave a quick twist and a fast, smooth tug on the door. I paused and held it open about two inches. When I didn’t hear any explosions or curses, I eased it open far enough to poke my face inside.

The huge building covered an open area with a broken glass roof. Plants, now dying in the cooler fall weather, had sprouted everywhere–in the cracked concrete floor, from crevices in the wall. 

I stood still. 

Someone was calling. From very far away. 

I tiptoed in.

The door at the far end of the enormous room burst open and a man–young man–burst through it. Jer Dunham. 

He pounded into the room. He didn’t look anymore dead than his father.

I stepped under some rusty, wrought-iron steps. This made no sense. The coroner said the bodies they’d pulled from the lake near the home belonged to Mr. Dunham and Jer. And the note found in the house seemed to be a suicide note, written by Mr. Dunham.

I barely dared to breathe as Jer ran closer. He stopped only yards from me, looking every which way.

The person was still calling.

He happened to glance in my direction. Our gazes locked, my blood pressure shooting up.

Then Jer raced over to me.

I spun to the door, but he grabbed my arm. 

“You’ve got to help me,” he said between pants. “My father’s gone crazy.”

His face had a desperate, pleading look, and his hair stuck out like it hadn’t been washed in all these weeks that he’d supposedly been dead. The distant voice called again, with an urgent tone. “Jer, get over here! The plane will be here soon.”

Jer tugged my arm and quickly led me down the wrought-iron steps. He motioned with his free hand for me to keep my steps quiet. We hurried down three flights into a cold, drafty room. A mouse scurried along the far wall, and the hairs on my arms stood up. “What’s going on?” I whispered. Jer flipped off the light switch on the wall. Like most girls from here, I’d once had a crush on Jer, but now I was completely freaked out and could only hope that he wasn’t the one going crazy.

“Quick. There’s a tunnel in the corner. Please. Help me escape!” He said in a hushed tone. 

“Everybody thinks you’re dead. Where are you going?” I shivered in the dark, again hearing the urgent voice upstairs.

Jer gently but quickly pulled my arm, apparently toward the tunnel. He whispered, “The coroner. He set it up. Says flying us out of the country is the only way to live again. New identities, new location. But I don’t want to go. Not like that. People need to know the truth. He’s gonna hurt more people. I have to get out and warn them.” 

My toes bumped into the brick wall and I choked down a scream. Jer released my arm and sayid he’d find the hatch to the tunnel. I listened to noisy footsteps clamoring down the stairs, my heart rate picking up again. “Why’s the coroner faking your death?”

“Cuz he knows that I know about his side job in the drug circle. He needs me dead. And now I think he brainwashed Dad. And just so you know, the coroner knows you’re onto him too. Said he’s seen you and your camera snooping around and you’re next on his list. Heard him with my own ears. Got it!” Next to my shoulder, I felt Jer move and I heard a rusty squeak sound, like an old door creaking open. The steps on the wrought-iron stairs got louder and closer. Faster. Jer says, “It’ll be a long crawl, but we gotta go. It’s the only way.” 

He tugged me toward the sound of the squeaky door and as I ducked down, light filled the room. 

Mr. Dunham’s voice, with the same energy he always announced football games, shouted, “Jer! Who- What’s going on? Doc! You better get down here!”

Jer slammed the door shut and the darkness swallowed us.

“Get on your knees,” he said.

“Wait a minute. You have to lock the door or block it or something or they’ll just come after us.”

“I-I don’t know if it locks from this side.”

Brilliant. We couldn’t die in this hole.

“Stand behind the door.” I flattened against the opposite wall. “Your dad’ll see me first. When he opens it, smash him.”

“You want me to attack my dad?”

“Or you can watch him murder me.” It came out as a scream. “You’re bigger. You have to.”

The rusty door squealed open, and Mr. Dunham stood in the frame, shining his light in my face. “I know you, don’t–“

I grabbed Mr.Dunham’s wrist, and Jer threw his weight against the door, slamming his father between the metal door and the frame. 

As Mr. Dunham sank to the ground, I snatched up his light and listened. 

“Where are you?” a voice called. “Where’s Jer?”

I whispered, “We can go know, but we can’t close the door and risk alerting Dr. Teak.”

“And leave my dad?”

I clenched my teeth. “Then I’m going. Where does this lead?’

“Under the road and into the woods somewhere.”

I stooped into the low tunnel and in a second, Jer followed me.

The crawl wasn’t as long as Jer said or my adrenaline gave me speed. The end of the tunnel was blocked by a mass of bushes that I shoved myself through, the tiny branches tearing at my leggings.

As we clambered to our feet, with no sound of anyone behind us, I said, “Do you know exactly where we are?”

The woods were dark, the sunset only a red trace along the hills.

“I only know we’re across the road from the factory.”

“Then I think I know where we are.” I broke into a run. “We can’t go back to my car. But we can head to the Haunted Hollows. It can’t be far. There’ll be a ton of people since it’s Halloween, and someone should be working security.”

Something crashed into bushes behind us.

We sprinted into the night.

“I’ll get you!” Mr. Dunham shouted behind us. A bang echoed, and I didn’t want to think too much about whether it was a firework from the town festival or a gunshot behind us. Jer and I numbly sprinted and stumbled our way through the woods until we bordered a corn field. The corn maze. Just what I’d hoped we’d find. We were close to help.

“Let’s disappear in the corn,” Jer suggested. It was tempting, but it wouldn’t get the truth out. 

I grabbed his arm and kept running. “No. You said yourself that people need to know the truth.” I gasped for a full breath. “Slow down a little so Dr. Teak can catch up. When he’s close, we’ll run through the back of the amphitheater onto the stage.” Mom’s on the Haunted Hollows planning committee, and if I remembered right, I’d overheard her tell Mrs. Scott that Officer Kip was happy to join Deputy Key as a judge for the pie contest this year. With sunset filling the sky like a spilled paintbox, I knew the pie judging would start any minute now. If we could lead Dr. Teak into the public eye with two cops present, we’d have a good chance of stopping his evil plans.

Next to me Jer mumbled something and picked up speed. I glanced behind us and saw a flashlight beam close. Too close. Something, probably Dr. Teak’s fist, hit my back and knocked me to the ground. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of beating me up out here, so close to help. Jer pulled me up, and with a fresh surge of adrenaline, we ran the last hundred feet to the amphitheater’s backstage clearing, Dr. Teak shouting swear words at us the whole way. Dr. Teak was blinded by anger and followed us right onto stage, right in front of old Mrs. Zeller who, from the glow on her face, won the contest. The spotlight lit Dr. Teak’s face and the crowd gasped. I’d apologize to the pie bakers and Mom later for wrecking the contest. Jer and I grabbed Dr. Teak’s elbows as Officer Kip and Deputy Key, both looking shocked and confused, stepped forward from the judge’s table. “Don’t believe anything that boy tells you!” Dr. Teak yelled. 

Officer Kip reached us first. “Jer Dunham?” he sputtered. “Looks like you have quite a story to tell.”

Jer’s story came out in fits and starts as Dr. Teak tried to outshout us, but the fact that a dead guy was speaking in front of the whole town kept all the costumed ghosts, superheroes, ghouls, and fake celebrities, including the officers, rooted to the ground.

Once back up arrived, Officer Kip said, “Jer, can you show us where he has his drug operation?”

He nodded. “And we need to find my father. He was chasing us at one point.”

Officer Kip said, “Maggie, go to the station to fill out a report of what you witnessed.”

“Can I get my car first?”I said as Mom put an arm around my shoulders.

“One of us will drive it back if you give us the keys.”

I dug them out of my pocket. As the officers escorted Dr. Teak, whose protests of innocence were verging on hysterical, Jer turned to me. “Thank you. That sounds so lame.”

I said, “Not when it’s sincere.”

Mom said, “We’ll wait for your at the station. You can stay with us.”

The right side of Jer’s mouth cracked in a brief smile. Then he walked with Officer Kip past still gawking witches and Star Wars characters as the orange fairy lights strung across through the trees cast their Halloween light.

If you’d like to read more collaborative fiction, click here.

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