Monday, July 16, 2012

Deciphering a puzzle or following stepping stones--What kind of mystery do YOU prefer?

A librarian recently posed to me that question I suppose every writer must address at some point: "Plotter or pantser?" Having been exposed to this great debate now, I can say for the record that I wrote A Murder at Rosamund's Gate by the seat of my pants, while for From the Charred Remains, I've taken the more methodical "plotter" approach. 

Is the mystery presented as a puzzle from the outset?
However, I think the more interesting question is how mystery writers approach the central crime and the investigative process from the outset.  

Does the author present the story literally as a puzzle for the crime solver (and by extension, the reader) to decipher, or does the author evoke a puzzle throughout the narrative--asking the investigator (and the reader) to comb through motives and motivations in a systematic way? Does the author have the investigator leap from clue to clue, as one might step logically from stone to stone to cross a stream? In such cases, the reader can try to look two jumps ahead in the investigation and anticipate twists and turns. (Of course, when done well, the reader won't figure out the precise rocks in the path!)

Or does the investigation reveal the puzzle?
You could argue that some mystery genres favor one approach over the other. For example, in a police procedural, a detective might take a more direct approach to finding a criminal, while in a cozy mystery,  an amateur sleuth is likely to have stumbled on an interesting puzzle or been brought into the investigation because he or she possessed peculiar knowledge crucial to solving the puzzle.

Certainly, any combination of these approaches can work when crafting a mystery. Sometimes, however, the reader is left unsatisfied by the great reveal, or worse, insulted by the obviousness of the solution.  

The problem, I think, is when the author has not decided where the element of mystery--the heart of the puzzle--lies.  Simply identifying the criminal or murderer is not enough.  Is the puzzle in the crime itself? For example, consider the locked room mysteries, such as Poe's Murders in Rue Morgue or Christie's And Then There Were None.  Here, the goal is to understand how the killings occurred, as well as to discover the murderer.  Or, is the puzzle found in exploring different characters' motives for murder? (Kellerman's psychologist Alex Delaware, maybe?) Perhaps the puzzle lays in the investigation itself, such as in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, or in Cornwell's investigations featuring Kay Scarpetta.

Pantser or plotter--it doesn't matter to me.  I do believe though, when writing a mystery, that it's necessary to decide on the nature of the puzzle....the story will follow!  But what do you think?


  1. When the victim of a corporate scam finds himself deep in hostile Africa, his discovery of a rare-earth mineral sparks a chase for evil riches; greed and lust must be overcome to keep an arcane tribal secret from revelation.

    The catalyst is a corporate fraud. An innocent man on the run where danger of every kind lurks – and where brutal love joins a pair of fugitives in a quest to hide a shocking discovery from being exposed to corruption and greed.
    An exciting thriller with lots of twists and turns in a forbidding landscape.

  2. Just to be awkward, I'd have to be sitting on the fence! A plonser, if there is such a thing!!

    I'll explain. I'm currently writing a story set in the Ypres trenches, based on my Great Granddad's diary. My mystery comes in relation to the main character and a girl he meets. I've left clues for the reader (so far my Mum is the closest to getting it!) as to how she relates to a mysterious lday who appears at certain times in the story.

    I have plotted what and where the clues in the narrative will be, but as I write I often tweak, change, or come up with new, off the cuff ideas which I guess makes me a bit of a pantser!!

    Anyway, you decide - some excerpts from the story so far (Tin Soldiers) are on my blog:

    Thanks for a thought provoking post :-)