Mistakes Help Us Plot

This month’s topic of mistakes is timely for me as I wrestle with the plot of my next Nell Letterly mystery. Ironically, mistakes sometimes make a mystery clearer. Here are 3 examples where we can use mistakes to plot our mysteries:

1. Mistakes by the villain:

Villains leave behind evidence that enables them to be caught. It’s not all footprints, fingerprints, or DNA, as procedural mysteries use so often. Evidence can also come from miscellaneous types of clues that give information.

Since my series about Nell Letterly fits into the amateur sleuth category, Nell mostly interprets information from clues, rather than processing forensic procedure. For example, in Nell’s first case, Murder in the Dojo, clues come in the way her martial arts students dress and tie their belts. She has to figure out what it means.

2. Mistakes by the sleuth or sidekick:

Sleuths (if they’re real people, as opposed to super sleuths) can misread evidence, misjudge whom to trust, end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mistakes make them follow a wrong lead. Mistakes can be red herrings, or mistakes can endanger them to maximize suspense.

This happens to Nell frequently, since her character flaw is that she’s too trusting in general. She believes that as a martial artist she must help others to the best of her ability. This puts her in some tough spots on occasion. She knows it’s tough, but it’s what she must do, in spite of the danger. It’s who she is.

3. Mistakes by the victim:

These mistakes are like sleuth mistakes in terms of misreading evidence, misjudging others, or ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time. But unlike the sleuth, mistakes turn this character into the victim. Victims lack sufficient strength or cleverness to overcome being the victim. Character traits can lead to deadly outcomes for the victim.

The first victim in Dojo was overconfident. Nothing could derail this character, and certainly not a pipsqueak like Nell. Oops! A smart sleuth will follow the mistakes (aka clues) through the plot and solve the mystery.

How do you use, or like to see, mistakes in your mysteries?

6 thoughts on “Mistakes Help Us Plot”

  1. I don’t like my sleuth, be she amateur or professional, to be too perfect. Mistakes can be made in investigation, which makes it more interesting to read and more satisfying when the sleuth fights past that mistake. I also think mistakes are good for overall character arc. Watching a person overcome personal mistakes – in love or elsewhere – and grow is very satisfying.


  2. Fantastic examples! You’re completely right, Sue. This is why I like being a combo plotter/pantser. The best stuff is stuff I don’t see coming and could be a mistake under other circumstances.


  3. Ooh, love this. Great post! Also think mistakes made by witnesses or givers-of-information (to the sleuth) are useful…sending the sleuth (and reader) in the wrong direction. Occurs to me that mystery writers have to be like magicians, skilled in the art of misdirection… 😉


  4. Thanks for the comments! Mistakes certainly are part of the learning experience. Thanks for the addition of witness, Cynthia! Absolutely.


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