Anticipating Whodunnit

Part of the fun of reading mysteries is anticipating whodunnit.  Mysteries are games as well as stories.  Readers get to see the crime scene, the clues, the array of suspects, and their motivations.  Readers get to figure out from the story who can be trusted (or not) and which clues are real clues as opposed to red herrings.  It’s a puzzle.  As Sherlock is famously quoted, “The game is afoot!”

Can Ms. Reader figure out the solution before the sleuth?  The Writer hopes not!  But writers have to play fair with the reader.  Writers have to lay it all out—all the clues and suspects—and yet, it has to be done in such a way that the reader doesn’t see it coming.  The reader wants to be surprised…pleasantly.

It’s a mighty task for the writer:  lay it all out in plain sight, but still keep it masked.

The writer has to resort to a few tricks.  Agatha Christie certainly knew how to master those tricks and distract the reader from the solution.

But, whodunnit?

Remember the challenge Ellery Queen laid down to the reader at the start of the third act?  All of the elements of the mystery were in place.  The reader had as much information as Ellery to figure out whodunnit.  We love to read about sleuths who have special abilities to analyze the clues and see the truth behind a mystery.

Finally, we came to the famous drawing-room scene of those classic mysteries, where the sleuth gathers all the suspects and explains the mystery through his or her extraordinary insight.

Such scenes have fallen out of favor today, and yet the writer still has to keep the reader anticipating all the way up until the end—but, but…  Whodunnit?

Today, the revelations often come in a climactic action scene where the sleuth faces the villain, and the reader is (hopefully) pleasantly surprised.  But this confrontation raises new questions for the reader to anticipate:  Whydunnit?  And how will justice be served?

It’s a fine line between explaining just enough to satisfy the reader or dumping an overload of information to continue the story when the events of the story are done.  The story is done when there’s nothing left for the reader to anticipate.  Anticipation keeps us reading all the way to the end.  Anticipation = mystery.  Without it, the reader can close the book, hopefully with a sigh of satisfaction.

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12 thoughts on “Anticipating Whodunnit”

  1. Sue, I love this: “”The story is done when there’s nothing left for the reader to anticipate.” How true. And yes, what a challenge for the author, to balance information with anticipation.

  2. It’s even harder when we have to write a sleuth with special abilities! Sure, we have lots of time to research, but still, it’s a challenge. Great post!

  3. Love the puzzle. It’s so much more engaging than other genres that spoon feed you the story. I don’t like figuring it out too early. I love when I reach the denouement and have no idea who it was but all the clues were there. Charles Todd (and Caroline) are particularly good at that.

  4. Wonderful post, Sue! I *love* those final scenes in classical mysteries where the sleuth unveils the truth (I hope they come back into favor!)! And you’re so right about the puzzle–it’s a challenging balance, and the writer has to play fair for it to work.

  5. Oh Sue, this is fantastic. Hiding clues in plain sight is always hard. Remember Miss Marple and Ellery…it was always the small tell that gave away the game. Now that I think about it, Colombo had the trait down pat too. Just one more question…

  6. I love the puzzle, too, Keenan, and it makes writing mystery harder than other genres, imo. Who knows, Kate, if those scenes will come back? Peg, go for it! Mystery works very well with suspense. Right, Kait, and I forgot about Columbo. He was one of my favorites!

  7. Girl, you nailed it! “It’s a mighty task for the writer: lay it all out in plain sight, but still keep it masked.” I’m putting together an online course for wanna-be mystery writers and you summed it up perfectly! Would you like to be a “guest” for the final lesson?

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