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The Mystery Skeleton


Last week, we looked at Mystery subgenres. This week, we examine the building blocks for the mystery skeleton.

The overall story problem is a crime or puzzle that needs to be solved.


The reader asks: What happened or who did it and will they find out in time?

Not all mysteries are murders, some involve thefts, treason, treasure hunts, puzzles or disappearances. Mysteries are often written as a series with a central protagonist solving separate crimes or puzzles in each book. The case is solved in almost all cases. If the nemesis escapes at the last moment to torment the detective another day, the case that drew them in is considered solved.

Twists where someone other than the detective solves the crime or there wasn’t a crime after all will typically anger the fans of the Mystery genre. That story should be rerouted to the Thriller section. Their expectations are high and they want to be mystified.

In Mystery stories, the protagonist is the amateur or professional sleuth who solves the mystery.



In a Mystery, the antagonist is the criminal the sleuth is chasing or the person most opposed to the secret coming out. He or she should be a cunning foe who goes to great lengths to hide his connection to the crime. Sometimes it is another character that gets 

in the way or makes solving the case harder. It can be a superior, a competitor, a guilty co-worker, or someone in the crime solving business with something to hide or dislike for the protagonist. This is especially true of formulaic or cozy mysteries where no one threatens the sleuth directly. It can be a repeated character such as Moriarity in Sherlock Holmes. 

External Conflict scenes focus directly on the Mystery itself. The protagonist investigates leads, locates the missing weapon, and arrests the bad guy. These are the meeting room scenes where the team discusses progress, the courtroom scenes, or the funeral scenes. These scenes lead up to and include the final climactic confrontation and resolution.

Antagonist Conflict scenes show the protagonist talking to, stalking, or matching wits with the character that serves as the antagonist. In most mysteries, the verbal camera follows the sleuth. Whether in first person or third, the reader knows only what the detective knows. Clues have been dropped and the reader may or may not have picked them up, but in most cases the reader isn’t privy to the POV of the antagonist. However, if you follow the antagonist with your verbal camera, these scenes would show him working his plan. The detective is hot on his trail, but the antagonist stays one step ahead. Or the antagonist works behind the scenes to stall, mislead, or interfere with the investigation.

Interpersonal Conflict scenes reveal how the friends and foes impact the story. The protagonist is misled by the murderer’s sidekicks or by other suspects who have something to hide. The chief tells the cop to find the murderer quickly or he will be demoted. The amateur sleuth is threatened by the victim’s son who is protecting his girlfriend who is the true murderer. Friends and foes tug him toward and pull him away from the trail in a game of hot or cold. Some characters help the sleuth, willingly or unwillingly, intentionally or unintentionally. Others hinder his progress, lie, misdirect, and apply pressure: suspects, witnesses, team members, relatives, love interest, etc.

Internal Conflict scenes reveal the protagonist sitting in the opera house with his wife wondering if they can keep their marriage together while observing the murder suspect across the way. He may be an alcoholic sitting in a bar nursing a soda instead of the beer he longs for. This is the sleuth dealing with his deep wound or dark secret or the cop questioning the morality of his job. Other characters can be present and act as foils, but the topic is his personal dilemma that leads to a point of change.

Check out the newly released Mystery Build A Plot Workbook in print and e-book format.

There are free crime, suspect, and victim profile worksheets available on my website.

Next week, we look at the Road Trip story skeleton.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict available in print and e-book and explore the free tools and information about the series on my website.

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