Wednesday, October 9, 2013

If Your Mystery Needs Complexity

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig
I’m new to outlining and sometimes there’s an element that’s missing when I draft outlines—complexity.
I think that’s because I usually add more layers to my books after the first draft is finished.  Unfortunately, I won’t have finished the first draft when I submit an outline to my editor...I won't even have started the book... and it won’t occur to me to add the complexity into the outline before I send it (at least, it hasn’t before).  This means that I ordinarily get feedback on my outlines that state “could you please add some complexity to this mystery?”
(Note to self: it will save us all a lot of time if I take that step before submitting the next outline.)
I’m imagining that I’m not the only one who gets this kind of feedback from an editor…at least, I hope I’m not.  Luckily, there are quite a few ways to make a mystery less cut-and-dried or easily solved.  Some ideas:
More suspects. You have to be careful here, because if you have too many suspects, then readers can get lost.  If you already have quite a few suspects, then really take a look at them.  Is one of them less-likely as the murderer?  Can you add to their motive or give them more opportunity to have committed the crime?  Can you, in other words, make that suspect appear more suspicious?    
A motive that is different from the motive you’ve originally promoted as the one tied to the murder.  You’ve got greed or financial gain as the motive for the murder—with a cast of characters who all have something to gain from the victim’s death.  But you could suddenly reveal either a different motive or a suspect with an additional motive—revenge, anger, ambition, jealousy.  Maybe the suspect is trying to cover up a different crime. 
Point to a different suspect toward the end of the story.  One way to help make the killer’s identity more of a surprise is to subtly direct readers to a completely different suspect very close to the end of the book. 
Have your suspects both lie and tell truths.  In my books, I’ve got my suspects feeding my sleuths a variety of different information.  Some of it leads the sleuth to clues.  Some of it functions as a red herring.  At times, it’s hard for the sleuth to distinguish the truth from the lies and it makes it more difficult for her to solve the mystery when she isn’t sure the information she’s receiving is trustworthy—or if the source of it is.
Obfuscate. Give suspects secrets that have nothing to do with the murder.  One reason that your suspects would lie is if they were trying to protect their secrets.  Most people have things they’d rather no one else knew about.  This is especially easy to write if your book is set in a small town—folks don’t want the whole town to know their business when they have to live and work closely with a small number of people. There are old scandals, petty crimes, or illicit relationships they’d like to keep to themselves.  These secrets function as roadblocks, red herrings, and detours for our sleuths.
Another victim.  Just when your readers think they’ve nailed the right suspect—kill the suspect. :) Or, kill another likely suspect and give the most likely suspect a great alibi.  On that note…
Locked rooms, iron-tight alibis.   If you add a bit of impossibility to the story, it not only adds complexity, it helps break up endless suspect interviews.  Then you can gradually offer glimpses how these situations are possible.
Parallel subplots.  Bonus points if you can connect a subplot that develops a character to the mystery somehow.  Maybe it can get the sleuth out of hot water or provide a clue to solving the case.  Tie-ins are interesting.
Basically—what can you do to make this story twist a little?  Brainstorm ways to play havoc with the sleuth’s investigation.  Can you derail it temporarily? Send it off in a different direction?  There are ways to add complexity without taking it so far as to frustrate the reader (which we don’t want).
Some of these fixes will also work with other genres.  You can expand on it, too.  How do you see writers in your genre add complexity or twists to their stories? 
Image: MorgueFile: Ladyheart