Technique Tuesday – The Whodunnit!

Let’s talk Whodunnits. I’ve never been able to write a great Whodunnit. Somewhere along the way the process breaks down and I end up with a series of crappy words that don’t make sense. They certainly don’t make sense in the realm of mystery, which is very structured and logical.

In my upcoming collection, I’m working on a story called “The Empty Sleeping Bag”. It is my latest attempt at crafting a Whodunnit. So far, I think it’s alright. But, as you can see from a couple of posts down, I’m only a quarter of the way through the first draft. Who knows where this story will end up down the road?

To understand my struggle, you really need to be able to differentiate between a Whodunnit, a Thriller and a Crime Story. At first glance, these three concepts share a lot of similarities. They’re usually told from the perspective the main character, who is the only one who can save the day. There’s usually a crime of some sort involved, whether it’s on a large worldwide scale (Thriller) or a smaller, local level (Whodunnit and Crime Story). And there’s usually an antagonist, who develops a deep, personal relationship with the hero, throughout the story. I’m not saying a love relationship, though that does happen occasionally. But, rather, by the end of the story, the hero and villain are personally invested with each other in some way.

So, the three types of stories are pretty similar from a big picture perspective. It’s a little thing that separates the Whodunnit from the other two. The Whodunnit can be solved by the reader.

All of the suspects are visible. All of the clues are there. All the reader has to do is connect the dots to solve the mystery.

The hard part of writing a Whodunnit, and why it takes a special kind of writer to write one, is that you have to walk a very, very fine line in difficulty. If you make the mystery too easy, they call it “predictable”. If you make it too hard, they say it’s a “poor mystery”. The trick is to find that happy place, where most of your readers won’t solve the crime, but when you reveal the solution, they slap their foreheads because “the answer was right there the whole time”.

In order to do this, you have to have a strict outline and stick to it. This is where the process breaks down for me. I hate outlines. I never use them. I find the make they writing process really, really boring.

But, they are a necessity for this type of story. You have to lay out where your hero will be, what clues he finds, what little breadcrumbs lead him to the truth. Without an outline, this is basically impossible.

I think I’m going to have to get over my hang-up to write this story. Right now, I’m really getting into the meat of the mystery. I’ve laid a few clues here and there, but I’m going to have to proceed carefully to ensure my mystery makes sense.

I’m going to write more on the Whodunnit in the coming weeks. As I write the story, I’m learning a lot about misdirection and red herrings, two necessities for any good mystery. I’ll talk a bit about those in the future.

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