The Writing Excuses podcasts have several times talked about Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient: four different kinds of plot arc. The “I” was originally Idea but the podcasters, particularly Mary Robinette Kowal, now use it for “Inquiry.” An inquiry arc starts with a question; the obstacles and complications in the middle prevent answering the question, and the arc ends with answering it. Two of my recent (very drafty) novels have inquiry arcs – one a significant subplot in an otherwise character- and event-driven story, and one the main arc of a murder mystery on a starship. I wasn’t entirely happy with how the mystery arc progressed in either story, so looked into advice for writing inquiry arcs, primarily from Writing Excuses.
There are two reasons you might want to learn about mystery writing even if you don’t intend to write detective fiction:
- First, writing a mystery is valuable even for people who
don’t plan to follow in Conan Doyle’s footsteps. One podcast
quoted an interview
with David Brin, where he said (paraphrased): “New
writers? Sit down and write a mystery, because
you’re going to need that element in just about everything you
- Second, not all
mysteriesinquiry arcs are murders; for example, figuring out how a disease works and spreads is a medical mystery. In my current novel, where it is a secondary plot, the mystery is about the meaning of a prophecy and the role certain people are supposed to play in it. This meant that the volumes of advice on the Internet about plotting murder mysteries weren’t quite as useful to me as they would be for people working on detective stories. So I focused mostly on advice that seemed to apply to variant kinds of inquiries.
- Writing Excuses 6.26:
- Writing Excuses 9.43:
- Writing Excuses 11.23:
- Writing Excuses 11.25:
Mystery is Everywhere
- Writing Excuses 11.26:
- If the reveal is an eldritch
being, you have horror.
- If the reveal is a city of gold, you have
- In a thriller, the emotion you want to achieve
is anticipation, so the reader should be one step ahead of the
character, anticipating what is about to happen.
- In horror, everyone is on the same page,
- In a mystery, the writer is one step ahead
of the reader, but since the reader usually want to figure out the
mystery themselves, you want the reader to figure out the story
either just before or just after the character does, so the reader
is normally just behind the character until the very end.
- The questioner has to have a reason to be
curious. This is obvious for a detective, but you might need to
think harder for other kinds of inquiry. You may need to consider
all the issues you’d deal with in a character arc: What does the
questioner want? What drives them to find an answer? What
information do they lack to achieve that goal?
- The question has to be something where there are engaging stakes to finding a
solution. General stakes are obvious for “who killed this victim”
or “how do I prove the known/strongly-suspected villain did it.”
You should maybe develop some stake or
stakes peculiar to the story. You need
multiple possible answers so there will be uncertainty.
- One piece of advice I confess to not quite
pieces of information might be best as exposition, rather than
having the character figure them out. Perhaps this includes things
about police procedures or other background that the character would
There were several mystery-related elements in podcasts whose main topic was something else.
Can’t I Just Jump to the End?: The
middle of a mystery has try-fail cycles, but mystery writers think
of ‘trying’ as finding clues. Sometimes the character thinks
they’ve solved it, but it’s a red herrings or dead ends, all of
which are failures.”
- In 13.19 Backstories:
You can pose a
question and provide
a clue or even answer it fully
with a flashback.
- In14.13 Obstacles
and Complications, both were characterized as people, things, or
circumstances that impede the character or plot. You
need to make judicious use of them.
- An obstacle is something a character can
overcome and keep moving: in terms of MICE, you keep on the same
thread. Too many make the story feel
linear or that it’s going nowhere.
- A complication is a detour; it makes the
story take a turn, onto a different MICE thread (either a different kind of thread, or a different inquiry). Too many and the story can get too convoluted and the reader
loses track of the stakes.
- An obstacle is something a character can overcome and keep moving: in terms of MICE, you keep on the same thread. Too many make the story feel linear or that it’s going nowhere.
My head is currently whirling with all this advice. When my current writing class is done, I plan to sit down, reread all of it and maybe re-listen to the podcasts, and re-plot the inquiry arc within my current novel.
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