Archive for March, 2008

Our slushpile suggests that Why-dunnit is not as popular as the Who-dunnit or the How-dunnit. Although quite a few submissions have combined all three types of mysteries, the full why-question-centric tales are not forthcoming.

I guess many writers believe that if you already have the ‘who’ and ‘how’, then the ‘why’ (although important) is just not intriguing enough to be the focus of a story.

Not so, I say. The why-dunnit represents some interesting opportunities in terms of original plotting.

The mysteries in why-dunnits are linked to questions of:

  • Motive (in crime mysteries); and
  • Why an unexpected event has occurred (in non-crime mysteries).

When a crime is committed, and there are several witnesses and/or a mass of evidence identifying the guilty party (who) as well as the method used (how), the motive (why) could make for a great tale if:
The ‘who’ doesn’t make any sense – there may be better suspects or an apparent lack of motive.

Tip: The answer to the ‘why’ is often character-driven (i.e. what the characters want or need) or as a result of movement from the status quo to alternate state of affairs. Characterisation and setting play a role in this regard and may even be clues.

A note on speculative mysteries in general:
A writer may infuse speculative elements in the ‘who, how, or the why’ of a story. Some tales are successful because all three aspects are given a speculative treatment. In others, only one question relates to the speculative domain.

Keep writing and keep submitting!


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A red herring is a ‘fake clue’ that leads the hero away from the true solution. Its purpose is to frustrate, confuse, and misdirect both the hero as well as the reader.  Variations of Red Herring:

  • The discovery of motive, means, and opportunity of multiple characters;
  • Physical evidence with multiple interpretations. For example, objects founds at a crime scene may lead to false assumptions (on the part of the sleuth as well as the reader);
  • The actual location of the crime scene may lead the reader down the wrong path;
  • Dialogue may spark a hunch that leads the reader away from the truth. Why did character x say that?
  • In Speculative Mystery stories prior knowledge (e.g. scientific fact, beliefs of the realm, known occurrences) presented to the reader may have a similar effect.
  • In scientific mysteries, it is helpful to remember that people are quite willing to believe anecdotal evidence (e.g. stories / experiences of a few individuals) when there is a lack of genuine evidence supporting an alternative theory. The writer may play with this phenomenon.

 It’s not always necessary to use red herrings in short stories, but if you do you should place them carefully. There should be plausible explanations for the presence of the false clue. It should be noted that these ‘clues’ tend to lengthen the story, because the hero has tofollow up on it and then discover that it doesn’t lead to the ‘who, why, or the how’ of the mystery. “Darn, back to square one!” For that reason, the writer should be wary of planting too many red herrings. Above all, even when dealing with red herrings (devices designed to mislead), play fair with the reader. 

Keep writing, keep them guessing, and keep submitting!

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One of the first posts I wrote for this blog dealt with Speculative Mystery rules and focused on the rules for the Mystery genre developed by the Detection Club. Beyond those rules, a rival set was developed and outlined by S.S. Van Dyne (a.k.a. Willard Huntington Wright) in an article called Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories in 1928. 

Of the twenty rules, many are reasonable, others seem outdated, while still others may serve as so-called ‘anti-rules’ for Speculative Mystery fiction. Two rules come to mind in this regard: 

Rule 8: The problem of the crime must be solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, Ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.  

Rule 14: The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure. 

Of course, Speculative Mystery is a different genre than mundane Mystery. Secondly, Van Dyne is referring to Crime / Detective fiction only. Also, as the writing guidelines of Speculative Mystery Iconoclast state, our conception of Mystery is not limited to the Crime genre. 

Therefore, we reject half of Rule 8 – the half pertaining to strictly naturalistic means. However, we agree that the reader should have an opportunity to match wits with the detective or hero protagonist (at least to some degree). 

Where Speculative Mystery is concerned, Rule 14 should be rejected for the most part. However, just because imaginative and speculative elements are introduced, it doesn’t preclude any rationality or scientific grounding from being applied to detection.      

If Speculative Mystery Iconoclast were to compose rules of its own, said rules would read something like this:           

The problem of the crime may be solved by any means necessary. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, Ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic séances, crystal-gazing, and the like, may be used. However, these methods are best when used in original, entertaining ways and where possible to only illuminate part of the mystery. The protagonist hero should consider the above devices as ‘sources of information’ and not a replacement for detection. 

The method of crime (or oddity), and the means of detecting it, may be either rational, wholly speculative, or both. Speculative elements from Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror often posses an internal logic that is analogous to rational science. This internal logic (the nuts and bolts of how these elements work) is governed by laws created by writer. However, even if they didn’t, it might be entertaining to see these collide with logical detection methods employed by police officers, private eyes, and sleuths both amateur and professional. 

So ends the sermon. 

Keep writing and keep submitting!

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