The "who dun it" mystery structure

I was thinking about the good old Sherlock Holmes stories and was wondering what excactyl the structure of these “who dun it” is, anybody has some ideas about this? Maybe someone even made a nice template?


I don’t imagine there’s an off-the-shelf solution, since all mysteries are (hopefully) different. I did find it useful, though, to go through a Denise Mina novel to get some clarity about POV when multiple characters were involved, loosely what happened in each chapter and the like.

Why not go through your favourite Sherlock Home again and make notes, maybe come up with your own structure. I’d also recommend THE MOONSTONE by Wilkie Collins, a masterclass in mystery writing.

Thanks, I will have a look at that. And I imported all the Holmes stories as txt files into Scrivener to have it next to my own writing. A great way of studying and writing, I think.

It’s a bit more than a short story, but when I studied Bleak House for A level (shortly after it was published…) the Penguin edition had Dickens’ chapter notes in the back. Apparently he went to Wilkie Collins for lessons. Wilkie Collins would’ve loved Scriv.

Writing mysteries/suspense is pretty similar to comedy, structurally. Setups, pay offs, timing, misdirection, best if everything’s character driven. Comedy writing books might help. Or analyse some Hitchcock.

I made an outline with the info I found about Puzzle structure by John Jarvis who wrote the Story Craft software and combined it with the steps of the Hero’s Path. I ended up with more then the typically 12 steps but I believe I have a very nice structure now that I can use to write a first draft for a mystery.

My plan is to write short children mystery/puzzle stories, not too long, not too complex, just fun.

Scrivener is a great tool to use now, because as an extra help I imported all the Holmes short stories (I can’t help it, I love these stories!) and am going to make a structure analyse now, seeing how the Holmes stories follows along with the Puzzle/Hero structure.

I am not planning to following it to the letter with my own story, but I feel that the global structure will fit. And still… I don’t have a big novel in mind, it’s all about the fun of putting words on “paper”. :open_mouth:


Read Jeffrey Deaver’s “The Vanished Man” and “Bone Collector”.

A couple of neat tricks are

(a) sometimes making an innocent character appear guilty by either attitude or maybe being in possession of something or present somewhere.

(b) Giving subtle clues throughout the story but make them vague enough that it could make multiple people look guilty.

(c) Give good “sub plots” that usually explain why an innocent character actually appeared to look guilty in the main plot. The sub plot should make complete sense in explaining why an innocent person amy have acted or appeared guilty.

(d) Control the details carefully and in doing so work on the fact that the reader will make assumptions. Try to control those assumptions to keep the “surprises” fresh and new.

And like stated read previous favorite stories and take notes and “break down” how the story unfolded. The idea of a good “mystery” is first take all the facts that make the final conclusion and then space them out in a way that your characters “discover” these main facts in what ever order you chose to be the most NON straightforward :slight_smile: and gives room enough for the reader to make plenty of the wrong assumptions. Then in the end summarize everything in a straightforward and timely manner making sense of everything and also explain the sub-plots (why other characters appeared guilty but were actually innocent) and also the motivation behind the overall plot.

If that makes any sense?

If Sherlock Holmes stories are your model, then there is this to bear in mind: In classic detective novels, the detective is not changed by the events of the story. Monsieur Dupin, Mr. Holmes, Monsieur Poirot, are exactly the same fellows at the end of one of their stories as they were at the beginning. They do not have personal problems that the events of the story somehow redound upon or resolve. A lot rides in these stories on the drive you can get out of the bait of the puzzle to be solved, the running tease of clues and concealment, and, of course, dramatic action (murder most foul! or two or three).

If memory serves, your Save-the-Cat man puts this by saying that these are Action stories, not Theme stories, and considers it a common writer’s mistake to cast such stories as Theme (i.e. character-driven) stories. This seems to me unduly narrow, because most writers of detective fiction now are not really aiming to write “golden age” detective/mystery stories of that ilk, but are aiming for some sort of hybrid tale.

In any case, if classic is what you want, it is something to note.

You may enjoy reading the Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction:
(These are basically sly digs at particular classic detective stories.)

And there is also a Twenty Rule set (the author of which seems, shockingly, quite serious):


“Please dear, not in front of the authors.”

Having just read the entire set of Holmes stories I think I can say that they are not really solve-able detective stories. Even having read them several times before I could not solve some of them before the reveal (I am getting old and the brain isn’t a steal trap like it used to be, ok?). Holmes always has some clue that we are never presented.

My uneducated opinion is that the real draw is not the structure, but the “ideal” character that is portrayed in the persona of Watson (HA!) A common unassuming ignorant bloke like me (and maybe you but certainly vic-k) who get to experience the inner sanctum of “the greatest mind”. There is personal friendship and trust, rising to the occasion in physical dangers and need, service to the community and many other valuable traits visible in Watson. We all want to be him. Does anyone really want to be the loveless calculating machine that is Holmes?

If I am right (which would surprise me and snort) then the “detective story” you want to write is really not about the crime or the detective.

I’m used to being wrong though…

I never wanted to be SHerlock either Jaysen. :slight_smile:

After all he was a drug cocaine free baser or a prelude to an old timey crack head. :slight_smile:

Ah, but my dear Watson, while the (much-emulated) “Watson device” surely does give one a comfortable point of vantage on the world of murder, intrigue and super-intelligent sleuthing, we should not think that these stories are about Watson, and hence we should not draw the conclusion that they are “not about the crime or the detective”.*

So, buckle down and tell snort she was right.


*In addition to providing the narrative voice and a “location” in the narrative to identify yourself, I think one might argue that “the detective” in these stories is the Holmes-Watson team–it is their qualities combined that make a whole hero–with Watson providing much of the necessary “humanity”, as you observed.


I think Kernel Mustard did it in the Living room using the Candlestick.

Geez, how do I feel? Now I’ve gone and made Jaysen cry. And, on top of that, vic has sicced his cujo on me…twice.

Hmmmm. Must be pigeon season!

I am not the other white meat. Find another flying meal. :slight_smile:

Well, another thing Watson did was be baffled by it all, so Holmes had plenty of good reasons to explain it in detail.

Humanity, yes, especially since Holmes was a bit cold, but also a handy standin for reader’s questions.

Thus, the importance of the sidekick. But that’s another theory…