Five Insights from Nikki Trionfo’s “Creating a Sense of Mystery in Any Genre”

By Michelle Stoddard, UVW Treasurer

Mystery is kind of like romance: no matter the genre you’re writing, it always seems to make an appearance. That’s why when Nikki Trionfo presented to Utah Valley Writers on “Creating a Sense of Mystery in Any Genre” the audience was full of writers from across the genre spectrum, all speedily jotting down notes.

Missed it? Well, you’re in luck. Here were my top five takeaways:

#1: Do One Reveal Per Scene

While it can be tempting to want to create drama in a particular scene by loading it with reveals, this actually does the opposite and can be difficult for the reader to follow. By limiting your reveals to one per scene, you’re making it easier for the reader to remember and giving your characters a chance to react. Also, if you must put more than one reveal in a scene, group them together.


#2: Create a Sense of Progression Through Narrowing Options

The farther you get through a story, the more your list of solutions or suspects should narrow, not widen. Adding more possibilities to the list creates a feeling that the story is still ramping up. Obviously this isn’t bad if you ARE getting things started, but if by mid-book the process of elimination hasn’t started it will feel like the story isn’t going anywhere. Eliminating possibilities creates a feeling of progression that funnels your readers into your finale.


#3: Give Red Herrings Deeper Purposes.

When we hear “red herring” we tend to think “dead end,” but that doesn’t mean red herrings have to be a complete waste of time. You can use red herrings to touch on issues related to the theme of your story, develop your main character’s inner conflict, or even sprinkle “plants” (see the next section).



#4: Make “Plants” Memorable, But Distract From Them.

A “plant” is a clue that is not immediately recognized as a clue. They can lead to some great twists, but handling them can be tricky. You need your reader to remember the clue without realizing that it’s significant to the story. A good way to do this is to associate the clue with something unrelated to the plot (a funny occurrence, the romantic interest, etc.), but then quickly distract from it before readers can think it’s important.





#5: Create Non-Physical Clues.

Not all clues need to be physical. A clue can be anything: a hand gesture, turn of phrase, or scent. This creates interest and breaks up the pattern of finding “things.” Non-physical clues work as great plants; drop them in carefully and no one will suspect they’re clues!


As you can see, tricks of the mystery-writing trade can be useful to any writer. By implementing these lessons, you can keep your reader turning pages until the very end.

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