Kureshi Ironclaw

Question about mystery/thriller plot

7 posts in this topic

So I'm working on a Dresden Files-esque story with the main character trying to solve a massacre. However, my opening scene shows the massacre occurring. The cause of the killing and the culprit are slightly ambiguous but a lot of details such as the sequence of events leading up to it are very clear. My worry is that this undermines the mystery elements of the main character coming in and investigating the crime scene later on. I have other sources of tension to exploit, but the character's main goal is solving this mystery that the reader could very well piece together rather quickly.

What are your thoughts? Should I remove the scene at the start, potentially losing the ability to establish certain elements when I need to. Or try to divert the conflict away from the mystery and focus on other points of tension? Something else?

Thanks for your help :) 

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Is it possible to keep the scene, but to mystify a lot of the details surrounding it? To me, that seems like an ideal solution, particularly if you’ve already written part if the books assuming the reader would get the first scene. I can think of a few ways to make the massacre scene foggier and more ambiguous.

1. Unreliable narration. Choose someone who might might have a lot of untrue beliefs about the sequence of events leading to the massacre. If it’s a character that dies in it, maybe they only get involved in it, or arrive at the site of the genocides at the last minute. Maybe it’s a little kid who doesn’t really understand what’s going on. There’s a number of options. 

2. Remove the reader from the scene. Make the POV shomeone who only observes the aftermath. Or maybe it’s someone who sees the effects without any entails. For example, if there’s an explosion, somebody a distance away could see the explosion and rush to the scene.

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The question is how important the series of events will be to the mystery. If there's no question to be asked about the series of events leading up to it, or about the state of the scene itself, then there's no real reason to make a mystery of it. Or else you can make something feel strange in the prologue, have that be a mystery in it's own right, and then introduce a twist that it's no ordinary party.

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Hey Kureshi, I'm actually a beta reader for a guy who does this with his prologue. He wrote the prologue, but didn't give a lot of context other than what was relevant to the scene, and he only gives two names. To me using a name here and there is great because it can add to the suspense when that character shows up later on. Also, as ILuvHats mentioned, using the perspective of someone who doesn't see the whole picture is a great idea, as it leaves the reader wondering what was tainted by perspective and what is factual. Anyway, a plot laid out like this is totally doable, it just takes a bit of creativity.

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@ILuvHats so currently it is from the perspective of the person committing the massacre in a sequence that shows off how the magic system works; similar to the prologue of Way of Kings with Szeth. However, the character is heavily hallucinating at the time of the crime and thinks there are wraiths attacking the people. On face value, the scene presents the character as trying to save a group of people from shadow demons, but I think there are enough clues for the reader to question that. And I want those clues in there to add a sense of unease to this seemingly heroic scene.

@aneonfoxtribute the sequence of events is important to the main character who is solving the crime. So for him, it has to be a mystery, even if the reader knows what happened. Can I still use the mystery as a source of tension, perhaps by having the main character coming to conclusions that are wrong enough to put him in danger? I think that could potentially frustrate the reader.

I might as well attach the prologue to see if that will give a vibe of what I'm going for. The formatting is a slight mess from being pasted in. Spoilered for length.

Spoiler

Alias chewed Bittersweet. The sharp nectar broke out of the seed and filled his mouth, soothing the blisters and ulcers covering his tongue and gums. It masked the sting of the painful ulcer on the underside of his tongue, the one that got caught in the gaps between his teeth if he wasn’t careful.
Alias closed his eyes and sighed with relief, allowing himself to swallow a small amount of the Bittersweet nectar. It coated his throat as it moved down to his stomach, removing the parched feeling like no amount of water ever could.
The nectar passed on to Alias’ stomach and he felt the parched feeling begin to return. Surely it wouldn’t be so bad to swallow a bit more?
No! He thought. He needed his mouth soothed – just in case. His throat would have to wait until he next got some Bittersweet. Alias shook his trouser pockets. A few coins jangled, but not enough. He frowned and looked around the street, almost tempted to leave the queue. He could rob someone in that alleyway there, where that cart had turned into. Then he might have enough money to get into the Sand Opera and get some more Bittersweet.
Alias shook his head. Opera now; Bittersweet later. He had enough for the moment. Well, not enough. But he had sufficient for what he might have to do inside. He glanced around the street again but saw no signs of wraiths. There was nothing out of the ordinary about any of the faces of the numerous people walking up and down the road in the late afternoon. Their long shadows didn’t twist up out of the ground and try to grab Alias. They passed on, cheerful and totally unaware of the horrors that only he could see.
I am the true Messiah, Alias thought. He had decided that whilst crossing the desert. How else could it be that he could see the wraiths and nobody else could? If only he could convince everyone, then he might be able to save them from the wraiths. So far everyone he had tried to save had been killed. The wraiths were too fast. He had tried to save his brothers in Bedouin, but the wraiths had shredded them all to pieces. Only Alias had escaped.
He could sense that the wraiths were nearby. They were hunting his brothers, and what better place to go than the Sand Opera? Catrius was the conductor; they would be after him.
“Entry is five penants,” a voice said.
Alias blinked. He was at the front of the queue. The doorman was sitting lazily inside the ticket booth. For an instant, Alias thought he saw the shadows behind the man shift. He blinked again. No, it wasn’t a wraith.
“You listening, old man? Five penants, or get out of the line.”
Alias reached into his pocket and scavenged for the coins. It was most of what he had left. Enough for more Bittersweet. He hesitated before handing them to the doorman.
The doorman dropped the coins into a box, making a clattering noise, then tore a strip of parchment from the roll beside him and grabbed a quill from a nearby inkwell.
“What’s your name?” He asked.
Alias swallowed a little more of the Bittersweet nectar before he spoke. “Alias.”
The doorman looked up and raised an eyebrow. “You expect me to believe that?”
Alias shrugged. “If I used a false name, I’d use something like John or Mohammed.” His throat burned as he spoke and he grimaced at having to use so many words.
The doorman furrowed his brow and chewed his lip for a moment, then shrugged and wrote Alias’ name on the ticket. He scratched the seat number and date underneath then handed it to Alias.
Alias took the ticket and strolled into Cairahem’s opera house, eyeing the shadows in the corners of the doorway. They weren’t wraiths. He still had time.
The room he entered had several groups of people milling around in conversation; there was still a little time before the opera began. Corridors led from each side of the room to the seating, and stairs led up to the second floor. Alias strode down the corridor on the left hand side. Catrius would be in the conductor’s chamber backstage. Alias had to reach him before the wraiths did. Already the shadows were beginning to distort and people’s faces were stretching and twisting where moments before they had been completely ordinary.
Alias fortunately remembered how to get backstage and passed through all the doorways and corridors to get there without impedance. The large chamber was already empty; empty instrument cases covered the floor. The orchestra would already be set up in the auditorium. Alias began to sweat. 
A shadowed hand reached towards him from between two instrument cases, Alias ran past it towards another corridor. Several more hands lashed out from the shadows, but their claws passed harmlessly through Alias’ legs. Oh what he would have given for some more Bittersweet. He could sense the pain returning to his mouth. It wasn’t there yet, but he was anticipating it. It was a ghost pain, gradually appearing; like the wraiths themselves.
The hands vanished as Alias entered the corridor. He found the door he was looking for and pounded on it, panting from exertion but also with relief that the wraiths seemed to have retreated for now.
No one answered the door and Alias began to fear that he was too late. What if they had snuck under the door and killed Catrius like they had killed Alias’ other brothers?
The door swung open suddenly and Catrius’ angry face appeared. “What the hell is going o–?” He paused. “Alias? By the sounds and sands!”
Alias barged past Catrius and into the room. “Are they here? Did they touch you?” He began to rifle through the room, checking under the desk, behind the wall hanging, under the baton. The shadows were all normal.
“What?” Catrius stammered. “What’s here? Nothing’s touched me.” His voice had only a slight rasp and his lips didn’t look too dry; rare for a Whistler of his age.
Alias turned around and faced Catrius. He stood between Alias and the door. His wrinkled face was turned down in a frown. He was agitated and confused. Maybe he had seen a wraith.
“I thought you were dead,” Catrius said simply. “I heard what happened in Bedouin.”
“I survived,” Alias said, his eyes darting around the room. There were shadows in the corners. “They killed the rest.”
“What killed them? I heard details. It was… brutal.”
“Wraiths,” Alias said. He checked under the baton again, just to be sure. “They’re coming for you, but I think I beat them here.”
“Wraiths?” Catrius shook his head. “Alias, come here.”
Alias edged towards Catrius, keeping his eyes darting between the shadows in the room. There was a suspect one over Catrius’ shoulder, cast by the doorframe.
“Open your mouth,” Catrius said.
Alias kept his mouth shut. That shadow really didn’t look friendly.
“Open it.”
“No.”
Catrius leant forward and sniffed the air as Alias spoke. Then he scrunched up his nose. “Bittersweet. I thought you were better than this, Alias.”
Alias met Catrius’ eyes with a glare. “The wraiths are coming.”
“Do you have any more Bittersweet with you?”
Alias shook his head. The shadows were shifting. How could Catrius not see them?
“Are you lying to me?”
Alias took a step back. “No! Just because you want some for yourself!” His throat burned. He shouldn’t have shouted.
Catrius’ frown deepened but he sighed. “I believe you, old friend, but I’ve got to go and conduct the opera. Stay in here until it finishes. I will help you then.”
Alias ground his teeth. “The wraiths,” he insisted. Were those black claws behind Catrius’ shoulder?
“The wraiths. Aren’t. Real.” Catrius said, growing impatient. “The Bittersweet. It’s making you delusiona–”
The wraith struck, but Alias moved faster. He Whistled a frantic melody to counter the thing. His tone was raspy, not truly pure, but the Bittersweet made up for it even as the notes burned in his mouth and on his lips.
The wraith somehow ignored Alias’ attack and tore open Catrius’ shoulder. Catrius screamed and stumbled to the side of the room, blood spilling from his wound. “Alias!” He cried out, his expression shocked.
Alias Whistled again but the wraith grabbed Catrius at the elbow and tore his arm clean off, spraying blood around the room in a wide arc. “Help!” Catrius screamed again and again, but the wraith took his arm in its shadowy hand and began to beat him to the ground with it. 
Alias kept Whistling, ignoring the pain on his lips – that’s what the Bittersweet was for. The wraith had Catrius on the ground and was smashing him over the face with his arm. 
“Stop it!” Catrius cried, blood spilling from his lips. “Alias! Stop it!”
I’m trying to, Alias thought, but the wraith did not relent until Catrius became still.
Alias felt rage bubble up inside of him. Again the wraiths had beaten him, killing the person he had been trying to save.
The wraith dropped Catrius’ arm onto his bloody corpse, then turned to Alias and grinned. Alias Whistled a staccato melody and it vanished.
Alias growled and stepped away from the spreading puddle of blood around Catrius’ corpse. Though, considering what had happened in Bedouin, Catrius had been treated rather gently by the wraith. Alias looked around the room, trying to figure out what to do next. He’d failed to save Catrius, but there were still a few other brothers scattered around the Two Cities. Michael and Regus were out there somewhere, and so was Dorian. But no… maybe not Dorian. Maybe Dorian deserved to be taken by the wraiths.
I should find him anyway though, Alias thought.
The shadows in the corners of the room began to seep towards the doorway. They pooled down at its base and then oozed through the crack underneath it.
Oh no! Alias thought. He grabbed the baton off Catrius’ desk – he had checked it twice; he could be certain there wasn’t a wraith living in it – and followed the shadows out the doorway.
The shadows fled down the corridor and back to the room with all the instrument cases. Alias followed them, ignoring the claws reaching out along the floor towards him. The shadows took seemingly random turns down corridors and oozed its way under several doors. Alias tried his best to keep up but it moved so fast and Alias was growing too old for extended running. 
They entered a long carpeted corridor and Alias figured out where the shadows were running to. The stage. A richly dressed young woman stood in the centre of the hallway, large earrings hanging from her ears and her neck and collarbones exposed. Her eyes widened with shock as she looked down the corridor towards Alias.
Good! She can see the shadows. “Move! Move!” Alias rasped, but the woman stood there frozen.
The shadows streaked under her and down the corridor as though she weren’t there at all. Alias bowled right into her. She cried out as she stumbled into the wall and Alias tripped on her flailing legs and crashed down to the ground. The baton fell from his hands and rolled a little further down the corridor.
He was back on his feet in a moment and was about to take off again but a firm hand grabbed his shoulder and spun him around.
The woman glared at Alias with stunning green eyes. Green like Catrius’s. His daughter. “Who in the sands do you think you are?!” She snapped. Alias could see the muscles moving in her exposed neck, smooth and youthful.
Alias tried to pull himself away from the woman but she held him firm. A wraith reared up behind her and lunged at her neck. Alias Whistled, trying to stop it, but it latched onto her throat with its teeth, its lips curling over her smooth skin.
Then it tore her head off.
Blood sprayed all over Alias’ face and shirt as the woman’s body dropped to the floor. The wraith vanished and Alias spun away from the corpse. The corridor was empty; the shadows had lost him. But Alias knew where they were headed. He picked up the baton.
Alias ran until he found the right door but then paused. He was covered in blood. He didn’t want to cause a panic. He could deal with the wraiths quietly, but if he entered the auditorium now, everybody would see the blood and go into a frenzy.
He breathed deeply, there was still a little bit of Bittersweet soothing his mouth. Alias Whistled, intonating to all the correct resonances in his melody, shaping it to his will. He stuck to odd rhythms and wove the phrases and themes together into a disguise. He hid the blood first, under a new set of clothes, then recreated Catrius’ face to the best of his memory and used it to cover his own. Best to imitate the conductor; he feared the wraiths would go straight for the orchestra.
With his disguise in place, Alias entered the auditorium. The audience applauded as he walked along the walkway towards the front of the orchestra pit. He scanned the audience, checking every shadow, but he didn’t spot any wraiths. He checked the orchestra next, but none of the many-shaped shadows cast by their instruments were wraiths. He checked the sandpit on the stage and saw them there. Hundreds of them hiding in between the grains. Alias gritted his teeth. Did he have enough Bittersweet to kill them all?
Yes, with the orchestra’s help, he just might. 
Alias took Catrius’ position at the front of the orchestra and the audience fell into a hush. Some faint murmurs continued though. There a laugh. There a baby crying. Eventually silence fell in full, like the whole audience was holding its breath. What for? What were they expecting? Probably not wraiths. But maybe this time other people would see the wraiths too, and not just Alias.
Alias raised his arms and all members of the orchestra raised their instruments. They looked up at him expectantly and didn’t seem to see through the disguise – it was fortunate he had decided to bring the baton. Alias smiled. He was no conductor but he had seen this done before; he could imitate it well enough and the orchestra would do the rest.
Alias brought the baton down and the music began.
It was sublime and almost totally consonant and the sand in the pit immediately began to shift. Alias kept his hands moving and the orchestra’s melodies began to build and overlap, creating aural imagery.
The sand began to rise up and take shape. Into people, trees, buildings. A scene. But the wraiths moved with them. In the gaps between grains, dark and slippery, like trickling tendrils of night.
Alias could see the wraiths planning as the scene began to unfold. They were wicked. They would kill everyone.
Colours joined the scene, almost hiding the wraiths, but they stayed on the edges; the cracks between cobblestones, the lines between brown branches and green leaves, the sharp blades of each sword as the characters duelled each other. The orchestra almost seemed to be guiding itself now.
Alias felt the audience growing tense behind him. Could they see it? The shifting shadows like ink and blood? Alias began to Whistle. He had to do something before the wraiths got out of control. 
The sand took shape into monsters: giant lizards and scorpions, growling hounds and hoarls. The wraiths moved with them, in their arms, in their eyes, as though they were one. Too late now. Too late. Shadows oozed from the walls.
The orchestra stumbled into silence, its song replaced by screams.
Alias continued to Whistle. 

 

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@Kureshi Ironclaw I love your introduction. Seriously, it flows so well, and you definitely seem like an experienced writer. So if you're looking for beta readers... :).

Anyways, I can definitely see why you'd be questioning whether you can keep the scene and still maintain a sense of mystery. I'll agree with you that most readers could probably tell what's going on, and I think I probably could have even if you hadn't told me what was happening. However, if you haven't run it past any beta readers without prior knowledge, you should do that to get a good idea of how apparent the true events are. Because I'm biased by my prior knowledge.

It's hard to judge without the context of the entire book. That's pretty obvious with my previous post, considering that what I was suggesting didn't fall in line with what you were trying to accomplish. But the way I see it, you have two options. As you've discussed, you can change your story to rely a lot less on suspense from the mystery, which may or may not be feasible. I don't know how much of the book you've completed and how reliant it is on the mystery. If you have other sources of tension which are still very compelling, than you can certainly let the mystery element fall to the sideline in favor of these other arcs. Or maybe the mystery is solved relatively early in the story so the reader doesn't have a lot of time to think about what's going on, and then you switch over to another source of tension.

Your other option is to change your intro. Now, I think there are some easy edits that can obscure things a lot more. The first one that comes to mind is cutting out the following line.

Quote

“The wraiths. Aren’t. Real.” Catrius said, growing impatient. “The Bittersweet. It’s making you delusiona–”

This is the only instance where you clearly telegraph what's going on. Remove or alter this significantly, and it suddenly becomes much tougher for the reader to see through the unreliable narration. I'd also omit a lot of Catrius's lines after getting attacked. Although it's plausible to Alias that he's talking about the shades, the ambiguity of the lines makes it pretty apparent to the reader that he's instead talking about Alias being the killer. And considering he's being torn apart, it's easy to imagine that Catrius would go into shock and wouldn't say much that's intelligible, so him saying nothing makes sense.

Obscuring the truth even furrther would probably involve completely excising Alias's interactions with Catrius and possibly his daughter, inserting a separate viewpoint instead that's more removed from the action. But as you've mentioned, the problem with this is that you wouldn't be able to showcase the magic system like you want to. So maybe try some simpler edits like the ones I mentioned and maybe a few more, and run the intro by some more beta readers who haven't read it before. Then you can see if the mystery is maintained to the extent you want it to be.

Also, I'm sorry, but I can't resist from nitpicking your intro. It's a bit implausible that Alias, who's allegedly not a conductor, could imitate a conductor accurately. It takes an immense amount of skill and practice to conduct well, despite how easy it may seem. You have to think about how you breathe, the precise timing of every cue, and a lot more. And if you're not familiar with the particular piece, conducting is unfeasible. You wouldn't even know the tempo to start with! Even if you yourself are a conductor and have conducted the piece before, imitating another conductor throughout an entire piece is difficult since there's no way your interpretation lines up exactly with the other's, and the orchestra will eventually realize something's off when you suddenly conduct certain segments differently than rehearsed. Of course, if you have conducted the piece before, I don't think the musicians would notice immediately that you're not the original director, particularly considering that experienced orchestras can operate without a conductor. You indicate that with this line.

Quote

 the orchestra would do the rest.

So for the purposes of the introduction, Alias could maintain the illusion that he's Catrius, but I'd give him some sort of background with conducting, possibly. At the very least he's familiar with the piece the orchestra's playing. Since Whistling seems to be music based, a background in conducting/music wouldn't be unexpected. Maybe Alias has worked with Catrius before, or has seen him conduct a lot since they're friends, and thus is able to imitate him accurately. Basically, I think you should alter the following line to instead make Catrius familiar with the piece, and hint that he's familiar with conducting, particularly Catrius's style. Just being a musician probably wouldn't cut it, because I can tell you from experience that just because you can play a piece, does not mean you can conduct it.

Quote

 Alias smiled. He was no conductor but he had seen this done before; he could imitate it well enough and the orchestra would do the rest.

Anyways, sorry for the nitpicking, but I get very particular about whether musicians are portrayed accurately. Hope some of my comments help.

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@ILuvHats hey thanks for your help. I'm probably going to try focusing the tension on other things going forward. Namely whether the main detective character can find Alias and stop him before he kills again. I've only just passed the threshold into the second act after the point where the MC is investigating the opera, and I think part of the issue I'm sensing at the moment is in the way I've handled that scene more than what I've done in the prologue. I think once I've written a bit further into the second act I'll have a clearer idea of the entire arc of the book. I have a rough outline but I always end up discovery writing a fair amount.

 

7 hours ago, ILuvHats said:

Since Whistling seems to be music based, a background in conducting/music wouldn't be unexpected.

This is actually the case, I just forgot to put it in. Still a very fair nitpick though. I'm a musician too and have done some conducting since writing that, so I definitely agree it needs to be fixed.

I'm not looking for beta readers yet on this book, but I do have another finished one that you could have a look at if you're interested. Its a little bit more of a traditional epic fantasy, though the story follows two characters prophesised to unleash a great evil upon the world. Neither of them believe in the prophecy and they both hate each other. It's a bit rougher than the Whistler stuff because I wrote a fair chunk of it in high school, but I would really like feedback on it so I can polish it up.

Thanks again for your help.

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