Tying Up Loose Ends in Your Mystery

Welcome back for Week 3 in our series on the basics of the mystery novel. Links to the previous two posts are

In the first two posts, we talked about six important factors that every mystery novel MUST have.

  • Suspects
  • Alibis
  • Reasonable causes
  • Unexpected plot twists
  • Red herrings
  • Satisfying solutions

Whatever else you do with your mystery, include these six things and make them as strong as you can, and you’ll be well on your way to writing a successful mystery people will want to read.

One of the things I mentioned when talking about satisfying solutions was making sure all of the loose ends in your story are tied up at the end. And that brings us to today’s topic.

What are  loose ends?

If you’re writing your first mystery or are considering it, that’s a legitimate question. In short, the things that become loose ends are the questions you raise for readers throughout the story.

There should be at least one question raised early in the story. It will be the primary story question. Samples of primary story questions are

  • Who killed Joe Smith?
  • Whose dead body washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan?
  • Where did half a million dollars go (or come from)?

Big Picture stuff. This is the thing you’ll spend all of the story unraveling.

But that’s not the sort of question I consider a loose end. Why? Because it’s the one question you’re unlikely to forget.

The sorts of questions that become loose ends are the secondary questions. The kinds of questions that pertain to character development, alibis, or other aspects of the story. They may not be vital to the main story line, but if you’ve introduced the question anywhere in the story, you better provide an answer!

Loose end questions might be

  • Can the detective overcome a drinking problem?
  • Will the marriage of the detective’s partner fail?
  • Will the detective’s high school-age son start doing drugs?

These are secondary to the main story question, but they will affect the outcome in some way or another. You need to provide an answer for the story or the reader will feel cheated.

Keeping Track of Loose Ends

One sure way to know you’ve answered all the questions you’ve raised is to make a list of the questions raised throughout the story.

You can make your list when you’re writing the story. You can make your list during the evaluation process or during revisions. The wise writer will maintain this list as if it was the story. A first draft, an evaluation, and revisions. Why all that work? We’ll talk about that in a moment.

First, though, let’s take a look at what’s on that list.

The Facts, Just the Facts

The first fact you should put on your list is the question itself. I like to quote the manuscript by copying the line or paragraph, then pasting it into my list. That’s quick and easy.

The second fact is who the question involves. For me, this is a must-have detail.

If I have an idea of the answer, I also like to jot that down. It’s not absolutely necessary, but I don’t want to forget any possible answers.

Other details might be the chapter in which the question arose and maybe even the page so I can find it later if necessary.

You don’t need to list all those things. You don’t even have to limit your list to these details. Make a note of the things that will help you most.

Why Does My Loose End List Need Evaluation and Revisions?

“Now,” you ask, “tell me why I need to put my list through the same revision process the novel goes through.”

Thanks for reminding me.

You want to start your list while you’re writing the first draft because writing questions when they appear in the story is the ideal time to make such notes. You don’t need to spend time looking for the questions later.

Keep your list handy and when you get stuck in the story, check the list. Is there a question that could be answered that would get you unstuck?

TIP: When you answer a story question during writing, make a note of that, too. Include chapter and page number so it’s easy to find later on.

You want to update the list of loose ends when you evaluate the first draft because at this stage, you’re reading your story as if you’d never seen it before (or at least you should be). As a reader, you might see things you missed as a writer. If you find a story question that’s not on your list, add it now.

Jot down all the answers to story questions, too. Any questions that are left unanswered will need to be answered or removed.

You also want to revise your list of story questions because story questions should be subject to the same kind of rigorous editing the story is subject to. Some will need improvement, some will need to be answered. Some may even need to be removed!


However you choose to track the story questions in your mystery, make sure you answer every one in a manner that satisfies your readers, as well as yourself. Readers expect you to answer the primary question. Answering those secondary questions is the icing that makes the cake memorable.

If you have a question about writing a successful mystery novel, leave your question in the comment box below. Who knows? It just might turn into another mystery writing clinic post.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at figuring out what your bad guy is really up to.

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