12 Step Mystery Formula: How to Plot a Whodunit

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Wondering how to plot a whodunit with a captivating plot, filled with delectable twists and turns that will keep readers guessing? Read on for a guide to the 12 step mystery formula in Plottr. It will help you craft a network of clues and red herrings and capture readers’ imaginations.

What is the 12 Step Mystery Formula?

Writers have drawn inspiration from Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith’s 12-Step Program — originally developed to assist individuals with recovering from substance addiction — to create novels. The 12-Step Mystery Formula is the resulting framework.

This template helps you craft intricate plots where protagonists are able to skillfully maneuver around any obstacles on their way to solving mysteries.

How Will the 12 Step Mystery Formula Help?

Mystery short stories and novels require an intricate plot that keeps readers guessing until the very last page. While other genres may focus on character development or world building, mystery plots require intricate twists, clues, and red herrings scattered throughout the story to keep readers intrigued.

Although it can be tempting to write mystery novels “on the fly,” planning and plotting before beginning to write a mystery offers several distinct advantages. 

  1. First, it helps you gain a firm grasp of your story’s structure, making it simpler to weave all its threads together later. This is essential in building a believable story that the reader can follow, and offering a tidy solution to the puzzles you’ve crafted for them.
  2. Second, plotting lets you plan the clues and misdirection needed to challenge the reader’s attempts to put the right pieces together. Mystery readers love surprises and don’t want to guess at the truth of your story too easily.
  3. And finally, outlining can help you avoid errors that could derail the impact your mysteries finally reveal, like including too many confusing red herrings.

Plot Points of the 12 Step Mystery Formula

As the name implies, the 12 Step Mystery Formula consists of 12 beats. These are grouped in four acts, with each act filling 25% of the story. Let’s look at each beat in greater depth, using examples from the first Knives Out movie.

Act 1 of the 12 Step Mystery Formula

Act 1 comprises the first three beats and opens your story.

Beat #1: Disclose the Mystery

This is the starting point of your novel, where the central mystery of the story is presented. It could be a crime, a riddle, or a secret that needs to be uncovered. Your protagonist may not even appear yet.

Example: In the mystery Knives Out, wealthy crime novelist Harlan Thrombey is found dead in his mansion, the cause of death appearing to be suicide.

Beat #2: Set the Sleuth on the Path

The detective, protagonist, or main character is introduced and becomes involved in the case due to personal reasons, by assignment from a superior, or thanks to a chance encounter.

Example: Private Detective Benoit Blanc is hired by an anonymous client to investigate the case and ensure Thrombey’s death was not a murder.

Beat #3: Subplot

A secondary plotline is introduced next, which may be connected to the main mystery or provide an interesting diversion for the characters and the reader.

This subplot can add depth and complexity to the story and help your reader get to know your characters and their world better.

Example: Thrombey’s family members and staff are introduced, each with their own personal issues and motives for wanting Harlan’s wealth.

Act 2 of the 12 Step Mystery Formula

Act 2, consisting of beats 4-6, builds the bones of the mystery at hand.

Beat #4: Facts About Suspects

As the investigation begins in earnest, details emerge about potential suspects, their relationships, and their possible motives for being involved in the mystery.

Example: The investigation reveals that almost all family members had reason to kill Thrombey, ranging from inheritance disputes to Harlan learning of their secrets.

Beat #5: Broaden the Investigation

The sleuth expands the scope of the inquiry, visiting new locations, interviewing witnesses, and uncovering more clues that help build a fuller picture of the case for your reader.

Example: Blanc enlists the assistance of Thrombey’s nurse, Marta Cabrera, who inadvertently reveals clues and leads through her inability to lie without vomiting.

Beat #6: Sleuth’s Background

The audience here learns more about the protagonist, their past, and how it affects their current actions and decisions in the case.

Memorable character development makes for more popular mysteries!

Example: Blanc is revealed to be a highly regarded private detective, known for his unconventional methods and keen instincts.

Act 3 of the 12 Step Mystery Formula

Act 3, the third quarter of your story, is where much of the real tension begins to build.

Beat #7: Reveal Hidden Motives

Your protagonist’s ongoing investigation reveals motives and secret connections between characters, which help them piece together the puzzle of the mystery.

Your first real twists appear here, prompting your sleuth to pivot their focus in an unexpected direction.

Example: Secret affairs, drug abuse, and financial struggles come to light, indicating that seemingly innocent family members may have been complicit.

Beat #8: Reveal Results

The clues and evidence are analyzed, and the sleuth formulates a theory — or several theories — about the case.

Your sleuth (and hopefully, your reader) will likely miss the mark in their first attempts to identify answers, or simply not have enough information to come to a sure conclusion, which adds to the story’s tension and may make them feel as if all is lost.

Example: Blanc unravels the truth that Thrombey’s death was an elaborately staged suicide, attempting to protect Marta from being framed for his accidental death due to a medication error.

Beat #9: Review the Case

Hoping to get back on track, the sleuth reviews the entire case for the reader, scrutinizing the major events, characters, and clues encountered in the story thus far.

At this point, many mysteries reveal the true significance of a previously overlooked detail or piece of evidence. This is your next twist in the story.

Example: In a twist, it is revealed that the real murderer is Harlan’s grandson, Ransom, who intended to frame Marta after discovering he was disinherited.

Act 4 of the 12 Step Mystery Formula

Act 4 brings your story to its exciting, but satisfying, conclusion.

Beat #10: Weigh the Evidence

The theories are compared against the available evidence, and the sleuth tries to eliminate possibilities and narrow down their conclusions. They may make a final, correct, decision at this stage, but in order to keep your reader engaged and nurturing their own theories, you shouldn’t reveal it just yet.

Example: Blanc puts together the evidence and prepares to confront Ransom with his findings at a tense family gathering.

Beat #11: Subplot Resolution

The secondary plotline is wrapped up before the primary story, either revealing a relationship to the main mystery or simply providing closure for the characters and the reader. How your protagonist handles this scenario may help prepare them to wrap up the main mystery.

Example: The various family subplots are resolved, with the family being forced to confront the consequences of their actions and the truth about Harlan’s death.

Beat #12: Climax

Finally, your story reaches its peak as the sleuth confronts the true perpetrator of the crime or reveals the final solution to the mystery. The truth is exposed, and justice is served.

Audiences expect to see some heightened tension here; you may opt to open with a chase scene, or write an attempted escape by your villain as they’re confronted with others’ knowledge of their guilt.

Example: Ransom, in a last-ditch attempt to avoid arrest, tries to kill Marta, but ultimately fails and is apprehended. Marta inherits Thrombey’s mansion and fortune, while Blanc closes the case.

How Do You Use the 12 Step Mystery Formula in Plottr?

Have a crime, victim, or sleuth in mind? Let’s walk through the template for how to plot a whodunit. First, install Plottr and get started with a free trial.

Next, follow these simple steps:

  • Step 1: In the Files tab of Plottr, click Create from Template
Using a Plottr plot template - step 1
  • Step 2: In the list of templates that appears, select 12 Step Mystery Formula, then click Create New Project
Opening the 12 Step Mystery Formula template in Plottr
  • Step 3: After you give your project a name (so you can find it easily from the Recent Projects list), it will open in Timeline view
12 Step Mystery timeline tab in Plottr
  • Step 4: Click any of the beats’ scene cards to view the instructions and enter your own ideas (you can keep the instructions or save over them)
12 Step Mystery Template scene card example

And there you have it – how to plot a whodunit in Plottr using the 12 Step Mystery Formula.

Did you know that plot templates in Plottr work well together? Try add a new plotline for a subplot using one of the following options:

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