The (Classic Doyle) Whydunnit Formula

The Adventure of the Red-Headed League | Baker Street Wiki | Fandom

‘Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’

‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’

‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’

‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.’

― Arthur Conan Doyle, “Silver Blaze

Things might not always go as planned, but there is always a reason why things happen. A whydunnit is a search for causes in order to understand the effects. Doyle wasn’t very concerned with motivation (most his criminals act simply from greed or anger), but he was a master of the art of finding interesting ways of framing events so that even things which were normal parts of life could seem strange and mysterious until Holmes unravelled them for the audience.

Strange happenings, people acting weirdly, unusual requests – these were all common ways a Sherlock Holmes whydunnit started, and the audience was then carried on a quest to find the reasons for these bizarre events and the more sinister causes which often lay behind them. By following the trails of logic, and backed up with his encyclopedic memory, Holmes was able to match result with action and often bring criminals to justice despite their elaborate schemes. 

A typical whydunnit looks a little like this…

Introduction (15% or less of the story, 900 words in a 6000 word story)

  • The main detectives are introduced in an interesting way which shows off their personalities. Often the detective shows off their incredible abilities by doing something that amazes the audience and other characters.  
  • A new character with a problem (hereafter called the “innocent”) appears before them and the main detective character shows off their detective skills by guessing information about the Innocent.

The Situation (35%, 2100 words)

  • The Innocent tells the detective characters about their problem. The innocent tells them the details of what happened which lead them to coming to see (or calling for) the detectives.
  • Something strange has happened to the Innocent and the reasons for this strange event will be revealed to be linked with a crime as the detectives investigate. The strange events are usually the result of a) a crime being hidden as it occurs, b) a crime being covered up after the fact, c) the Innocent being tricked into being part of a crime without knowing it. The crime can be murder, but is usually robbery or theft of some kind.
  • Regardless, the Innocent will tell the detectives their story, which will include all suspects (although they may be under fake names), the important details of the events they’ve experienced, and a few important clues (which they might not realize are clues and just think are details). The detective will catch these clues, but probably won’t put them together or mention this to the audience. The clues should be worked into the story in such a way that they don’t stand out as being clues and fit in with the rest of the Innocent’s story unless the audience pays very careful attention.

The Investigation (20%, 1200 words)

  • The detectives will take action to help the Innocent, usually by going out and gathering more clues or information.
  • If there’s not a lot of information, then we might follow the main detective and their partner as they talk to various people involved in the case. They may interview witnesses, examine crime scenes, or collect the stories of the people involved.
  • If there’s a lot of information to be gathered from various sources, the main detective and their partner may split up and then meet again later to compare notes. This is to speed up the process of telling the story by having one or both of them summarize the information they learned for each other and the audience.
  • Often the case will get stranger, or there will be a twist, near the end of this phase (but not always). The most common twist is the elimination of the “red herring” cause where the most likely reason is thrown out the window by new evidence.
  • At the end of this phase, the main detective (and the audience, maybe) will have the key information they need to solve the case and will often say that they know to their partner. (But not tell the audience what they’ve figured out.)

The Reveal (30%, 1800 words)

  • The main detective will now take steps to catch the guilty party.
  • This type of story usually ends with the detective finding the criminals and forcing them to confess the real crime they were hiding behind the strange events the Innocent experienced. The end of this one can come in many flavors, but usually either a) the criminal is caught while doing the crime they were trying to cover up with the strange events, or b) the criminal tried to commit the crime but has already failed for other reasons by the time the detectives confront them. In either case, the detective reveals everything that they figured out, and the criminal fills in the missing details. Especially if the criminal has failed due to their own mistakes (or bad luck), the criminal is just so depressed they don’t care anymore, which is why they tell all.
  • With the crime laid out, the audience should be able to look back now and see clearly how everything fit together in a reasonable way. There should be no magic powers, acts of god, or huge co-incidences, and everything should make sense.
  • Usually, there is one last unanswered question, and in the final scene the detective’s partner or the Innocent asks it to the main detective, and the detective answers them in some interesting way. The final scene usually ends on either a final thought or (in later stories) on an amusing note to balance out any tragedy which the ending revealed with positive emotions.

While Doyle seems to have been fond of whydunnits, they are largely the least common type of mysteries and audiences don’t seem to be as attracted to them as the other two types. This might be because they usually have the least exciting endings- the detective is learning why something happened like a curious dog following a scent, and then having found the scent the story just ends. Often in Doyle’s whydunnits, the criminal has already lost by the time Holmes tracks them down, and Holmes is just there to witness their tragic fall, not bring them to justice.

This is why Doyle often combined his Whydunnits with the other two types of mysteries, using strange events to lead into a whodunnit or howdunnit. Often the whydunnits which lead many of his stories are the results of distractions from real crimes or a side-effect of people doing something criminal or immoral. Cases such as the Red Headed League or the Christmas Goose are good examples of these.

That doesn’t mean pure whydunnits can’t be interesting, they can be very interesting in the hands of a skillful writer, but they can be the hardest of the three types to write well. Answering the question of why something happened isn’t as naturally exciting as revealing a hidden villain or cracking an impossible puzzle, so the writer needs to come up with an ending that’s going to get a strong emotional reaction from the audience to make it memorable.

The (Classic Doyle) Howdunnit Formula

Sidney Paget - The Adventure of the Speckled Band | Adventures of ...

Solving “impossible crimes” was one of the things Holmes was most famous for, and Doyle was fond of coming up with puzzles to challenge his great creation. In fact, a good way to think of a howdunnit is as it being a puzzle.

“How did the killer get in and out of the locked safe with guards around it?”

“How did the thief cover the distance between a party and the crime scene faster than a car can travel?”

“How did the victim die without leaving any evidence behind?”

The answers to these puzzles will lead to solving the crime, and preventing the criminal from getting away with their immoral actions. Maybe it will stop them from killing again? Maybe it will prevent them from getting on a plane to freedom? Either way, the puzzle is the key.

In Doyle’s case, a howdunnit usually runs something like this…

Introduction (15% or less of the story, 900 words in a 6000 word story)

  • The main detectives are introduced in an interesting way which shows off their personalities.
  • A new character with a problem (hereafter called the “innocent”) appears before them and the main detective character shows off their detective skills by guessing information about the Innocent.

The Situation (35%, 2100 words)

  • The Innocent tells the detective characters about their problem. The innocent tells them the details of what happened which lead them to coming to see (or calling for) the detectives.
  • A crime has been committed, and usually there is only one main suspect, but there is no proof they did it and the detective must figure out how the crime was committed to stop them from committing another crime or getting away.
  • The Innocent will tell the detectives their story, which will include all suspects (although they may be under fake names), the important details of the events they’ve experienced, and a few important clues (which they might not realize are clues and just think are details). The detective will catch these clues, but probably won’t put them together or mention this to the audience. The clues should be worked into the story in such a way that they don’t stand out as being clues and fit in with the rest of the Innocent’s story unless the audience pays very careful attention.

The Investigation (20%, 1200 words)

  • The detectives will take action to help the Innocent, usually by going out and gathering more clues or information.
  • If there’s not a lot of information, then we might follow the main detective and their partner as they talk to various people involved in the case. They may interview witnesses, examine crime scenes, or collect the stories of the people involved.
  • If there’s a lot of information to be gathered from various sources, the main detective and their partner may split up and then meet again later to compare notes. This is to speed up the process of telling the story by having one or both of them summarize the information they learned for each other and the audience.
  • Often the case will get stranger, or there will be a twist, near the end of this phase (but not always). The most common twist is the elimination of the “red herring” where the most likely method of committing the crime is eliminated as the way it was done. 
  • At the end of this phase, the main detective (and the audience, maybe) will have the key information they need to solve the case and will often say that they know to their partner. (But not tell the audience what they’ve figured out.)

The Reveal (30%, 1800 words)

  • The main detective will now take steps to catch the guilty party.
  • The detectives will set a trap for the criminal, usually by getting one step ahead of them and laying in wait. If the criminal is using the same “secret method” again, the detectives will often replace the victim to catch them in the act and then reveal how the criminal made a mistake that let them get a step ahead and prove the criminal’s guilt. If the criminal had a perfect crime, the detective will trick them into thinking they made a mistake, and then catch them when they try to cover up the mistake or flee. Confronted with the truth, the criminal will confess all, or if they died as the “secret method” kills them instead of their intended victim, the detective or someone else will fill in the missing pieces.  
  • With the crime laid out, the audience should be able to look back now and see clearly how everything fit together in a reasonable way. There should be no magic powers, acts of god, or huge co-incidences, and everything should make sense.
  • Usually, there is one last unanswered question, and in the final scene the detective’s partner or the Innocent asks it to the main detective, and the detective answers them in some interesting way. The final scene usually ends on either a final thought or (in later stories) on an amusing note to balance out any tragedy which the ending revealed with positive emotions.

One interesting feature of a howdunnit is that they are sometimes played as a sort of duel between the detective(s) and the culprit. The culprit is often (but not always) an active character in the story who the detective is interacting with and the detective gets to know as the story goes on, and since howdunnits can more easily be victimless crimes, the culprit might even be sympathetic in their goals. Or, the criminal may be a very unlikeable person who taunts the detective with their lack of proof and angers the audience like a true villain until the detective finally outwits them in a final display of brilliance or skill at the end.

The challenge with writing howdunnits is to come up with a puzzle that isn’t too easy for the audience to figure out while giving them enough clues to make it possible to solve before the end. Even Doyle didn’t always play fair in this regard, and sometimes slightly cheated to make sure the audience couldn’t guess until the end. However, whenever possible you should avoid doing that if the puzzle is the main question you build your story around.

A suggestion for writing these stories is to come up with the method for doing the “impossible crime” first, and then figure out what kind of crime it’s best used with. However, whatever method you use to plan it, thinking through the crime before writing is a must!

The (Classic Doyle) Whodunnit Formula

The Adventure of the Abbey Grange - Wikipedia

Without a doubt, the whodunnit is the most popular type of mystery there is in modern culture, and if you read or watch a mystery story today, it’s probably a whodunnit. CSI? Whodunnit. The Mentalist? Whodunnit. Criminal Minds? Whodunnit. Detective Conan/Case Closed? Whodunnit. Murdoch Mysteries/Artful Detective? Whodunnit.  

People love figuring out whodunnit!

Which is why it might come as a shock to you that most Sherlock Holmes stories, the paragon of mystery crime solving, aren’t whodunnits. Doyle actually preferred howdunnits and whydunnits instead, at least based on the number of each he wrote.

Oh, the criminal is often unknown until later in the story, but the focus of the stories isn’t so much on who did it, but how or why it was done, and the criminal’s identity is often secondary to figuring that out. This is one of the things that may make reading Holmes a bit of an adjustment for modern readers, since Doyle seems to have found the simple question of who did it much less interesting to hang a story on than how or why it was done. Sometimes the criminals even turn themselves in “off camera” once their schemes are revealed because it just isn’t that important to the story.

However, he did write whodunnit stories from time to time for variety, and the formula he used isn’t much different from the others at heart…

Introduction (15% or less of the story, 900 words in a 6000 word short story)

  • The main detectives are introduced in an interesting way which shows off their personalities.
  • A new character with a problem (hereafter called the “innocent”) appears before them and the main detective character shows off their detective skills by guessing information about the Innocent.

The Situation (35%, 2100 words)

  • The Innocent tells the detective characters about their problem. The innocent tells them the details of what happened which lead them to coming to see (or calling for) the detectives.
  • A crime has been committed and there are two or three suspects who could have committed it. The mystery is built around figuring out which one of them did the crime.
  • The Innocent will tell the detectives their story, which will include all suspects (although they may be under fake names), the important details of the events they’ve experienced, and a few important clues (which they might not realize are clues and just think are details). The detective will catch these clues, but probably won’t put them together or mention this to the audience. The clues should be worked into the story in such a way that they don’t stand out as being clues and fit in with the rest of the Innocent’s story unless the audience pays very careful attention.

The Investigation (20%, 1200 words)

  • The detectives will take action to help the Innocent, usually by going out and gathering more clues or information.
  • If there’s not a lot of information, then we might follow the main detective and their partner as they talk to various people involved in the case. They may interview witnesses, examine crime scenes, or collect the stories of the people involved.
  • If there’s a lot of information to be gathered from various sources, the main detective and their partner may split up and then meet again later to compare notes. This is to speed up the process of telling the story by having one or both of them summarize the information they learned for each other and the audience.
  • Often the case will get stranger, or there will be a twist, near the end of this phase (but not always). The most common twist is the elimination of the “red herring” where the most likely suspect is proven to be innocent by dying or new evidence showing they’re innocent. (This is why there is usually three suspects – since one will be eliminated from the list at this point.)
  • At the end of this phase, the main detective (and the audience, maybe) will have the key information they need to solve the case and will often say that they know to their partner. (But not tell the audience what they’ve figured out.)

The Reveal (30%, 1800 words)

  • The main detective will now take steps to catch the guilty party.
  • The detective gathers the guilty people together and tells them what really happened, explaining how each of them is connected with the crime until they settle on the real criminal last. The real criminal reveals why they did it when confronted with the truth, answering any questions the audience might have like motives (usually hatred because of past events or greed).
  • With the crime laid out, the audience should be able to look back now and see clearly how everything fit together in a reasonable way. There should be no magic powers, acts of god, or huge co-incidences, and everything should make sense.
  • Usually, there is one last unanswered question, and in the final scene the detective’s partner or the Innocent asks it to the main detective, and the detective answers them in some interesting way. The final scene usually ends on either a final thought or (in later stories) on an amusing note to balance out any tragedy which the ending revealed with positive emotions.

The above formula can also be used for novels, but would require a bit of expansion and development to make it work. One of the advantages of whodunnits is their ability to be padded out as much as needed by simply spending more time exploring and learning about the backgrounds of the victims and suspects. Subplots about how the crime was done and motivations are also easily incorporated into a whodunnit story as needed.

Generally, the main clues that reveal a culprit in a whodunnit story are going to be verbal ones – they say the wrong thing while giving testimonies or answering questions. Occasionally, it might be something they are tricked into revealing by the detective, in which case it is often something simple and innocuous were it not connected with the current case. However, spoken mistake are rarely enough to convict a person of being the criminal, so there will need to be other physical evidence available to support it and finish the case.

The Three Mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes | Description, Stories, & Facts | Britannica

While making my way through Stephen Fry’s astoundingly good Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection on Audible, I began to notice a pattern in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Story after story in the collection tended to follow one of three different patterns, and after I started taking notes, I began to realize that these three patterns didn’t just apply to Holmes’ stories, but mysteries in general.

Using the language of mystery fans, I classify these three patterns as “whodunnits,” “howdunnits,” and “whydunnits.” For those not familiar with the term “dunnit,” it’s a slang version of “done it” and traditionally connected with “whodunnit” (who has done it) mysteries. And, in this and the following posts, I’ll be discussing each of them as they relate to the Holmes stories and the rough story formulas each of them is used in classic Holmes stories. Of course, these formulas can be applied to any plot or subplot to get a mystery out of them.

Let’s look at each in order of their popularity.

Whodunnit: A mystery story built about the question of who committed a crime. When most people think of mysteries, or “murder mysteries,” they’re thinking of whodunnits. In these stories, there will be two or more possible suspects who may have committed the crime and by the end of the story the detective will have figured out which one did it. There might be questions about how a crime was done, or motives, but ultimately everything leads back to the central question of who the criminal was. A classic Holmes whodunnit is “The Adventure of the Abby Grange.”

Howdunnit: A mystery story built around the question of how a crime was accomplished. A classic example of the howdunnit is the “locked room mystery,” which is defined on Wikipedia as a crime being “committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.” These are also called “impossible crime” mysteries, for obvious reasons. Of course, there are other kinds of howdunnits as well, like a crime where the criminal seems to have been in two places at once, but the focus of these stories will always be the central question of how a crime was committed. In fact, often the criminal is known to both the reader and the detective(s), but to lay the hands of the law on the criminal requires figuring out how the crime was even possible first. A classic Holmes howdunnit is “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”

Whydunnit: A mystery story built around the question of why something has happened (or is happening). These stories usually come in two flavors – motives and events. A motive-based whydunnit is built around the question of why a character did something, usually a crime. An event-based whydunnit is usually built around the question of why something out of the ordinary happened. Doyle made use of both, but he especially loved to write event-based whydunnits because of their ability to shock and intrigue readers. In a Doyle story, the reason behind the event is usually a crime, but one which is seen from a strange angle (often that of someone affected by the crime indirectly) and then when the events are seen correctly everything becomes clear. The story may involve elements of whodunnits or howdunnits, but the central mystery will always be why something did or did not happen. A classic Holmes whydunnit is “The Adventure of the Red Headed League.”

Of course, these stories are often not “pure” and often contain elements of each other as plots and subplots, and you can even have a story that contains all three- a mysterious criminal who commits an impossible crime for unknown reasons. However, especially with short stories, there is usually one of these three which is the dominant mystery question to be solved. Which one it is can usually be discerned by it being the last question the story answers, since once it is done, the story is effectively over.

Making each of these the focus of a story can change the story quite a bit, since each of them has their own special rules and quirks that will be discussed in turn in each of the following posts. Just click on the links below to look at how Doyle writes each in more depth.

Lastly, some of you might be saying, “Wait a moment, Rob! What about Whatdunnits? Whendunnits? and Wheredunnits?” If we’re playing with question words, wouldn’t those be stories too?

And you, intelligent reader, would be right, but those three are rarely the focus of a mystery story for good reasons.

A “whatdunnit” would be in a weird space between a “whodunnit” and a “howdunnit”, but really covering neither of them well. If a non-living (or non sentient) thing committed a crime (or other act) then technically it’s a “whodunnit” with a non-living suspect. This has been done, usually in stories where the victim accidentally killed themselves with some weapon or object, and the twist is that all the suspects were innocent. On the other hand, if the “whatdunnit” is about what object/method was used to commit a crime, then the term “howdunnit” is better because it covers a lot more possibilities.

A “whendunnit” or “wheredunnit” would build a story about the time or place a “crime” (or other act) occurs, but in most stories those are just pieces of information that lead to answering other questions. In fact, time and place are usually parts of “howdunnits” when they’re the focus of the story, so that category also covers them already.

Now, on to the formulas!

The (Classic Doyle) Whodunnit Formula

The (Classic Doyle) Howdunnit Formula

The (Classic Doyle) Whydunnit Formula