Challenge Your Sleuth Protagonist

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Make Your Sleuth Reach for a Solution

Creating a great mystery for readers depends on page turning events in your story. Create tension with challenges to your sleuth. Each time you create a challenge your reader keeps reading to see how your sleuth gets past a stopping point. That point may be a small as a suspect hesitant to answer questions to a life-threatening event with the opponent.

The events may vary in intensity depending on the sub-genre of your mystery, but every story needs challenges to the protagonist. Your challenge as a writer is to create hurdles in your storyline. The more the better. Make your sleuth work for the final resolution.

Complications, Roadblocks, and Reversals

Three plot devices for giving your sleuth a tough time are complications, roadblocks, and reversals. In your story-crafting process brainstorm as many ways as you can to frustrate your sleuth.


A complication is an event or factor that slows your detective’s progress. As your sleuth attempts to discover the villain things get in the way.

  • A car that won’t start
  • A neighbor or colleague interfering with a plea for help
  • Test results that aren’t back yet

These complications are often daily events that happen at an inconvenient time, but the result is you’ve delayed the sleuth’s progress..


Roadblocks are just that, they stop your sleuth. Roadblocks are impediments to your sleuth’s progress. These are points in your story where your sleuth has to change direction. They occur at major plot points in the story.

  • He follows a hunch or clue to the ultimate end only to find it has no bearing on the murder.
  • Reviewing a suspect’s statement he has another question. When he goes to interview the suspect, they’ve left town or have become another murder victim.

Once your sleuth encounters the roadblock, you take your reader in a new direction.


A reversal alters your sleuth’s course into the opposite direction. If she is gaining traction, a new circumstance shows she needs to rethink everything. A reversal increases the stakes and sends the story in a completely new direction.

Emotional reversals create a clash between the protagonist’s inner goal and the outer goal in a disastrous way.

  • Although your sleuth has some success, a roadblock makes her feel she can not find the killer. A strong story midpoint reversal.
  • The sleuth discovers that his right thinking is all wrong. He has to start over.
  • A teammate has a mismatched agenda that reverses all the previous “help.”
  • The final discovery that alters the sleuth’s discovery journey to one of revelation. This is a positive new direction.

Your Obstacle Course as a Mystery Writer

Your aim in creating an intriguing mystery is to create obstacles for your sleuth. As your story moves forward, create obstacles that increase in difficulty and challenge for your protagonist.

Complications, roadblocks, and reversals create story tension. That tension complicates the mystery solving puzzle
. There’s no set order of how to use your obstacles. At each stage of your story think of the worst outcome your sleuth could have for their current course and set the challenge. Your readers will thank you.

PRO TIP: Each scene is a mini-story that requires an obstacle. For example, if you have a chapter with three scenes, each of those scenes will present a hurdle for your sleuth. By the end of the chapter, you’ve created three different obstacles. Keep them coming.

Zara Altair

Photo by Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

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