How to Write Mystery, Writing

The Four Movements of a Traditional Mystery, Horror, or Thriller Story

Look at almost any traditional mystery or horror story and you’ll find that each follows FOUR movements (are the theories of how films are made/structured). In this discussion, I will be using film to dissect the Four Movements of Mystery and Horror (and in some cases thrillers).

The one thing that Mysteries, Horror, and Thrillers have in common is a Complex Discovery Plot—in which a protagonist, or group of protagonists (as is often the case in horror films), in different stages, discovers the murderer, the evil plot, and/or the monster.

ONSET – The First Movement

The presence of that which needs to be discovered is revealed to the audience or the readers.


In Mystery, this most often is the BODY… The discovery of the murder and the protagonist’s need to find out “whodunit.”


In Horror, this is the introduction of the MONSTER… For example, in Halloween, when the audience meets Michael Myers, who commits gruesome murders as a young boy.


In Thriller, this is the uncovering of the PLOT… For example, in The Purge: Anarchy when the government attacks a low-income neighborhood, the protagonists need to escape and find out why they’ve been targeted.


DISCOVERY – The Second Movement


In Mystery, this is the SEARCH FOR CLUES… For any fan of mystery, the discovery is the best part. Anyone who’s ever felt a thrill from hearing Sherlock Holmes say, “deductive reasoning,” will understand what I’m talking about.

“It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Sherlock Holmes –A Scandal in Bohemia.



In Horror, often the discovery RESISTED by the powers that be… In Halloween, Michael Myers, from the beginning, is presented as a sadistic killer, of which both the audience and the characters are aware. However, when he escapes his cell in a Prison for the Criminally Insane, fifteen years after he committed the murders, he is considered nothing more than a bogeyman by his former town. This, of course, allows him to commit even more murders.


“You’ve fooled them, haven’t you Michael? But not me.” -Dr. Samuel Loomis


In Thrillers, the discovery also leads to RESISTANCE, often by government powers, and evil organizations. Often times in Thrillers, other characters will begin turning against the protagonist, putting them out on their own and making it more difficult for them to uncover the hidden agenda.



CONFIRMATION – The Third Movement


In Mysteries, this is when the FINAL CLUE falls into place… While the character will have confirmed who the murderer is or have final suspicions, often times, the audience or readers will be left unaware. However, they are often given the clues to solve the mystery for themselves.



In Horror, this is when the BODIES DROP… While murders and deaths happen throughout horror films, this moment is when characters cannot hide from the fact that a serial killer, evil demon, or subhuman is among them.



In Thrillers, this is when the protagonist DECODES the hidden message, their past, their dreams, or a secret symbol. It’s an epiphany moment in which the curtain falls and reality is revealed.



CONFRONTATION – The Fourth Movement


In Mysteries, this is when the protagonist(s) sets the TRAP… This can be clearly seen in any episode of Scooby Doo…the gang sets a trap, they catch the villain and unmask him as an unsavory businessman. The confrontation is the final stand-off between the detective (amateur or professional) and the murderer.



In Horror, this section is often the longest section in horror and represents the LIFE OR DEATH for the protagonist. At this point, the protagonist(s) must defeat the monster if they want to live. What makes the horror genre so terrifying is the confrontation of the monster, it heightens the tension and fear as the odds are stacked against the protagonist. In other words, humanity marches out.



In Thrillers, this section often plays out as the TAKE DOWN… The protagonist must bring down the villain and like in the horror genre, this is often a life or death scenario. However, like the mystery genre, the thriller protagonist must set a trap that often proves their innocence or proves them correct.



Every movement plays the game of probability, making the thing the audience wants most seem highly improbable (this can even be seen in Romantic Comedies). Every movie, in every genre, gives more or less significance or plot-time to each movement. Sometimes the Discovery gets the most screen time and other times it’s the Confrontation, both can be effective.

For further reading, check out The Philosophy of Horror: Or, Paradoxes of the Heart by Noël Carroll


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