What Is A ‘Whydunnit’?

You’ll be familiar with the classic mystery story of the ‘Whodunnit’. A murder or a crime is committed, a collection of suspects is identified and the story will explore method, motive and who it was who committed the crime. This is the standard murder mystery format.

The ‘Whydunnit’ is usually a longer book, or it may be a sequel to a ‘Whodunnit’ novel, taking the reader into a deeper and utlimately satisfying examination of the motivation of the story. Alexandre Dumas’ The Count Of Monte Christo is a classic example. Recently Stieg Larsson had massive success, albeit is sadly posthumously, with his trilogy which started with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The last book is the series is a very compelling ‘Whydunnit’.

Stories recount events and the best, most satisfying stories have depth and complexity. When creating a story or solving a mystery it can be useful to have Kipling’s Six Honest Serving Men to hand, which begins:-

I keep six honest serving men,

(They taught me all I knew)

Their names are What and Why and When

And How and Where and Who.

Put your six honest serving men to work when you want to understand or explain something.



Filed under murder mystery, Writing

11 responses to “What Is A ‘Whydunnit’?

  1. I love these stories. If it is and a serial killer thats better! 🙂

  2. A murder without a reason always makes for a poor story. Most crime writers seem to put some time into explaining the motives of the criminal, but they sadly mostly focus on the detective(s) solving the crime with glimpses of what they’re up against. I’d be glad to see more whydunnits in the mystery section of the bookshop.

  3. Very educating read!

    What do you think of withholding one of the six “serving men” for the sake of building suspense, or having the readers draw their own conclusions? When is it effective and when does it become a cop-out?

    • James Coakes

      I think the answers to each of the questions need to be fairly ambiguous, so that readers need to use their judgement to solve the mystery. The cop-out comes if you follow the same formula every time. There are some writers who definitely do this.

  4. Quite – I suppose the Peter Falk/Columbo television mysteries were examples of ‘whydunnit’ as we all knew who dunnit from the first frame. Of course it was really ‘how is Columbo going to nail this one’?

    • James Coakes

      The Columbo mysteries were interesting because the viewer knew who was responsible and had the impression that Columbo did too. Then he systematically worked his way through the ‘Whydunnit’.

  5. Is it reasonable to expect that an author could bypass the “whodunnit” and publish the “whydunnit” – successfully?

    • James Coakes

      I would think so, Tim. It seems to be human instinct to want to know who is responsible and the natural order of things is arrest before trial, but I suppose that an investigation nefore an arrest should include why if it’s done well.

  6. Six honest men on the earth? God help us to find one! (story requirements aside)

  7. jackiebarrie

    I was taught the power of WWWWWH at journalism college (many years ago). I still depend on those questions to this day, for everything from writing articles to running training courses to planning events.

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