Dead Detectives and Exponential Complexity

Picture by paurian via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by paurian via Flickr Creative Commons

I’ve been writing a murder mystery dinner party. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this, but it is the first time I’ve created one with so many player suspects. It’s been a real eye opener on the exponential effect of adding complexity to stories.

There are a dozen characters in this game, plus the victim, who doesn’t get played. When I write this sort of murder mystery game, I create various details for each character – three secrets, three resources to influence other people, three aims for the evening, and two relationships with each other character – the relationship the others see, and the secret relationship behind that. These details are there to ensure that no-one is ever bored and to create the haze of suspicions and red herrings through which the players try to identify the murderer.

You can probably see already why doubling the number of players doesn’t just double the complexity. Every new character has to have relationships with each other character, and that creates an exponential growth in relationships. As a creative exercise they’re a lot of fun to create, but it’s also taxing – there’s a lot to think about, and each time I’m adding a detail I have to work out how it connects up with the rest.

In a way, this applies when writing stories, and in another way it doesn’t. Each detail you add – a person, a place, an event – has the potential to interact with everything else, so the growth in potential is exponential. But you control the narrative, including which things interact, and so you can avoid defining all those interactions – something I can’t do with a murder mystery game.

The problem comes if you’re too controlled. There might be interactions readers will look at and go “what about those two characters? surely they would have talked about x?” You don’t want to look at all those interactions, but the more of them could exist, the more holes can be picked. The potential to miss something important grows exponentially.

So if you want to write about five ideas, and you don’t want to spend a long time writing about them, is it better to split them into two stories than to roll them all into one, dealing with all their interactions?

Maybe. I’m not totally sure. I’m still thinking through the implications. What do you reckon?


If you’re interested in commissioning a murder mystery party, you can find the details here. And remember, my new book A Mosaic of Stars, collecting together over a year’s worth of weekly short stories, is available for pre-order as a Kindle e-book now.