Tag Archives: plot structure

Mystery Genre Workshop Part One: Plot and Structure

crime-scene-30112_640

 Why Do We Love Mysteries?

Years ago, a new bookstore opened in the city where I was living. An avid mystery fan, I hurried to the store on opening day. The smell of new books mixed with incense filled the air, the wooden bookshelves were polished, and the blood-red carpet pristine. Except in one section where yellow tape outlined the shape of a body lying on the floor. I didn’t have to look for the section sign, I knew exactly where I was. I had arrived in the world of mystery novels.

What is the mystique about mysteries that draws us to them? There are several reasons. First, the concepts of good and evil and justice are recurring themes in mysteries. The most satisfying stories for many readers are the ones where good overcomes evil and justice is served.

We are given a real hero to cheer for, whether that hero is a police detective, a government agent, or a florist. The professional or amateur sleuth personifies the good we treasure and brings the evil villain to justice.

There is another draw that brings us into the world of mystery. The puzzle. As a story unfolds, the writer provides clues, misdirection, foreshadowing, all of which allow the reader to deduce the culprit along with the sleuth.

From Christie, Doyle, Chandler, Cornwell, Connelly, McDonald, Evanovich, and Grimes to the unknown authors of tomorrow, they have given us hours of enjoyment as we attempted to figure out—Who done it?

divider-2

Let’s look at how to write a mystery story. I am a pantser, I do not outline my story in advance, but I know vital points about my story before I type the first word. I know who my protagonist and antagonist are and whether my protagonist is a law enforcement official or a civilian. I know the crime. Most importantly, I know the ending, which provides a target to focus on as I write.  You may take a detour or two along the way, but you must arrive at your ending. Once you know these items, you can create your plot. divider-2

 detective-156647

Clues to Writing a Mystery

 Plot and Structure

The plot in a mystery is centered around crime, commonly murder but not always. (If you choose a murder mystery, make the first murder early in the story. Murder mystery fans get anxious for a victim!) The novel’s central conflict is between someone trying to solve the crime versus the criminal’s efforts to cover his or her tracks. At the same time, a mystery is often set up as a kind of puzzle or game for readers, who analyze clues and try to solve the mystery themselves. (Isn’t that the idea?)

To Develop Your Plot:

  • Know your ending. It’s difficult to write a mystery if you don’t know who the killer is and why they committed the crime.
  • Know your beginning. How you introduce your plot is as important as the ending.
  • Allow your reader the confidence that they can solve the mystery whether they do or not. It is essential for your detective to work through the process, follow the clues, and solve the crime logically, as the reader might do. Don’t spring a solution onto the reader at the last moment, that’s cheating, and it will ruin your story and your credibility.
  • As to clues, foreshadowing is your friend. You don’t want clues to be obvious, but they must show importance later. Leave clues, your reader needs to be engaged in the mystery. Be subtle in those clues you do give, and no one said you can’t throw a few red herrings in to get them off the trail. Surprise your reader with plot twists, keep them guessing.
  • Know your basics. Who are your detectives, police professional or civilian? Who was murdered and how were they murdered and why? Who are the suspects? What obstacles stand in the detective’s way? Who is the killer? Do your homework, know your method of murder—gun, knife, poison—and make your story plausible.

To Structure Your Plot:

Act One:

  • Introduce your protagonist.
  • Reveal the crime.
  • Establish your protagonist’s goals and desires.
  • Determine your setting (important for sub-genres).
  • Introduce other characters (one may be your antagonist).
  • Set up obstacles the protagonist must face to achieve the goal.
  • Create subplots (often about the protagonist’s career or private life).

Act Two:

  • Raise the level of obstacles the protagonist must confront to raise the suspense.
  • Reveal clues as the investigation intensifies, including a core clue.
  • If a murder mystery, add another murder.
  • Sub-plot deepens.
  • Introduce red herrings and take away a promising suspect.

Act Three:

  • Motives are revealed.
  • Misdirection regarding the main plot.
  • Main clue revealed.
  • Sub-plot resolved.
  • Stakes for the protagonist raised higher.
  • Climatic confrontation with the perpetrator.

Notes:

  • Hook your reader. The first sentence, sentences, or paragraph must draw your reader in. For a mystery story, it is best to begin with action of some type. The murder occurring or the protagonist doing their job (a detective at a crime scene, for instance).
  • Establish empathy with your protagonist early. Your reader must identify with them and the goal they seek.
  • As stated in plot development, give your reader a murder/crime early in the story. Introduce the plot focus within the first half (but no later than the end) of the first chapter.
  • As you develop your plot, begin to consider the development of your characters and the secondary characters.
  • Pace your story, include waxing and waning action and offer a couple of mini-action scenes, and a more significant action scene in the middle, building to the final climax with the antagonist.

 

Plot is always essential to any story but imperative to a mystery. Every nuance of the story needs to lead to the resolution of the protagonist’s goal. Many writing “experts” like to purport that novels are plot driven and some say character driven. I believe you can’t have one without the other. Tomorrow we will examine the importance of characters and how to develop them within a mystery story.

 

Advertisements

WRITING YOUR FIRST NOVEL PART FOUR: PLOTTING YOUR STORY

Sing to me, Oh Muse… “

                    — Ode to the Courage of a Child by Nicola Berardi: Father of Alexey

 

The muse.

Greek mythology tells of the Nine Muses, deities that served as the inspiration for writers, artists, and philosophers. The word muse derives from the Greek word “mosis” which means to “desire and wish.” Ancient writers would call on the muses as they began to write and to this day Muses are symbolic of “inspiration and artistic creation.”

Writers often joke about their “muse,” but I suspect each of us secretly likes that soft voice only we can hear urging us to write. In truth, our inspirations are triggered by anything and everything we observe or imagine.

Now, that your muse has spoken. The question is what do you do with the story idea swirling in your head?

In Part Three of our series, we discussed developing your story by beginning to write without a plan or creating your storyline by planning it out or plotting it. Deciding what your story is about is not the same as structuring the novel. In Part Four, we are going to examine how to put the pieces of your story together.

divider-37709_640

Story vs. Plot:

First, let’s discuss story vs. plot. For many novice writers, the difference between these two terms is unclear. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines plot as the “the plan or main story (as of a movie or literary work).”  A story is told in a series of scenarios, or events, interacting sequentially.

Director Martin Scorsese offers the following explanation of story vs. plot:

“The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.” … Perhaps, in film, a plot could be said to be the sequence of (causally related) events that make up the narrative. The plot…it is what happens. Jul 29, 2014

Stories are about the characters’ conflicts or goals. It is important to introduce the protagonist, or main character to your readers quickly, I suggest the first page, to establish a rapport. If your readers like and identify with your character, they will be interested in reading to the conclusion of your story. We will be discussing character development in the next installment of this series, but clearly, developing plot and character go hand in hand. If you outline first, once you have fleshed out your characters, add their important elements to your plan.  

As a mystery writer, I respect my readers’ need to have a murder victim within the first few pages. I introduce my antagonist within the first chapter, no later than the second chapter, as I establish clues. It is imperative, regardless of genre that you keep the small nuances of your genre in mind. While it is a writer’s desire to be innovative, it is also important to remember why your reader loves the genre you write in. Don’t disappoint them.

divider-37709_640

Story Structure:

One of the most touted methods of creating a plot in the writing world is the three-act structure, or the five or seven-act structure.  The problem is stories do not occur in three acts. Three or more acts evolved as far back as the days of Aristotle from natural stopping points within a story to provide intermission for the audience.  While there is a lot of information and instruction on this method of developing a story plot, the truth is stories are not built on any number of acts. They are crafted by identifying the conflict the story is based on, and the action needed to resolve the conflict.

There is some confusion with the three-act method with how the plots within a story unfold. There is a beginning, middle and ending of a story but they flow from each other and are not specific acts.  

The Beginning

The beginning section is traditionally used for exposition, the literary term for providing character information, backstory, any information that is pertinent to the story. (We will discuss how to present this information in a future installment of this series.)  You must establish your story, introduce your characters and reveal conflict that forces your protagonist to act. The catalyst for your story should be revealed in this section, murder, the discovery of a secret, a broken romance, whatever conflict your main character must overcome.

The Middle

The middle of the story is where many novice writers lose focus. Often nicknamed the “saggy middle,” it is the portion of the book where it is imperative to keep the reader engaged. Rising action regarding the story’s conflicts should drive this section of the book. A series of issues, some resolved, some not are presented, and the pace should vary. Give your reader time to catch their breath, a constant roller coaster ride will only serve to tire them.

In this middle section, your goal is to move the story on to its conclusion. Conflict should rise, the characters should be placed in further jeopardy. At least one main action scene along with smaller events should be driving the story, leading your character toward the total disruption of their goals or desires.

The Ending

The ending is where the conflict or goal of the main character is broken and then resolved. Never make it easy for your protagonist to reach their desired outcome. Place them in physical or emotional harm’s way, bringing them to the brink, then redeem them at the conclusion. The last scene of your book should (if you choose) reveal the aftermath of the story as you return them to a normal life.

~~~~~~~

While we strive to be original and innovative in our writing, we need to remember that there are reasons we are governed by laws. Rules and regulations keep chaos at bay in the courthouse, Congress, or on the road. Writing rules, while not rigid, keep your novels from becoming chaotic. Following a tried and true structure provides you reader with an expected ‘friend,’ allowing their emotions to rise and fall as your unique storytelling draws them in.

Up next:  Writing Your First Novel  Part Five: Developing Unforgettable Characters

divider-37709_640

Resources:

https://www.greekmyths-greekmythology.com/nine-muses-in-greek-mythology/

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/plot

nofilmschool.com/2014/07/martin-scorsese-difference-between-story-plot