Tag Archives: story structure

Mystery Genre Workshop Part One: Plot and Structure

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 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?

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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

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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.

 

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Go With the Flow. How to Keep Your Reader Interested.

 

My job as an author is to tell the story in the best way possible, to make it flow seamlessly and get the reader to keep turning the page. — Patrick Carman
Let’s face it. We write for many reasons, among them because we want someone to read our words, to listen to our story. The last thing we want is for them to throw the book down after the first chapter and walk away muttering they will never buy that author’s book again.

How do we keep them from being disappointed? We write a story so good that they cannot put the book down. Creating that story is not difficult if you pay attention to story structure components as you write.

When structuring a story, character development is imperative. You must create a main character that the reader identifies with and cheers for as the story unfolds. Reveal their goal early and make it your reader’s goal as well. Building your world, whether it is a planet in a far-off galaxy, a fantasy kingdom, or a small town in the Midwest is also a very important component. You need to provide your reader with an environment that catches their imagination and makes them feel present in your world as they read.

Your story needs to be coherent and plausible regardless of genre. You can be as imaginative as you want, but even in the fantasy and science-fiction genres, your magic and technology must be conceivable.

Grammar and sentence structure should be correct. You can take liberties with dialogue but not with narrative. The narrative should be without grammatical errors which cause the reader to break their immersion in the story.

It is flow, created by how you assemble these skills, which takes your story from ordinary to one your reader cannot put down.

 

Flow

The concept of flow in a novel has an elusive definition. It borders on the adage that you will know it when you ‘read’ it. Flow is a combination of several factors that create a cohesive story. The question is how to achieve flow. There are a few critical things that you should do.

 

The Hook:

You must connect with your reader. If you do not, they will never become engaged in your story. First, your opening sentence/paragraph, known as a hook, should set the mood and grab the reader’s attention. The following paragraphs, few pages, or even the first chapter can set the tone and interest of your novel.

There are a few do’s to creating a hook:

  • Place your character in a unique situation.
  • Create an interesting image, often of the locale your story is set in.
  • Start at a crucial point in your story.
  • Create mystery, allow your reader to wonder the why or where or what of your story.
  • Highlight an unusual character.

 

Do not do these things:

  • Be overly descriptive.
  • Start with useless information.
  • Start with dialogue. No one knows anything about your character yet.
  • Include a lot of characters in your opening.

 

The last “don’t” is quite telling. We discussed earlier that your reader must develop a relationship with your main character. They need to identify, sympathize or empathize, and root for the main character to achieve their goal. The opening of your story is where you create that bond. If you attempt to introduce too many characters too soon, your reader may bond with someone you will not be focusing on. The connection between the main character and the reader must be strong.

 

Make It Clear:

All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary—it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences. ~Somerset Maugham

Coherency is required. Well-crafted sentences and paragraphs and carefully chosen words present a clear message and allow comprehension. If your reader does not understand the story, they will not continue to read. Think of it as if you were giving someone directions. You should not say, “Go two miles and turn left,” nor should you describe all the businesses, houses, and landmarks on the way. The former is too little information, the latter too much. Choose the precise words to convey meaning. Extraneous words lead to confusion.

There must also be continuity. If you state your character is a redhead and four chapters later declare her a brunette, your reader will notice, and the flow will be broken. Maintain the information you present about your characters, locale, notable events, and the timeline. They must remain consistent. If they do not, someone who has become engrossed in the story will disconnect at the mistake.

 

Transition:

Sentence to sentence, or chapter to chapter, how you connect your thoughts affects the flow of your story. A transition can be carried out in many ways: a single word, a phrase, or a paragraph, bridging one thought to another, including emotion, time, location, or characters. A ‘cliffhanger’ at the end of a chapter is an excellent transition and follows the intent of the transitional paragraph to propel your reader forward and connect two segments of your story.

Choose your words carefully as you write the transitional sequence. Don’t embellish, but instead, provide concise meaning so that your reader reacts the way you intend.

 

Sentence Structure:

Think of a beautiful piece of music and how it varies in tempo and volume. Slow or soft to create a relaxed or somber mood; fast, building to a crescendo, to denote excitement, action, or power. The structure of a novel mimics the patterns we recognize in music. Notes or words matter and how the reader or listener responds reveals how successful we are in conveying our intended meaning.

How to accomplish flow with sentence structure:

  • Vary sentence type. Mix simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences
  • Be cognizant of word order. Do not start several sentences with the same subject. Mix up nouns, gerunds, prepositions, or clauses. A lack of variety can be both distracting and irritating to the reader.
  • Incorporate sentences of varying lengths. Sentences that are too long will often bore a reader, and a bored reader will quickly lose interest. Sentences that are too short will quicken the pace of the story and leave your reader breathless.

 

 Pacing the Action

 Pacing is not the sort of thing you can plan out beforehand, but you’re always aware of it as you write because you need to make constant decisions. — Jean Hanff Korelitz

 

Without a doubt, following these suggestions will improve the flow. The pacing of your story, how quickly it unfolds, also helps with story structure.

With the skills discussed so far, you can achieve the action needed to move your story along and the quiet times to give your readers a rest from the action. These periods should alternate while propelling your reader to continue reading.

In your first chapter, you have ‘hooked’ your reader with an opening that intrigues them. You should also introduce them to the main characters, as well as the plot and your main character’s goal.

Throughout your story, you will provide plot points to move the action forward. By recognizing how to place your minor and major action, you can maintain a smooth flow. Think of it as waxing and waning as the story builds to the final climax.

When writing a novel-length story, writers, at times, find themselves with issues when writing the middle, referred to as the ‘saggy’ middle. It is easy to lose your way to the ending unless, even if you write with an outline, you have a mid-action sequence in mind to keep the reader involved.

Many writers start a project with the beginning and ending in mind. Add what you want to happen in the middle of that formula. You will find that the story will move forward with ease using the tools suggested and pace the action to keep a smooth flow.

 

Keeping the Flow

Writing, despite misconceptions by some, is not an easy task. To create a story that a reader enjoys from the opening words until the closing sentence requires hard work and concentration. There are no shortcuts. A writer must consider each word as important or not, use correct grammar and structure, and ponder every action and every repose before declaring a story finished.

As stated, flow is an elusive task but one that must be conquered so the reader can simply go with the flow.

by D. A. Ratliff

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Resources:

https://writeitsideways.com/6-ways-to-hook-your-readers-from-the-very-first-line/

https://literarydevices.net/transition/

http://www.be-a-better-writer.com/transitional-words.html

https://www.brainyquote.com/topics/pacing

https://owlcation.com/humanities/Why-do-Writers-Write-Quotes-from-Famous-Writers-on-Writing