Wednesday, April 18, 2007

How To

Joanna's GREAT post of advice has inspired me to offer my set of instructions for plotting and writing your own mystery story.
1. Think "What if . . . " What if you were watching TV some evening and your phone rings. Answering it with a mumble, you hear, "The blow will be in the green suitcase arriving on Flight 340 tomorrow at five." What if a third grader overheard a teacher talking about murdering someone? What if you saw your best friend walk up to a squad car and hand the officer a large amount of cash? Every story has its origins in "What if . . . " Ideas are everywhere, on the news, in overheard conversations, in magazines, on the Learning Channel.
2. When you start to actually sit down to write your story, begin at the end. Nearly all mystery stories have a point near the end when the sleuth says, "Let me explain." He or she then reviews briefly what has been going on all along, concluding by unveiling the guilty party. Even if you do not plan to have a scene like this, you must have the solution as clear in your head as if you will. Police detectives are taught that to solve a crime you must answer, Who? What? Why? When? Where? and How? You must know the answers to these questions before going ahead with your story.
3. Naturally, all this planning will invent the clues that will lead to the catching of your culprit. Those clues should be broken into fragments and dropped IN THE WRONG ORDER throughout the story. It can be clever to put your main clue in first, before your readers have your characters sorted out. Make sure your clues are the sort your detective can discover and interpret. If the solution relies on esoteric knowledge about medicine, make your heroine a doctor. If the clues involve fingerprints, blood analysis, and the like, better make her a cop or a forensics expert – but this will call for a LOT of research. (Watching CSI is not real research.) If the clues involve the nuances of human behavior, don't make him a nerd or misanthropist, unless you also plan some major changes in his attitude. (See? Already you have invented your victim, your murderer, and your detective!) Now, find some solid lead that points to a suspect (not the perpetrator). Invent a clue that absolutely clears him/her -- and either mix it with a seemingly more important bit of information, or put it in BEFORE the clue that points. It is great fun to cause your reader to be certain Ingrid did it, when all the time it was the grandfather. BUT, the reader shouldn't feel cheated; she should say at the end, "Darn, I missed that clue, and it was right there in front of me."
4. Having all this sorted out and written down, go to the beginning and invent a "Grabber." You want an opening sentence that will draw your reader immediately into the story, or is so strange that more of the story simply has to be read. For example, "It was all Tom's fault; he's the one who brought an elephant to church."
5. There can be any number of people mentioned in your story ("a cast of thousands" if you like) but your reader should be required to keep track of the names and actions of no more than seven characters. (You will need a victim, a detective, and least two suspects, so add new characters carefully.) Make each memorable. Do not name them Don, Dan, Dave, Doug, Sue, Sandy, and Sally; name them Gloria, Herman, Ingrid, Jessye, Marvel-Ann, Pedro, and Desktop. (Many writers own a copy of Name Your Baby.) Give each a physical attribute (eyes of a peculiar color, very tall, long braids) or trick of speech (stutters, uses big words, uses a lot of slang), and refer to it about every other time the character appears in your story ("Rubbed his sea-green eyes ... ", "... looked down from his great height," "'B-b-but that's s-silly," stammered Herman, "Hah!" Gloria said, flinging a braid over her plump shoulder.) Don't use real people. You may base a character on someone you know, but make enough changes so the person in your story becomes someone new. (Usually this happens all by itself as your story develops.)
6. Keep the story moving, keep the reader guessing what will happen next, then toss in an ending that makes him laugh or feel surprised. But remember, the ending has to fit the story; don't cheat by making the perpetrator someone you introduce on the next to last page. On the other hand, some kinds of sleight of hand in short stories can be okay. For example: A little boy overhears a teacher saying something on the phone that seems to mean the teacher
did something illegal. The teacher sees him listening and orders him to stay after school. The boy is so scared he appears sick, so another teacher sends him to the nurse, who decides to call his mother. The mother goes to talk to his teacher, who rises in confusion and stammers out something indicating he is guilty of a serious crime. Why? Because the boy's mother came straight from her job to pick up her son -- and she's a police officer! (See how the surprise comes because you don't know the mother is a cop until the very end? The boy in the story knows, and the nurse who called her knows. The trick here is to keep the reader from knowing until after the teacher has blurted something incriminating.)

To be continued next Wednesday . . .


Deb Baker said...

Monica, this is wonderful. I'm taking notes. Can't wait for next Wednesday. I should know this stuff, but I'm a seat-of-the-pants writer.

Monica Ferris said...

I am too, or I was. It wasn't until someone asked me to talk to an elementary-school creative writing class that I sat down and tried to figure out how I did it. I've given this as a talk any number of times, and give it a little more polish each time. By the way, this essay has its own surprise ending . . .

Jaymie said...

this is great - thanks! (and I just found "Knitting Bones" on Amazon - can't wait until December!)

Joanna Campbell Slan said...


You are giving away all the secrets of our craft! (And I'm taking notes.)


Beth Piper said...


I know from my own experience that I have a particular plot all played out in my ind when my muse takes over and it suddenly heads down a different direction. Can't wait to read what you have in store next.


Elizabeth Carroll