CRAFT: The Structure of a Modern Mystery (Sorta)

I was going through my notes (stuff I’ve recorded over twenty-five years of tryin’ to break through the stone wall of this business) and found several pages discussing genre mystery novels. I think most of this stuff comes from conferences: ClueFest in Dallas (sorely missed), the RWA conferences, Southwest Writers. It’s from the past fifteen years (!) or so.

One lecturer noted that a genre mystery shouldn’t be longer than 65K words (205 manuscript pages) and should be divided into 12 chapters, each approximately 17 pages in length. Hmm! That’s pretty cut-and-dried. I don’t think this applies across the board. I see mysteries from about 85K to 100K words, and chapters can be a little longer than that. YA novels can be 60K words. But anyhow, if you wanted some rules, there you have one. (*grin*)

This session apparently was about The Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula.

Act I: The Murder and The Sleuth

I. Chapter 1

A. Discover the crime, a mystery to be solved. The crime should have been committed in an extraordinary way, and either the victim or the perp should be unusual somehow.

(My note: This is kind of a variant on workshop leader/editor Pamela Renner’s advice to set every scene somewhere interesting that the reader probalby hasn’t been and would like to be. She always called us out on scenes set in somebody’s car or on the phone or in a nondescript kitchen. She liked scenes to be set in a witches’ cauldron, in a pig iron smelter, or 100 feet underwater. I started doing this as often as I could and found my work much more interesting. Means you can do lots of research, too!)

B. Starting right away, clues should be dropped to suggest both physical and psychological aspects of the crime. Clues should point to suspects and motives which will keep the sleuth occupied until the end of Act I. Some clues should point the sleuth in the right direction; others may not be obvious or be recognized as actual clues until later in the story (dropped in as hints in “laundry lists” or during a distraction); still others are red herrings.

C. Make the sleuth interesting by having him or her do or say something very clever or unexpected. It is not necessary to disclose all aspects of the sleuth’s personality at the onset. Let the description unfold gradually to sustain interest. Do reveal enough background to let the reader understand the world in which the protagonist functions. (Small town sheriff, Scotland Yard detective, Pinkerton agent in the old West, country squire, investigative reporter in New York City, etc.)

(My note: I think having an unusual profession or hobby can be the hook for your sleuth. It’s very vague to say “have her do something clever.” Maybe you need to be sure she’s appealing, or have her Save the Cat.)

D. Ground the reader in time and place. If you can, come up with some sort of symbol in the opening scene to serve as a metaphor for what occurs in the story. The reappearance of this symbol at the conclusion of the story will create a certain organic unity.

(My note: that’s pretty English-class literary. But this is cool if you can pull it off. I also like to have the first line relate to the last line, if I can.)

E. Begin with a dramatic event. Some writers offer a prologue, describing the execution of the crime in detail, as it occurs, from the point of view of the victim or perp. The same information could be revealed through dialogue. Sufficient details should be furnished to allow the reader to experience the event as though he or she were actually there. Another good opening would be to put the sleuth in a dire situation and allow detail of the crime to unfold in due course.

(My note: Be careful about “revealing through dialogue.” This has to happen between cops as they arrive on the scene or whatnot. It can’t be, “Lieutenant Backstory, please remember that we had a case like this yesterday.” “Yes, Sergeant Exposition, and as you know, we are police officers in Baytown.”)

Chapter 2

A. Offer plausible suspects, all of whom appear to have had motive, means, and opportunity to to commit the crime. Sleuth should question them. One of these suspects will turn out to be the actual perpetrator.

(My note: Duh! But maybe not this early in the game. Has the body always dropped? I usually work out three ways that the crime could have been committed, and then I choose the one that really happened. This helps me lay out clues.)

NOTE: At the approximate mid-point of Act 1, something should occur which makes it clear to the reader that the crime is more complicated than originally thought. Hints may be given to allow the reader to actually see possibilities not yet known to the sleuth.

Chapter 3
A. Introduce a subplot. The subplot will carry the theme, which is a universal concept with which the reader can identify. Subplots tend to originate either in a crisis in the sleuth’s private life, or in the necessity of the sleuth facing a dilemma involving a matter of character, such as courage or honesty.

(My note: hmm. I agree that a subplot can carry theme, though.)

B. The ultimate resolution of the subplot with demonstrate change or growth on the part of the protagonist, and will be climactic on a personal or professional level. That climax may coincide with, or occur as prelude to, the climax of the main plot. A romantic interest or a confrontation with personal demons can be involved. Pace the novel by moving back and forth between the plot and subplot.

Act II

Direct the investigation toward a conclusion which later proves to be erroneous. This is your “false solution.”

Chapter 4

A. Reveal facts about suspects through interrogations and the discovery of clues.

B. Flight, or disappearance of one or more suspects, is good.

C. Develop a sense of urgency. Raise the stakes or make it evident that if the mystery is not solved soon, there will be terrible consequences.

Chapter 5
A. The investigation should broaden to put suspicion on other characters.

B. Information gathered through interviews or the discovery of physical evidence should point toward the solution, although the relevance may not yet be apparent.

Chapter 6
A. The sleuth’s background is revealed as the subplot is developed. Tell/show the reader what drives the protagonist, what haunts or is missing in his or her life.

B. Make it clear that the sleuth has a personal stake in the outcome, either because of threat to his or her life, or the possibility of revelation of matters deeply disturbing to the protagonist on an emotional level.

Act III
Change of focus and scope of the investigation. This is the pivotal point in the story where it become evident that the sleuth was on the wrong track. Something unexpected occurs, such as the appearance of a second body, the death of a major suspect, or discovery of evidence which clears the most likely suspect. The story must take a new direction.

Chapter 7

A. Reveal hidden motives. Formerly secret relationships come to light, such as business arrangements, romantic involvements, scores to be settled, or previously veiled kinships.

B. Develop and expose meanings of matters hinted at in Act I to slowly clarify the significance of earlier clues.

Chapter 8
A. The sleuth reveals the results of the investigation. Other characters, are given an opportunity to review what is known and assess the possibilities.

(My note: Hmm.)

B. The solution of the crime appears to be impossible. Attempts to solve the crime have stymied the sleuth. Misinterpretation of clues or mistaken conclusions have lead him or her in the wrong direction, and logic must be applied to force a new way of grasping an understanding of the uncertainties.

Chapter 9
A. Have the sleuth review the case to determine where he or she went wrong.

B. Reveal the chain of events which provoked the crime.

C. The crucial evidence is something overlooked in Act I, which appeared to have been of little consequence at the time it was first disclosed. That evidence takes on new meaning with information disclosed in Act III.

D. The sleuth (and perhaps the reader) becomes aware of the error, which remains undisclosed to the other characters.

Act IV: Solution

Chapter 10

A. The sleuth weighs the evidence and information gleaned from the other characters.

B. Based on what only he or she now knows, the sleuth must seek positive proof to back up the yet undisclosed conclusion.

Chapter 11
A. Resolution of the subplot

B. The protagonist, having been tested by his or her private ordeal, is strengthened for the final action leading to the actual solution of the mystery.

Chapter 12
A. The Climax: a dramatic confrontation between the sleuth and the perpetrator in which the sleuth prevails. The more “impossible” the odds have been, the more rewarding the climax will be.

B. Resolution – Revelation of clues and the deductive process which lead to the solution. Establish that the case has been solved and justice has been served to the satisfaction of all involved (except the villain).

You should’ve plotted the external event that kicks off the chain of events that forms the backbone of the novel. You can also plot the point of recognition, the major complication, and the pre-climax complication.

Payoff: The final scenes, when the tensions are red-hot and the character has reached a point of no return, must deliver drama, emotion, AND a logical conclusion.

This all seems pretty “duh” and straightforward, but I can see how someone might start outlining using this as a pattern for a cozy/traditional mystery novel.

I wasn’t planning to have a second body drop in my current “new” mystery, but maybe it’s a good idea. It’ll probably be one of the people from the religious cult in the Airstream trailers. In fact, I’m sure of it.

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Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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