Plotting a Great Mystery

Sorry I haven’t been around lately. I’m plotting a new mystery. I’m taking a quick break today to share something I found on Pinterest (yes, I wasted some of my plotting time with a visit to Pinterest–since I only spent five minutes there, I’m not feeling guilty at all). The pic said this:

“To uncover the plot of your story, don’t ask what should happen, but what should go wrong. To uncover the meaning of your story, don’t ask what the theme is, but rather, what is discovered. Characters making choices to resolve tension–that’s your plot. If your protagonist has no goal, makes no choices, has no struggle to overcome, you have no plot.” -Steven James, from Story Trumps Structure

What I love most about this quote is the part “What should go wrong.” I don’t know about the rest of you mystery writers, but I plot my story by figuring out the murder first. Who did it? Why did he do it? How did he do it? How does he think he’ll get away with it? How much planning did he put into it? Most importantly, how will he be caught and brought to justice?

At some point in here, I’ll also figure out everything about the victim: who he is, why he deserved to die (in the mind of the murderer), how to make him sympathetic (so the reader cares about solving his murder), and all the other little things that go into crafting a great victim.

Once I have all that nailed down, I create my protagonist (she’s been in the back of my mind all the while, anyway) and figure out: How does she stumble across this murder? Why is it important for her to solve it? How will she solve it? What are the stakes if she doesn’t solve it? What’s her inner flaw that she must conquer before she can be in a position mentally, physically, or spiritually to solve the crime?

That’s where the “what can go wrong” comes into play. If it’s too easy for my protagonist to solve the murder, it’s a boring story. If it’s too hard, the reader will be frustrated. There’s a fine line between Believable and Throwable (as in “throw the book across the room and never read another book by this author ever again so-help-me-God”). Granted, my murderer wants to get away with his crime, so he’ll probably try to make things go wrong for the protagonist. But she also faces other problems. People lie. Evidence gets misinterpreted or languishes in a crime lab somewhere for horrific amounts of time. Budget cuts limit personnel availability. Family members want some quality time with the protagonist, so she can’t devote her entire day to crime solving. Attitudes and expectations get in the way. Feelings get hurt. Drama distracts.

The “what can go wrong” part can be fun to plan, but if I go overboard, the story isn’t believable or fun to read. Balance is the key.

Any comments? Questions? Observations? Share your wisdom with the rest of us, please, and use the comments section to do it.

-Sonja

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