Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Plot Thickens by Donis Casey

If your cast of characters are the ingredients of your novel, the Plot is the recipe - how you put all the ingredients together and the way you order events to create suspense and interest. E.L. Doctorow said, “The plot is a journey. Driving a car at night you can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
The Hook - When you are reading a novel for the first time, when do you first say, “Hmm! How interesting!” If you’re Steven King, people are going to cut you a lot of slack about the beginning of your novel, but if nobody every heard of you, you must to create the most interesting beginning you can. Grab them right away. A good strategy for a beginning mystery author is to open with the murder or the crime scene. In a way, your story is starting in the middle. A lot has happened before we get there. You have about three pages to suck your reader in before she decides whether or not to continue.
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The Clues - Dole out your clues like breadcrumbs through the forest, leading your reader on. We want to keep ‘em guessing. Generally the sleuth gets his first clues from the crime scene - physical clues. How is the victim lying? Is the room a mess? Did she fight, try to run? Then expand to an investigation of the victim. What was going on in her life? What was she involved in that may have gotten her killed?.
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The Obstacles - It wouldn’t be much of a story if the sleuth simply observed the crime scene for a moment before announcing “ “It was Colonel Mustard in the library with a candlestick.” There must be obstacles that are keeping the sleuth from solving the mystery right away Things are not as they first appear. He learns by trial and error, so he follows the wrong trail for awhile. How can you misdirect him? Is the cause of death confounded? We thought he froze to death, but it turns out there is a bullet in his brain. Is blame focused on the wrong person? Get your hero into trouble and don’t get him out too soon.
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The Side Story - Just like side characters, a side story adds depth. Janet Evanovich said she thinks of the side story as a braid that weaves in and out with the mystery. The side story may or may not have anything to do with the murder, but the reader won’t know if it does or not. ______________________________________________________________________
This Changes Everything! - This is an event that happens in the big bad middle of the story. One giant obstacle, or a piece of information that comes to light that shows the sleuth is on the wrong track. Something happens to take the sleuth right back to square one. This raises the stakes for the reader. Laura is found shot in the face and dead on the floor of her apartment. Detective MacPherson cannot discover a single reason for Laura’s murder. He is sitting in her apartment, pondering the problem, when the door opens, and who should walk in but Laura! Oh, No! Laura isn’t dead! Then who was the dead woman, dressed in Laura’s clothes and lying on the floor of her apartment? But now, at least, we are set up for the escalation and headed in the right direction.
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The Escalation - As you get near the climax, it’s time to pick up the pace. Answer more questions. Use more dialog and less description, because dialog moves fast. Use shorter sentences, increase suspense, increase the danger to your sleuth. ______________________________________________________________________
The Climax - This is what everything has been leading up to, when everything comes together, the AHA moment, the payoff, the showdown. This is when we find out whodunnit. This is when the sleuth confronts the killer and they duke it out. When Spade gets Brigit to spill the beans before the police arrive and arrest him for murder. And remember, it all has to make sense. Don’t cheat your reader. Always play fair. Did the sleuth honestly find the answer using the information provided? Or was it just dumb luck?
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A Satisfying Ending - Which leads us to, a satisfying ending. Justice has to be done. Doing justice doesn’t always mean that the killer is caught by the law or goes to jail, or is even punished, but the right thing has to happen. In Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, the right thing happened when the evil victim was murdered, and Poirot covered up for the killers. Tracking down the clues is what gave you your plot. Letting your reader see right prevail is what gives your reader a satisfying ending in a mystery.
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Donis Casey Author of the Alafair Tucker Mysteries from Poisoned Pen Press, including The Sky Took Him, January 2009.

3 comments:

  1. "Laura is found shot in the face and dead on the floor of her apartment. Detective MacPherson cannot discover a single reason for Laura’s murder. He is sitting in her apartment, pondering the problem, when the door opens, and who should walk in but Laura! Oh, No! Laura isn’t dead! Then who was the dead woman, dressed in Laura’s clothes and lying on the floor of her apartment?"

    AND? Have you already written this story? If so, I want to read it! :-)

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  2. Hi, Donis,

    Excellent points! Nothing is worse than reading a mystery where the plot is lacking in the ingredients listed. IT's like chocolate chip cookies without the chocolate chips added!

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  3. Oh, I wish I had written the story, Gayle, but Vera Caspary beat me to it in 1943. And then Otto Premminger made a movie of it in 1944 - "Laura", with Gene Tierny, Dana Andrews, and Clifton Webb. Movie or book, it's a study in spectacular plotting.

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