Wednesday, October 15, 2014

How I Plot a Mystery Novel

by Holly West

Plotter or Pantser? That is the question the Do Some Damage crew has been discussing over the last week or so. I'm mostly a plotter--that is, I do my most efficient work when I outline a project before I get to the actual writing. But sometimes I wonder whether it's my best work. Am I somehow stifling myself by plotting a story in detail before it's even written?

I don't spend much time worrying about that, however. As Jay said in yesterday's post, whatever works. And for me, plotting works. Pantsing--well, it's useful if I just want to sit down and wander through a potential story, but it inevitably leads to writers block when I realize I have no idea where it's going and I've spent the last month writing 40 thousand words, 38 thousand of which might need to be scrapped.

When I plot, I generally use the three-act screenwriting structure, because I have a bachelor's degree in screenwriting and this method works for me. This is more or less the basic outline I used to write my latest mystery, Mistress of Lies. I usually try to fill in as many of these "blanks" as possible before I start writing the novel.

Screenshot of my outline for current WIP

Act One: 20k words
Opening Image

Begin Set Up

Inciting Incident (happens around 5k) - In Mistress of Lies, the inciting incident is a young girl who claims that Isabel Wilde's brother, Adam, was murdered instead of dying of the plague as Isabel had always thought.

Theme Stated or Central Question - The theme is stated by Isabel's brother, Lucian. He says, "Life is for the living, Isabel. Let the dead rest."

Continue Set Up (5 - 15k)

Catalyst/Stakes are raised (around 15k)

Debate (15-20k) - Should Isabel investigate her brother's death or leave well enough alone?

Act One Climax/Break into Act Two (around 20k)

Act Two A (20 - 40k)
In screenwriting, this act is called "Fun and Games" or "the promise of the premise." In a mystery novel, it's the investigation into the murder.

While I do plot it, it's a little less defined than Act One. Basically, I plot out what I think are the logical steps in the investigation, pausing around 22k to introduce the B story and raising the stakes (usually a subtle attack on the hero) around 26k.

At about 30k and leading into the midpoint, I do what Alex Sokoloff calls the "Parade of Suspects." The hero re-visits in some way each of the potential suspects we have. It could be an interview, a date, a confrontation--whatever is appropriate to the character(s) and story.

Midpoint Climax/Break into Act Two B (40k) - Usually, the midpoint climax will take the story in a dramatically different direction. It's often called a "reversal."

Act Two B (40 - 60k)
Continue Fun & Games (or in this case the murder investigation) - Often this will entail a re-calibration in response to whatever happened in the midpoint

Continue B story

Bad Guys Close In/Loss of Key Allies

Attack on Hero (Stakes are raised) (50k)

Dark Night of the Soul/All is Lost - That moment when your hero has lost all hope and doesn't know where to turn. He or she is tempted to give up.

Act Two Climax/Break into Act Three - In a mystery, this can be the revelation of who the murderer really is.

Act Three (60-80k)
The final battle - This can play out in a few ways. Sometimes it starts a "ticking clock."

Final image - A new normal has emerged.

I know, I know. It's a lot of detail. But my historical mysteries have been consistently praised for their good pacing, so I stand by it. And I really haven't addressed all of the elements that make up a good story. This post is simply a starting place for writing a mystery novel using the three-act screenwriting structure. Your milage, as they say, may vary.


Scott D. Parker said...

I love this breakdown. Mind if I print it and keep it handy? I've also read Sokoloff's guidelines and actually have them printed. Great stuff!

Kristi said...

So cool! Love it. I'm off to check off Alex Sokoloff's guidelines. I haven't read them for awhile!

Holly West said...

I'm glad this was useful for you. Alex's guidelines are much more detailed. For genre novels, I think they're invaluable.