PDA

View Full Version : Plotting the crime



Saint Fool
10-09-2006, 08:53 AM
I have an idea for a murder mystery ... and now I have a question.

I"m fairly certain that before I begin writing I need to decide that the murder was committed in the conservatory with a knife. Should I also decide that Miss Scarlett did it? Or should I just start writing and discover that it was really Colonel Mustard?

In other words, how much of the crime do you plan before you start writing?

(MODS - if this has been discussed before, please feel free to delete and point me in the right direction.)

Kentuk
10-09-2006, 09:37 AM
You have to know the whole story before you start to write.
Then you have to figure out how to mislead your readers without cheating.
Ok now you can write.

You can write beautifully, tell a great story but if you don't play by the mystery rules your readers will never buy twice. My S.O. who lives on coffee ice-cream and murder mysteries just confirmed this. Says she would never buy again.

Kentuk

tommy gun
10-09-2006, 09:40 AM
uncle jim talks a lot about writing first, revising and story boarding later. his recommendations are to do an outline if youd like, then write an 80% outline, by writing out the story in the form of events and key dialogue. only by writing the story will you figure out what works. and while writing you may have a visit from a muse that leads you on an interesting path, an exciting series of events, or an unanticipated but nature direction that leads to a good story.

but if youre just chilling, i like to work out the key parts of the story, maybe solidify the motivations of the characters, and finally think about how the story mind find it self unwinding.

in the end, using outlines as a guide or deviating from them, writing itself will be the best way to work it out.

Riddler
10-11-2006, 09:35 AM
I think the ends justify the means -- maybe for you personally, not knowing the ending yet as you write would help establish your tone and mood. Your protagonist would be experiencing the same feelings of doubt and second-thinking his/her current timeline along with you.

For me personally, though, I'd need to have an idea or outline of the endgame up front to execute it properly. It would throw off my crescendo to the climax to not have it previously worked out.

Linda Adams
10-11-2006, 02:27 PM
I'd recommend figuring out who did it and generally how the story ends before writing. Mysteries are fairly plot-dense, and it's hard to lay in the groundwork throughout the story for the solving of the crime if you don't know who committed the crime. Not to mention that if there isn't an end goal to shoot for, the story could wander around needlessly because there's no focus. That would mean lots of painful revision to fix something that shouldn't have been broken to start with. It's hard enough to get the story functioning properly without adding problems unnecessarily.

Kate Thornton
10-11-2006, 06:02 PM
You could always do it both ways - you may end up with two different stories that way, but maybe that would work too.

Outline in detail the first story, noting major plot twists, characters, and whodunit.

Then just write - if your deviations from the original outline take you into uncharted - but exciting & logical - territory, consider using it. Then go back and see if your original outline would be an improvement or not.

This is more complicated and makes you revise greatly if necessary, but it also gives you a structured framework *and* lets your imagination run free.

Playing by the rules for any classic mystery is a must - the reader may be fooled by your placement of clues, but never made a fool of by your omission of information.

soloset
10-11-2006, 11:18 PM
You can write beautifully, tell a great story but if you don't play by the mystery rules your readers will never buy twice. My S.O. who lives on coffee ice-cream and murder mysteries just confirmed this. Says she would never buy again.


Playing by the rules for any classic mystery is a must - the reader may be fooled by your placement of clues, but never made a fool of by your omission of information.

All good points, but I have to add to this -- readers will remember if you do this and HATE you for it. I'm not kidding. I loathe Murder She Wrote because of an ending that hinged on a pair of rubber gloves Jessica discovered during the commercial break. And implicated Cousin Joe, who hadn't been mentioned up 'til then.

I was going to type up the mystery reader's bill of rights for you, but I can't seem to find it. I thought it was in my battered copy of Murder Ink; instead I found a thirty-year-old savings bond (wondered where I put that), a sheaf of negatives I don't recognize, and a bunch of articles I don't remember reading instead.

Now I'm tempted to spend the afternoon reading instead of doing my BIC. Or maybe shopping. :D


In other words, how much of the crime do you plan before you start writing?

I find it hard to get started without knowing who did it. That person might change as I go, but at least I know who I think it is when I start.

The villain is as important to the story as the hero, maybe even more so in some respects from a plotting perspective.

The villain drives the story. If he doesn't kill the victim, the hero never becomes involved. If he doesn't have a vested interest in keeping the crime unsolved (or passing it off as something else) and act on that interest, the story is over.

As far as the crime itself goes, I usually know who did it, who got it, and why right off the bat. Where and how reveal themselves but might need to be tweaked before the end.

Jamesaritchie
10-12-2006, 06:28 AM
I don't plot any of it. Gag, puke, yuck, and a pox on plotted novels.

Look at it this way. The protagonist of my mysteries are usually trying to solve the crime. Now think of real people trying to solve a crime. Do you think anyone ever walks up to them and hands them a plot with all the details, including who did it?

Not hardly.

Just as in real life, the crime should solve itself. The protagonist's part should be solving the crime with aid of mistakes made in teh driminal act. But the crime solves itself be virtue of mistakes made by the criminal, and the protagonist's job is finding and understanding these mistakes.

I find plotting the crime in advance generally means silly mistakes are made, the protagonist finds them much too conveniently, and I know who did by the end of chapter two.

I'm firmly in the camp of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King on this issue. Bradbury says plot should never precede action, and he's right. King says "'Plot is, I think, the good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice."

A bit too brutal, but I think he's right, as well.

JDCrayne
10-12-2006, 09:37 AM
I'm firmly in the camp of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King on this issue. Bradbury says plot should never precede action, and he's right. King says "'Plot is, I think, the good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice."
A bit too brutal, but I think he's right, as well.

I've tried it both ways, and I feel more *comfortable* with advanced plotting and an outline -- so that I remember to salt the clues around the place where the sleuth can find them -- but on the other hand, there is a wonderful sense of freedom in writing without being hampered or hogtied by the plot. I also find that writing tends to go faster if I don't feel that I have to stay within a plot outline. It was Stephen King's comments (in "Danse Macabre," I think) that led me to try plotless writing, although I think that Raymond Chandler also mentioned that he didn't bother much about plots.

Ordinary_Guy
10-16-2006, 11:39 PM
I don't plot any of it. Gag, puke, yuck, and a pox on plotted novels.
:D You shouldn't hold back so much. How do you really feel...?

Look at it this way. The protagonist of my mysteries are usually trying to solve the crime. Now think of real people trying to solve a crime. Do you think anyone ever walks up to them and hands them a plot with all the details, including who did it?

Not hardly.

Just as in real life, the crime should solve itself. The protagonist's part should be solving the crime with aid of mistakes made in teh driminal act. But the crime solves itself be virtue of mistakes made by the criminal, and the protagonist's job is finding and understanding these mistakes.

I find plotting the crime in advance generally means silly mistakes are made, the protagonist finds them much too conveniently, and I know who did by the end of chapter two.
I could see this if you're trying to entertain yourself by telling yourself a story you've never heard. Great way to keep the suspense.

However... you're trying to tell them a story. It seems that if you've got a situation that's any more complex than making toast, you should have a pretty good grasp of whodunit before you get started. Keeping the tension high is part of the discipline and craft in writing.

Not to say you can't create quality work flying by the seat of your pants, but it would seem to add a great deal more stress than you need.

Reminds me of the old Olivier-Hoffman method vs. acting story. It's not actually a true story, but it makes a good point...

I'm firmly in the camp of Ray Bradbury and Stephen King on this issue. Bradbury says plot should never precede action, and he's right. King says "'Plot is, I think, the good writer's last resort and the dullard's first choice."

A bit too brutal, but I think he's right, as well.
I tend to lean towards Clancy's camp: The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense... In this case, action doesn't happen spontaneously - there is a lead up to it, even if the audience doesn't see it. It's the burden of the author to know the lead-up without spoiling it for the reader.

Your mileage may vary (of course).

Kate Thornton
10-17-2006, 12:24 AM
:D I tend to lean towards Clancy's camp: The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense... In this case, action doesn't happen spontaneously - there is a lead up to it, even if the audience doesn't see it. It's the burden of the author to know the lead-up without spoiling it for the reader.


It's that "making sense" part that is the plot.

If you can write a mystery without figuring out the basic ideas of the plot, then that's terrific. But there's a lot to remember if that's how you do it - I think a little planning can save you a lot of choppiness and dropped pieces of action if you have a good idea of what's happening in your story - especially if it is a longer work (a novel rather than flash fiction.) Plotting isn't always spoiling your action or characters with a static outline. It can be a good solid framework, the story you will tell with characters and setting. If it tells itself (sometimes my short stories do that) then so much the better. But if you havenever experienced the "Minerva Syndrome" - where the work springs from your head fully developed, then plotting is going to make the writing easier, not harder.
Just MHO.

jpserra
10-27-2006, 09:17 AM
uncle jim talks a lot about writing first, revising and story boarding later. his recommendations are to do an outline if youd like, then write an 80% outline,

I agree with Uncle Jim. You have to know where you are going. Kurt Vonnegut conceptualized Bashers and Smoothers. Bashers work the text all the way through. Smoothers write, then come back and smooth it out. I fall somewhere in between, but tend to be a basher because I usually have details that tie into the number of subplots I deal with. If your work is subplot heavy, you will need to make sure that you map these out, because by the end of 100,000 words, you will have missed something.

Just one side of the cube.

JPS

Momento Mori
10-27-2006, 06:29 PM
S'Fool:
how much of the crime do you plan before you start writing

In my WIP, I know what the crime is, who committed it, why they committed it and how they committed it. What I haven't quite figured out (and which I'm hoping will fall into place as I write it) is how my heroine discovers all these facts.

I think that it really helps if you know certain key points before you start writing because it means you've got certain touchstones in place that you can build around as you write. I don't think you necessarily have to have every little detail worked out, partly because I find in my writing that sometimes an idea will hit me that takes me off in a slightly different but more interesting direction to that originally planned.

If you do want to go into writing without plotting it out before hand, then I think it makes the revision stage more of a chore, not least because you'll have to look at what you've done 'cold' as a would-be reader and make sure that the story works in a logical way. That's not impossible, but if you don't have your touchstones worked out first, it might be difficult to untangle all of the elements (depending on how complicated your story is).

Hope that's some help.

MM

greglondon
10-27-2006, 11:01 PM
If you can, plot first, then write.
If you can't figure the plot, then write first,
plot as you go, and be prepared to go back and fix.

Ordinary_Guy
10-27-2006, 11:13 PM
If you can, plot first, then write.
If you can't figure the plot, then write first,
plot as you go, and be prepared to go back and fix.
Man, I plot like a madman and still go back and fix...

MyFirstMystery
10-27-2006, 11:56 PM
I'm working on a mystery. I've found it helpful to know the bare facts about the murder ahead of time. Who was killed, why she was killed, who did it, and why they did it.

The rest of it just emerges as I write. Having the murder basics keeps me from tripping over my own feet.

DeborahM
10-28-2006, 12:15 AM
I'm working on a mystery. I've found it helpful to know the bare facts about the murder ahead of time. Who was killed, why she was killed, who did it, and why they did it.

The rest of it just emerges as I write. Having the murder basics keeps me from tripping over my own feet.

True, but I would also like to add that I let my characters run the plot not plot run the characters. Some like to write the other way around. Like I don't outline, I've got my basic idea/foundation and profile my characters to run the storyline.

GeneBrighton
12-02-2006, 03:15 AM
I think the ends justify the means -- maybe for you personally, not knowing the ending yet as you write would help establish your tone and mood. Your protagonist would be experiencing the same feelings of doubt and second-thinking his/her current timeline along with you.

For me personally, though, I'd need to have an idea or outline of the endgame up front to execute it properly. It would throw off my crescendo to the climax to not have it previously worked out.

The question is, is it possible to write without plot or outline preplanned? Yes. So, if that's what brings you into the scene, allows you to explore as the reader explores, then it works. I write by faith. That's what I call this process. I enter a room, the world around that room and I explore. That's the fun of it. I know my analytical mind will be able to sort it out in the end. I'll revise where I have to, plant foreshadowing retroactively where required. I think it's more important to be in the here and now, because that's how the reader identifies with the author. He's exploring right there with you. Planning everything in advance places the reader ahead of you, because it relies on preconceived notions. I hate it when I'm reading a book or watching a movie and I know what's coming. That, I believe, is what an outline tends to do, make everything predictable. Enter the room, smell the smells, draw the curtain and examine the world you have entered. Because, in the end it will be that world, the one you have created and not the murder you have enacted that will prove your success.
After all, murders in a mystery are like special effects in a science fiction movie. You can't build an entire movie on special effects alone. It's boring. Ah, but that's just my opinion.

JDCrayne
12-02-2006, 05:04 AM
You have to know the whole story before you start to write.
Then you have to figure out how to mislead your readers without cheating.
Ok now you can write.

Yeah, I agree with that. I adhere to the old-fashioned rule of being fair to the reader and I like to plant clues in the book that people can extract and use to make fairly-enlightened guesses as to the identity of the killer. If you don't know the whole story in advance it's almost impossible to get your clues, times, and motives correctly established. That in turm means one hell of a lot of retrofitting. You're MUCH better off figuring it all out in the beginning.

Evaine
12-03-2006, 05:39 PM
I tried just starting and seeing where I got to once. I had the murder scene set up, got my main character there to look around - and he "turned to camera" and said "Who do you think I am - Brother Cadfael?"
He had no idea how to solve the murder, and I had to think of something else.

Linda Adams
12-03-2006, 06:53 PM
I adhere to the old-fashioned rule of being fair to the reader and I like to plant clues in the book that people can extract and use to make fairly-enlightened guesses as to the identity of the killer.

Good point about being fair to the reader. One of the things I dislike about some mysteries is that they spend so little time with the character who is the culprit (presumably in the quest to introduce multiple suspects or try to keep the bad guy from being obvious) that when he's revealed at the end, instead of saying, "Ah ha! That's who did it!" I'm going, "Who's he?"

Julie Worth
12-03-2006, 07:55 PM
You have to know the whole story before you start to write.

This is the outliner's viewpoint, but blank-pagers would not agree. Write your story in whichever way suits you. You can always go back and salt your clues later. (Even so, a real blank-pager salts her clues without knowing it.)

Jamesaritchie
12-03-2006, 09:28 PM
All I can say is that if you had to know the whole story before you wrote it, many of the best mystery writers out there would have to give up writing, and I never would have sold a mystery of any kind.

Theory is one thing, but I prefer looking at how my favorite mystery writers actually go about the process of writing novels that sell. I'm a big believer in looking at the real world experience of established pros whose work I love. Not one of my favorite mystery writers knows the whole story before writing it, or outlines in any way.

And I know not outlining or knowing everything in advance works very well for me. Knowing the whole story in advance may work very well for some writers, but it certainly is not something you have to know in order to write and sell a mystery of any kind. If it were, I'd still be unpublished in the mystery field, and so would a bunch of other writers.

Soccer Mom
12-08-2006, 01:27 AM
I do it both ways. I was an outline addict. JamesARitchie was adamant about no outline. I thought he was crazy, but I gave it a try. It was fun. I now do it both ways, depending on how I feel. Sometimes I know the end and sometimes I don't. Either way can work. It really is up to you.

Scarlett_156
12-08-2006, 01:48 AM
Plotting a crime that is the main focus of a story and plotting the story itself are two different things. I apologize if this has already been stated above; I read nearly all the replies and didn't see it.

If the crime that is the focus of your story is a spur-of-the-moment thing then there's not going to be much of a story to tell. That type of crime USUALLY gets solved pretty quickly in RL because someone who knows the person who did it blabs to somebody else, or the perpetrator left an obvious trail of clues, or something like that.

A planned crime of any type involves a LOT of planning unless the perpetrator is unusually foolhardy. Even if several guys run into a bank at noon, fire a gun at the ceiling, and yell "Everybody on the floor!"-- well, there were usually hours and hours of planning involved in that-- again, given that the criminals are not total dumbasses who just want to die in a hail of police gunfire.

A complex robbery, burglary, murder, etc., has to be planned and rehearsed or the criminal's chances of getting clean away with it are slim, especially in this day and age when there are cameras absolutely everywhere. Therefore, to write about a crime and how it is solved does involve a certain amount of planning or the whole story is gonna look slapped-together.

A crime of passion could lend itself to a story if there is an elaborate cover-up that follows-- again, someone has to do some planning.

Therefore, the writer who writes about these crimes and how they are solved DOES have to plan the crime from the criminal's point of view-- because even stupid criminals typically take measures to keep from getting caught. I don't generally read mysteries but it's easy to tell when an author has just pulled something out of his... er... thin air to help the protagonist solve the crime.

As for the narrative, the characters, how they interact, and what happens before and after the crime-- I don't suppose it's as important to graph all that out, that can be more freestyle. But if a story is about a crime, then you have to outline at least the crime and how it went down, or you'll end up with a less-than-satisfying result.

I hope this was helpful!

merper
12-08-2006, 02:36 AM
Any good mystery should be at least somewhat plotted, especially if you want really good twists and turns in there. People say Stephen King never plots, but in all honesty, stephen king is not about plot. It's about the characters. IMHO, his plots often end up god awful and anticlimatic, certainly nothing suspenseful or misleading like a mystery. I think a better example would be to see how someone like John le Carre or Forsythh writes.

THe plot may change from the outline(almost certainly will), but I think it's good to have one for a complicated story.

Jamesaritchie
12-08-2006, 03:26 AM
P

But if a story is about a crime, then you have to outline at least the crime and how it went down, or you'll end up with a less-than-satisfying result.

I hope this was helpful!

No, you absolutely do not have to outline the crime and how it goes down. You just don't. If you had to do this, many of the best mystery writers out there would never have sold a single story.

Just about every less than satisfying plot I've ever read was outlined in advance, and nearly all the really good, and famous, plots I've read were never outlined at all. Not in any way.

Not only do you not have to do this, doing so isn't even the norm. Not one of the mystery writers I love reader sits down and outlines the crime and how it goes, and they produce extremely satisfying results.

It's almost always a serious mistake to say you have to do anything, and in this case it's not only a mistake, it goes against what a great many of the best professional mystery writers actually do.

Jamesaritchie
12-08-2006, 03:36 AM
Any good mystery should be at least somewhat plotted, especially if you want really good twists and turns in there. People say Stephen King never plots, but in all honesty, stephen king is not about plot. It's about the characters. IMHO, his plots often end up god awful and anticlimatic, certainly nothing suspenseful or misleading like a mystery. I think a better example would be to see how someone like John le Carre or Forsythh writes.

THe plot may change from the outline(almost certainly will), but I think it's good to have one for a complicated story.

No, it does not have to be plotted. Every good novel has a plot, but there's an immense difference between having a novel having a plot, and plotting a novel. The plot is seldom there because the writer plotted it.

I think King has excellent plots, theyre his strong suit, but we're talking mystery writers here.

Outlines of any kind are not the norm, even in mystery writing, and never have been. There have always been more pro writers who do not outline than those who do, and even many of those who do outline or plot some part of the novel in advance usually do so very lightly, and very often do not stick to the outline once things are under way.

Outlining and plotting in advance works well for some writers, but not doing so works even better for a great many writers.

From my reading experience, if I guess the ending of a novel before I'm halfway through, that novel was outlined and plotted in advance.

Good twists and turns very rarely come from outlining and plotting in advance. They most often come by allowing the story and characters to take the lead, to go where they will, even when the writer hasn't a clue where that is.

Pick your ten favorite mystery writers and learn how they go about writing a novel. If they outline and plot in advance, then there's a good chance you should do the same. If they don't, then you probably shouldn't, either.

None of mine do, with a sort of single exception. They don't outline the novel, the crime, or anything else, and some of them have been satisfying huge numbers of readers for many decades.

One of my favorites, Robert B. Parker, used to outline in advance, but thank goodness he stopped. His novels got better instantly.

Outlining is a fairly recent bit of fiction doodling. Historically, not many great writers ever outlined any type of fiction, including mysteries.

Inside or outside of mysery writing, outlining is never something that HAS to be done to write a great novel. And in all honesty, it's something that gets in the way of quite a few new writers who believe it does have to be done.

Sitting down and outlining a crime in advance is just not something very many new writers can do at all well. What usually emerges is a predictable, easily guessed at climax, and the twists and turns produced this was seldom go along with the story, or surprise the reader, any more than they surprise the writer.

But in teh end I think nearly all writing comes down to learning how the top few writers you love go about it. Process does affect product, putlined and unoutlined novels do read differently, and the best chance of success lies, I think, in finding out how your favorite writers go about it, and then doing likewise.

But when you really dig into the hidden life of writers, you'll be amazed at how many top mystery writers wouldn't dream of outlining, plotting, or planning a single thing in advance, including the crime.

jpserra
12-08-2006, 06:23 PM
No, you absolutely do not have to outline the crime and how it goes down. You just don't. If you had to do this, many of the best mystery writers out there would never have sold a single story.

Yes and No. It is important to know where you are going. The work does not write itself. Plotting and Outlining are NOT bad words. Thinking about your work ahead of time does not destroy the possibility of naturally achieving the flow from point A to point Z. You are using a method to have new writers achieve what they need to aspire to. A new writer should outline, BUT, they should also know that there can be consequences to the use of an outline. When pressed into a corner to meet the expectations of writing from A to B to C, then it can feel contrived. How they deal with this is a skill they must develop. But worse is not knowing what direction you're heading. Put three months into a manuscript only to find its crap and then tell me that using notation and outline isnt' a better way of approaching a novel length work.


Just about every less than satisfying plot I've ever read was outlined in advance, and nearly all the really good, and famous, plots I've read were never outlined at all. Not in any way.

How in hell would you know. I doubt you've read everything. This isn't the first time we've gone head to head on outlining, James. I think you have a bug up your butt and don't do it, so no one else should. It's a bloody OPTION. Just outline the downfalls of using it. A smart writer can use an outline as a guide, without tipping his hand. Yes, there are formulaic works out there where we can clearly see the outline. But using an outline to guide us through tough patches is a great way of working out details you might have missed. That's like saying Read Law, but don't take notes. It's ridiculous.


It's almost always a serious mistake to say you have to do anything,

I'll agree with this. Finding your own way to deal with your material is imperative. Finding tricks that work for YOU. Not what everyone else does, so the next statement drives me nuts.


and in this case it's not only a mistake, it goes against what a great many of the best professional mystery writers actually do.

In one hand you saying you don't have to do it one way (a way YOU are in opposition to) and on the other hand you're saying to not do it because everyone else isn't doing it. Give me a (%*&#&%^&* break. Come on James. Get off your soapbox and tell the truth.

OUTLINING IS NOT A BAD WORD. Use it or don't.

John