Author Topic: Plotting mystery novels - tips?  (Read 4713 times)  

Online Konolly

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Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« on: July 10, 2017, 02:20:34 AM »
I love reading mysteries, and I've had an idea for a series of my own (several, in fact!). I have the setting and cast of characters in mind, but as a dedicated pantser I'm struggling to get a plot down. I thought it would help a lot that I read the genre, and have a feel for the 'rhythm' of a mystery, but when I'm faced with a blank page I just freeze!

I've found Kboards recommendations for a few plotting resources, like Fool Proof Outline & Outlining Your Novel, but I'm not sure if these are suitable for mystery specifically? So, any recommendations for mystery-plotting resources- software, books, articles etc would be gratefully received!
« Last Edit: July 17, 2017, 08:20:32 AM by Konolly »

Offline BeMyBookBaby

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #1 on: July 10, 2017, 02:47:32 AM »
I recently spoke to a very popular psychological thriller writer and she recommended Libby Hawker's Take Off Your Pants. I find it helpful because much like a mystery, you need to leave clues littered throughout the story, and its just too hard to do that if you're pants-ing, despite the fact that I am a committed pants-er.

It gives you headings so you can plot, but not so detailed that you lose the excitement of creating a story, so it works well for me, though I'd love to hear what others are using too.

Offline notjohn

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #2 on: July 10, 2017, 03:21:03 AM »
I can't imagine any better "software" than the masters themselves. I admire Philip Kerr, Lee Child, Daniel Silva, and Robert Harris.

Good luck! -- NJ
« Last Edit: July 10, 2017, 06:10:39 AM by Betsy the Quilter »
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Offline Word Fan

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #3 on: July 10, 2017, 06:02:43 AM »
...as a dedicated pantser I'm struggling to get a [mystery] plot down.

...when I'm faced with a blank page I just freeze!

Then mystery is not your genre. If you have to actively read for your writing project because you do not already have a feel for the genre, there's something wrong.

Mystery stories, especially, need careful plotting. Mystery fans are almost as rabid as romance fans and will quickly skewer an author who comes off as a careless dilettante.

Offline antcurious

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #4 on: July 10, 2017, 06:05:20 AM »
This might do the trick:

http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/big-news-introducing-outlining-novel-workbook-computer-program/

I've not used it myself though...

If that fails, I use a spreadsheet:)

EDIT, sorry just re-read that you know about this software already. I know Joanna Penn in her podcast recently mentioned a book specifically about writing mysteries. It would be rather useful at this point if I could tell you what it's called. Sleep well knowing this resource exists, even if I can't remember what it's called ;D

Offline ADDavies

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #5 on: July 10, 2017, 06:30:38 AM »
If you want to keep plotting simple, check out some of the filim plotting guides out there. Save the Cat is good. It even breaks down several examples. A bit over-simplified as a one-stop IMHO but if you're a pantser you might only want the simple form of an outline of plotpoints and discover the rest as you write.

Gone Girl Beat Sheet (of the film, obvs) http://www.savethecat.com/beat-sheets/gone-girl-beat-sheet

If yours is more of a gritty thriller, try Sicario http://www.savethecat.com/beat-sheets/sicario-beat-sheet

Silence of the Lambs: http://www.savethecat.com/beat-sheets/the-silence-of-the-lambs-beat-sheet

Winter's Bone: http://www.savethecat.com/beat-sheets/the-winters-bone-beat-sheet

All good to get the rhythm and structure, but I find if I stick to this too closely my novel outlines are too simplistic and don't get under the skin of the characters. I use this as a starting point, but as I said, it might be enough if you want to pants out the larger arcs of plot and subplot.
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Offline Word Fan

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #6 on: July 10, 2017, 06:32:11 AM »
I know Joanna Penn in her podcast recently mentioned a book specifically about writing mysteries. It would be rather useful at this point if I could tell you what it's called. Sleep well knowing this resource exists, even if I can't remember what it's called ;D

This is it:

https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2017/06/19/how-to-write-a-mystery-rebecca-cantrell-jfpenn/

Offline notjohn

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #7 on: July 10, 2017, 07:40:25 AM »
Quote
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Online Spin52

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #9 on: July 10, 2017, 08:19:04 AM »
I can't imagine any better "software" than the masters themselves. I admire Philip Kerr, Lee Child, Daniel Silva, and Robert Harris.

Good luck! -- NJ

All good writers, but I'd call those thrillers or suspense, rather than mysteries. And mysteries aren't easy to write -- I'd been reading everything from Chandler to Christie to PD James for 40+ years before I ever tried to write one and still found it difficult. Rewarding, but difficult.


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Offline smikeo

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #10 on: July 10, 2017, 08:25:43 AM »
I live and die by this book: https://www.amazon.com/Write-Killer-Fiction-Carolyn-Wheat-ebook/dp/B004CFBL98

It covers both thrillers and mysteries at length

Offline Evenstar

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #11 on: July 10, 2017, 08:33:20 AM »
I would agree that mystery is not a good genre for a pantser.  Definitely get the hang of plotting if you want to write in this genre

Offline jdcore

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #12 on: July 10, 2017, 12:29:03 PM »
I write mysteries, and I find it helpful to do the following. First, jot down the red herrings and clues you want to use in the story. Then work backward. The last chapter will probably be a wrap up, so mark it as such. The next to last is probably the denoument. Third from last is probably revelation. The crime(s) happen at what points in the story? Probably first or second chapter. If there is a second crime, it's probably close to the end, i.e. fourth or fifth from last chapter. If multiple crimes, you want to pepper them out but you still want one early and one close to the revelation.

Now it's time to figure out where those red herrings and clues fit.  That's an outline. Maybe all the outline you need.

Online thesmallprint

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #13 on: July 10, 2017, 12:55:06 PM »
I write mysteries and rarely do any deep plotting or prep. One of my books, which was later published in the Reader's Digest condensed books series, was written based on one simple question and with no pre-plotting. The toughest job I've had by a million miles is my current WIP which is a complete rewrite - same basic plot, mostly the same characters, but so much tougher to rewrite than to write fresh.

Quite often a mystery only reveals itself (in structure), even to the author, after it has been written. If you have read many mysteries, you might just find you can write them too. Give it a try.


Online Lorri Moulton

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #14 on: July 10, 2017, 01:28:26 PM »
Watch mysteries, read mysteries, notice that the details make all the difference.

It should be clear in hindsight that the clue was important, but not obvious at the time.  Sprinkle clues throughout the story.  You want to entertain the reader!  Too easy and it's boring...too difficult and it won't make sense.  And my pet peeve....don't leave out a bunch of clues, then try to fit them all into the explanation of how the mystery was solved.  As a reader, I want a level playing field.  We should have all the information necessary to solve the case, but have to really pay attention.  And hopefully, create more than one or two viable suspects.

I'd recommend Sherlock Holmes (the books and BBC with Jeremy Brett) and Agatha Christie.  Her Murder on the Orient Express is my favorite...followed by The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side

There are a lot of articles on mystery writing.  Many will say start at the end (as already mentioned) and work your way to the beginning.  I plot backwards for the outline, then write dialogue from beginning to end.  While I'm more of a pantser, it's important to know where you're going with a mystery.

ETA:  Remember, you can also combine a mystery with other genres.  I like romance, mystery and suspense all interwoven...which gives the characters more to do than just tracking down the clues.  If you're getting stuck, you might start with a mystery as part of the story. :)

« Last Edit: July 10, 2017, 01:33:14 PM by Lorri Moulton »

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #15 on: July 10, 2017, 02:03:43 PM »
"Punching Babies: A How-To Guide" (if you can get past that title lol) helped me with outlining plot more than anything. I was pretty stuck for awhile. I had the characters created, a few scenes written, an idea, but I didn't know how to put it all together. I saw this book recommended on several forums and blogs. I worked through the book while I was reading it, and I had a really detailed outline by the end. After that I wrote the book in a couple of weeks. I write paranormal romance/urban fantasy, but I think it would be really good for a mystery too or any genre that has a lot of action.

I didn't know if we could post links, but here is the link: https://www.amazon.com/Punching-Babies-how-Adron-Smitley-ebook/dp/B00R9UJ1A4

It's $2.99 or free on KU. There's also a paperback if you prefer.
« Last Edit: July 10, 2017, 05:20:12 PM by Laura Kelley »

Online LilyBLily

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #16 on: July 10, 2017, 02:16:24 PM »
Nancy J. Cohen has a book Writing the Cozy Mystery (http://amzn.to/2u0SWKM) that pretty much describes that subgenre. John Curran's Agatha Christie's Murder in the Making (http://amzn.to/2ubu2IO) describes her methods. (I used shortened links but you can just look them up on Amazon by title.

Not knowing what you're doing in advance is why I have a murder mystery half written, with a couple of dead bodies--maybe three by now--and still don't know how to get to the denouement (which I already know). Seek all possible assistance.

Online crow.bar.beer

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #17 on: July 10, 2017, 02:21:04 PM »
Then mystery is not your genre. If you have to actively read for your writing project because you do not already have a feel for the genre, there's something wrong..

She clearly stated she already reads the genre and has a good feel for it. Plotting as a writing technique, however, doesn't come naturally to her because she'd developed an alternate approach until this point. Saying mystery isn't her genre is ludicrous (seriously, you should evaluate why you'd try to cut someone off at the knees like that). Subconsciously, she already groks mystery plots. Consciously, she just needs to develop the technical skill of doing it herself. Which is why it's great that people are contributing actual resources that will help with that one aspect of her repertoire. :)

Online V.P.

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #18 on: July 10, 2017, 03:30:05 PM »
You might find these articles helpful:

http://robynpaterson.com/?p=3495
http://keepmeinsuspense.blogspot.com/2006/07/plotting-your-cozy-mystery.html

Both of the articles linked to above offer different ways to go about outlining and plotting a mystery story.

Good luck going forward, and please keep us posted!


Offline Word Fan

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #19 on: July 10, 2017, 05:20:50 PM »
She clearly stated she already reads the genre and has a good feel for it. Plotting as a writing technique, however, doesn't come naturally to her because she'd developed an alternate approach until this point. Saying mystery isn't her genre is ludicrous (seriously, you should evaluate why you'd try to cut someone off at the knees like that). Subconsciously, she already groks mystery plots. Consciously, she just needs to develop the technical skill of doing it herself. Which is why it's great that people are contributing actual resources that will help with that one aspect of her repertoire. :)

I will stick by what I said and you should re-read what she said: she has settings and characters but, when it comes to plots, freezes when faced with a blank page. To me, that doesn't show an ability to "grok" mystery plots, subconsciously or not.

And I don't need an amateur shrink like you telling me what I need to "evaluate." What I don't think would be helpful would be for her to spend a huge amount of time and effort on a genre that she may not have a feel for. We see too much of that here. If she wants to take my comments as a challenge and prove me wrong, more power to her and truly I wish her luck.

As for actual resources: I'm the one who took the time to look up and post the link to the "how to write a mystery" podcast on Joanna Penn's website, so don't talk to me about being unhelpful. You certainly haven't been.

Online ShayneRutherford

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #20 on: July 10, 2017, 06:10:02 PM »
If you use Scrivener, there's a great mystery template that you can download. If you google 'murder mystery Scrivener template' it should come up at the top.
     

Online ShayneRutherford

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #21 on: July 10, 2017, 06:16:14 PM »
Then mystery is not your genre. If you have to actively read for your writing project because you do not already have a feel for the genre, there's something wrong.

Mystery stories, especially, need careful plotting. Mystery fans are almost as rabid as romance fans and will quickly skewer an author who comes off as a careless dilettante.

I generally freeze when faced with a blank page, too, if I try to make the plot up while I'm sitting in front of a computer. But if I plot while I'm doing something else that keeps my hands busy, I can get the gist of it going in my head, then do the detail work in a notebook, and then sit down and write because I have a roadmap to help me deal with the blank page. It's just a matter of coming at things from a different angle. Not everyone thinks the same way.
     

Online crow.bar.beer

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #22 on: July 10, 2017, 07:47:05 PM »
I will stick by what I said and you should re-read what she said: she has settings and characters but, when it comes to plots, freezes when faced with a blank page. To me, that doesn't show an ability to "grok" mystery plots, subconsciously or not.

Application and comprehension are separate things. Generating her own plot certainly doesn't mean her mind didn't understand the mystery plots she read. Creating your own requires a different set of skills. You told someone their genre maybe isn't theirs simply because they haven't developed one particular skill yet. That's poisonous (and clearly the result of flawed thinking anyway).

Quote
And I don't need an amateur shrink like you telling me what I need to "evaluate."

That wasn't for you, it was for her, to contextualize both the true nature of your comment and its inappropriateness.

Quote
As for actual resources: I'm the one who took the time to look up and post the link to the "how to write a mystery" podcast on Joanna Penn's website, so don't talk to me about being unhelpful. You certainly haven't been.

Cleaning up someone else's emotional toxicity is very helpful, once one takes a brief moment to consider the emotional impact brazen, insensitive comments like the one you made can have on others.

Offline Tulonsae

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #23 on: July 10, 2017, 08:03:04 PM »

Online paranormal_kitty

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #24 on: July 10, 2017, 08:14:10 PM »
Application and comprehension are separate things. Generating her own plot certainly doesn't mean her mind didn't understand the mystery plots she read. Creating your own requires a different set of skills. You told someone their genre maybe isn't theirs simply because they haven't developed one particular skill yet. That's poisonous (and clearly the result of flawed thinking anyway).

This! I didn't realize this until I started trying to put my first novel together. I had tons of scenes written, characters and things I wanted to happen, but the legos just weren't clicking together. I had to study and research before I could create a smooth, coherent plot. I would assume that most people have to learn to do this, but for a select few it probably comes naturally.

Offline JRTomlin

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #25 on: July 10, 2017, 09:01:58 PM »
You sound more like your suffering from anxiety about a new genre than need to change your method. I suggest simply doing it. See how it goes. If it doesn't work well pantsing a mystery (and I did that for all three of mine so it can be done) you probably have a rough draft to work with and you know what will and won't work for you.

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Offline Decon

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #26 on: July 11, 2017, 03:56:56 AM »
I've never used software, so no suggestions. The first  thing you need to know is the style - Cozy - or otherwise. Cozies have certain reader expectations. I read them, but I don't write them.

It might sound strange, but once I have a general idea of the story, I write the twist ending last chapter reveal before starting plotting, because the story drives towards that point.

If you know "who done it" and "why" before you start, then it's easier to plot the red herrings. Your investigator needs to be be a few steps ahead of the reader is another point. If the reader can work it out before the end, then you have failed, in the same way that if you have written a thriller that doesn't thrill.

The only other thing I would say is what others have and that is it's far better to fully plot the story. I use three acts. If you search three act mysteries on the Internet, there are lots of examples.

Saying that. There are different ways to craft mysteries. Take Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Although it's a psychological thriller, it's still a mystery with an investigation. What's different is that the first half doesn't have an investigation, but follows the life of the two main parties a married couple and it's halfway through the book before the plot point  and the wife goes missing. Then the investigation starts with the reader believing the husband is guilty of murdering her, until the twist ending.

I've just finished a similar crafted mystery to the Gone Girl structure, but it will be marketed as a psychological thriller.
« Last Edit: July 11, 2017, 04:15:55 AM by Decon »


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Offline Lefty

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #27 on: July 11, 2017, 05:15:58 AM »
The Elements of Mystery Fiction by William Tapply is a good base.

Offline lmckinley

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #28 on: July 11, 2017, 06:58:27 AM »
I have not finished my own mystory novel, so I can't say I have any tried and true advice. But I've never been much of a plotter and still find that an outlined plot kills my interest in writing. I've enjoyed mysteries for a long time but only this past year started reading them with the intent of analyzing what the author was doing. I read Libbie Hawker's book, (this was particularly helpful in figuring out the end, although I have not written it yet.) I also found a library book called "How to write a Damn Good Mystery" by James Frey. Frey also maintains that you must plot or else! but I know there are plenty of mysteries written without outlines, so I disagree with this. Frey suggests a five act structure and has some good ideas for creating pivotal plot points. He also has a fully crafted outline and explains all the steps he used to develop it. I'm not really following the structure he suggests, but I think some of his ideas have been absorbed into my story.

 I can't say that I'm really following any one plan or system, but seeing how other people organize their outlines has helped me form some bench mark plot points to aim for. I like jdcore's advice above.

When it comes to actual writing however, I find that I have to put the outline ideas away and let the characters do their thing. My imagination always works better that way. If you are a pantster by nature, you might need to just let the story run for a while and see where it takes you, then go back and sort out the finer plot points after. It's messier that way, but I know for me at least, it's the only way I'm going to get any writing done at all:) And to be honest, some of the red herrings and plot twists I've thought up in the act of writing have been much more interesting than what I came up with when outlining.

Offline Edward M. Grant

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #29 on: July 11, 2017, 07:06:44 AM »
I would agree that mystery is not a good genre for a pantser.  Definitely get the hang of plotting if you want to write in this genre

Yet I've read several interviews by popular mystery writers who said 'I make it up as I go along, figure out who did it at the end, then go back and put in any clues I need to prove it.'

Offline Deke

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #30 on: July 11, 2017, 07:10:39 AM »
I recommend my own book "Plot Machine: Crime" which covers the various crime genres and their specific structural needs.

http://a.co/cQ93DFz

This is also available as a box set with "The Plot Machine"  Hope it helps.

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Offline Al Stevens

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #31 on: July 11, 2017, 07:23:46 AM »
The advice given here that you must be a plotter to write mysteries is wrong. It might apply to some but not everyone. I'm a pantser for fiction, and I've published over a dozen mysteries. You need to be able to mentally keep track of what's happened so far, what needs to happen, and be willing to change either one. Then you pants away. I keep a little file of notes at the end of the ms to keep track of things that occur to me along the way that I need to address later. That's the closest thing to plotting that I do. The only software involved is the word processor.

But. That's how I do it. It won't work for everyone. Use what works for you and don't be told there's only one way.

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #32 on: July 11, 2017, 07:51:11 AM »
Have you tried checking out Blake Snyder's beat sheets? They've helped me break through my anxiety when I shifted sub-genre  :)


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Offline IainDriver

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #33 on: July 11, 2017, 08:11:09 AM »
Sounds like you have your work cut out for you pants-ing a mystery novel.  I don't have any book to recommend outside of the ones already mentioned, and most of them that I have read are big on plotting.

If plotting is truly out of the question, I would start with back story.  What actually happened?  Who killed who and why?  From there you know what you are writing towards, and what you want to hint at without revealing until the end.  The actual book answers to what happened, and why, may be different to the ones you have at the start but by having that in mind it may get you started.

Online CABarrett

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #34 on: July 11, 2017, 08:37:01 AM »
Yet I've read several interviews by popular mystery writers who said 'I make it up as I go along, figure out who did it at the end, then go back and put in any clues I need to prove it.'

I've even read a biography of Conan Doyle that described his daily routine (at one point) as thinking about his current work while skiing, then writing a chunk of it each afternoon. It didn't mention if he prepared other notes but it sounds like "pantsing" to me (although tbh I find how intensely we tie author identity to how many external notes you write down pretty weird).

I found this book by James Frey helpful when writing a paper about forensics in mystery novels (I've not yet completed my own novel but it's in progress). However I have noticed that older mystery writing guides (> 10 years) are not as useful for the current cozy scene because it's splintered off from the low-gore "traditional mystery" as a new subgenre that's significantly more character-focused, so you will want to choose your advice-givers based on your target market.

Offline BeMyBookBaby

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #35 on: July 11, 2017, 08:38:09 AM »
Sounds like you have your work cut out for you pants-ing a mystery novel.  I don't have any book to recommend outside of the ones already mentioned, and most of them that I have read are big on plotting.

If plotting is truly out of the question, I would start with back story.  What actually happened?  Who killed who and why?  From there you know what you are writing towards, and what you want to hint at without revealing until the end.  The actual book answers to what happened, and why, may be different to the ones you have at the start but by having that in mind it may get you started.

I know many authors do write mystery novels without plotting, but if you're aiming for efficacy then you should chance plotting, even if its only lightly done. The reason I'm trying to plot is because I want a short release gap, and if I am pants-ing and then having to do multiple edits, I won't manage that at all.

Offline Deke

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #36 on: July 11, 2017, 09:59:04 AM »
And if you're planning a series featuring the same character, then I'd plot a handful of stories before diving into the first one just to see how the character and setting work on a repeat basis.

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Offline Al Stevens

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #37 on: July 11, 2017, 10:27:53 AM »
And if you're planning a series featuring the same character, then I'd plot a handful of stories before diving into the first one just to see how the character and setting work on a repeat basis.
My mystery series is at #11, every one written with pants on. Life is not plotted. I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, much less weeks, months from now. Writing about life needn't be either. But if it works for you...

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #38 on: July 11, 2017, 10:33:45 AM »
I know many authors do write mystery novels without plotting, but if you're aiming for efficacy then you should chance plotting, even if its only lightly done.

I think even most pantsers have a basic idea of where the plot is going to go, even if it's just 'someone's murdered at the start and we find out who did it at the end.'  I can't speak for any other pantsers, but I'm also always moving chapters and scenes around while writing the book to make the story work as a whole (in the last SF novel, for example, the original chapter one ended up as chapter five).

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #39 on: July 11, 2017, 10:38:41 AM »
Okay, the pantsing/plotting argument is a Mobius Strip. There is no end and no definitive side that is right or wrong.

Let's stay on topic of helping the OP to find help with writing a mystery and not get involved in any in-fighting, or I might have to become mildly assertive, and you wouldn't like me when I'm mildly assertive...

Offline DanaG

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #40 on: July 11, 2017, 11:17:07 AM »
I love reading mysteries, and I've had an idea for a series of my own (several, in fact!). I have the setting and cast of characters in mind, but as a dedicated pantser I'm struggling to get a plot down. I thought it would help a lot that I read the genre, and have a feel for the 'rhythm' of a mystery, but when I'm faced with a blank page I just freeze!

I've found Kboards recommendations for a few plotting resources, like Fool Proof Outline & Outlining Your Novel, but I'm not sure if these are suitable for mystery specifically? So, any recommendations for mystery-plotting resources- software, books, articles etc would be gratefully received!

Where are you running into a problem? Have you figured out who you want to be your hero/heroine, what their background/expertise is - cozy, amateur sleuth? Police detective? etc.

Do you know what you want the crime to be, and why the hero/heroine would be investigating it?

I know that some people can totally pants mysteries, but I think that you'll need at least that much to start with.

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #41 on: July 11, 2017, 11:27:40 AM »
I found James N. Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Thriller very helpful and he has a book for mystery writers.


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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #42 on: July 11, 2017, 12:26:15 PM »
Yeah, Frey's book is pretty good:)

I was thinking about this earlier and I have some time this afternoon, so I'm going to give this a try. I know there is more than one good way to plot a mystery novel. I remember a thread a while ago on this subject and someone laid out Earle Stanley Gardner's Plot outline, which was cool, but I never figured out how to fit my story into it. What I am using, and have seen successfully used by others, is something like this.

Opening: setting the scene, introducing characters, as you would expect.

Next: The crime is discovered. The story begins! Some say this better happen right away. But I think there are exceptions. I'm still working this out for myself.

After this James Frey suggests a pivotal moment when the sleuth becomes personally invested in the mystery and feels compelled to solve it. I don't see this in a lot of the mysteries I've read, maybe because they are series, or maybe because they rely more on the character of the sleuth. Frey explains at the start of his book that he relies heavily on the archetypal hero journey, which I think has something like this. I found it helpful to at least think of ways my MC might become personally invested in the case, at least emotionally.

Then comes the first suspect. Various clues are discovered, and possible suspects are milling around, but the sleuth starts to narrow things down to a particular culprit.

Big reveal! Sleuth discovers that it couldn't possibly that first guy, begins interpreting the evidence a different way, and builds a theory based on a second suspect.

Some people suggest some danger or excitement around this point, to keep things from dragging, I guess, because the next thing that happens after that is that the second suspect also turns out to be a dead end. Now the sleuth is on the tail of the real villain, and probably goes through some kind of dangerous confrontation to get to the truth.

And the wrap up follows, often involving a not-too-detailed but still revelatory summing up of how the crime was committed and how the sleuth figured it out.

There's probably a lot more that could be added to it, but most mystery outlines seem to be something similar to this. And I think it works for a lot of novels. A recently read a mystery I first heard about on kboards, on some mystery thread or other, called The Sweetness at the Bottom of Pie, by Alan Bradley. It's won awards, successfully launched a series and seems to have a wide audience. It also follows the above outline pretty closely. It's full of quirky and original characters, detailed, (over the top really) descriptions, some obscure history that makes the mystery hard to guess, and a lot of clever writing. Some of the scenes start in media res and create a lot of micro tension. It's basically straightforward plot with creative storytelling. I've read other mysteries that have similar characteristics.

That's my take on plotting a mystery. I'm sure other people have better ideas on this. I'm still just a beginner myself, but this was enough 'plot' to get me writing and give me some clue of where I'm trying to get to. I think the rest can be pretty individual.

Offline MClayton

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #43 on: July 11, 2017, 12:34:50 PM »
I write mysteries, and I find it helpful to do the following. First, jot down the red herrings and clues you want to use in the story. Then work backward. The last chapter will probably be a wrap up, so mark it as such. The next to last is probably the denoument. Third from last is probably revelation. The crime(s) happen at what points in the story? Probably first or second chapter. If there is a second crime, it's probably close to the end, i.e. fourth or fifth from last chapter. If multiple crimes, you want to pepper them out but you still want one early and one close to the revelation.

Now it's time to figure out where those red herrings and clues fit.  That's an outline. Maybe all the outline you need.

My second series is morphing into mystery, and that's very similar to what I've done (and am doing in my WIP). I have a notebook with handwritten notes, plot points, red herrings, teasers I don't want to forget, etc. They get worked in as I go. I'm a plotter, so I already know how it ends. The trick is in weaving the pieces together in order to get there. Most of the ideas don't happen when I'm sitting at the computer. Most happen at inconvenient times, like when I'm driving, showering, or trying to sleep.

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #44 on: July 11, 2017, 01:14:19 PM »
The trick is in weaving the pieces together in order to get there. Most of the ideas don't happen when I'm sitting at the computer. Most happen at inconvenient times, like when I'm driving, showering, or trying to sleep.

So true!

I have to keep a pen and paper with me all the time.  J. Michael Straczynski said he came up with the entire storyline for Babylon 5 while in the shower.  Inspiration can strike anywhere, anytime. :)

ETA: I should show my source. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pw1OU-m9LC8  (I write romances, but I'm a sci-fi geek.)
« Last Edit: July 11, 2017, 01:28:06 PM by Lorri Moulton »

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #45 on: July 11, 2017, 01:49:55 PM »
 
So true!

I have to keep a pen and paper with me all the time.  J. Michael Straczynski said he came up with the entire storyline for Babylon 5 while in the shower.  Inspiration can strike anywhere, anytime. :)

ETA: I should show my source. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pw1OU-m9LC8  (I write romances, but I'm a sci-fi geek.)

I don't know what it is about the shower, but my family has gotten used to seeing me run out dripping wet with a towel on, looking for my notepad.  :)

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #46 on: July 11, 2017, 02:01:58 PM »

I don't know what it is about the shower, but my family has gotten used to seeing me run out dripping wet with a towel on, looking for my notepad.  :)

LOL :)

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #47 on: July 11, 2017, 11:54:55 PM »
"The weekend writer writes a mystery" helped me plot my first mystery. I pretty much follow the same outline process since. I plot the backstory first (victim, who wants to kill him, etc). Then I plot the front story that the reader reads. The clues have to make sense in hindsight when the killer is revealed. Unlike the other genres, mystery readers are actively trying to figure out the killer along with the sleuth. They are looking for a puzzle to solve with a main character that they want to spend a lot of time with (mysteries can run as long as 40+ books). Whether you write a PI mystery or cozy mystery, this applies across the board. Good luck!

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #48 on: July 12, 2017, 12:20:25 AM »

I don't know what it is about the shower, but my family has gotten used to seeing me run out dripping wet with a towel on, looking for my notepad.  :)

Ah, but did you know they make a pen and paper set that you can use in the shower?  A friend of mine bought it for me, and it has come in quite handy on occasion.

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #49 on: July 12, 2017, 02:49:27 AM »
Ah, but did you know they make a pen and paper set that you can use in the shower?  A friend of mine bought it for me, and it has come in quite handy on occasion.

Or just put your phone in a waterproof case and use OneNote.
     

Offline Decon

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #50 on: July 12, 2017, 07:48:49 AM »
Tips... I've recently finished a mystery and at Chapter 62 I had my twist ending.  I had six suspects with strong motive and it was none of them. However I wasn't satisfied and went on to write an unplanned further 2 chapters and an epilogue to add a further final twist to the ending and to tie up loose ends.

There must be many other examples of the double twist I'm sure, but I can't find them.

I've had someone reading it on Wattpad and it was so rewarding for me when the arrived at chapter 62 and said "That was one hell of a twist. Wow. I didn't see that coming. Very good" Maybe I should have stopped there, but at the epilogue which tied up all the loose ends and final twist reveal, they wrote. "Great story. Interesting twists and wrap up"

So I guess it was mission accomplished. I'm only saying this because, as good as your twist is, I don't like to leave loose ends that would distract from the pleasure of the read.

Loose ends are only any good if it is planned as important to pick up in the next book in a series. At least that's my take.
« Last Edit: July 12, 2017, 07:51:46 AM by Decon »


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Offline Casper Bogart

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #51 on: July 12, 2017, 09:05:16 AM »
Start with an interesting detective, and an unusual method of murder. At least I did in my story THE CASE OF THE PINK LADY. My detective is none other than Richard Nixon, (yes, THAT Nixon) right after he loses the race for Governor of California. He's in the political wilderness,washed up, depressed, angry, frustrated, flawed--which makes him interesting.

Once I find the detective, I search for the crime, and the murderer, and like others, I write out what actually happened--and the motive.

Then, I just build a clue trail. In the case of the above story, it's a short, so there aren't a great deal of suspects. The fun is in going back and forth between Nixon's inner turmoil and his brilliant mind in solving a crime that he's close too. Amateur sleuth stuff, almost a cozy-like. Certainly elements of humor. It can't be considered an actual cozy, so I think of his stories as hard-boiled spoofs, with some elements of political intrigue. Fun to write.

Anyway, that was my method.

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Offline MClayton

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #52 on: July 12, 2017, 10:11:23 AM »
Ah, but did you know they make a pen and paper set that you can use in the shower?  A friend of mine bought it for me, and it has come in quite handy on occasion.

I had heard that - I need to go order one.  :)

Or just put your phone in a waterproof case and use OneNote.

I'd drown in there before I ever finished typing my thought. Phones and I don't do well together - thumbs are too clumsy!

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #53 on: July 12, 2017, 01:49:23 PM »
Two books I think are great for mystery writers:



and

Writing the Modern Mystery by Barbara Norville, which is out of print, but available used. https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Mystery-Norville-Barbara-published/dp/B00EKYJL4S/

The latter is really one of the best to break down the plotting process for a mystery novel I've seen. It's a shame it's out of print, but it is pretty old.

P.S. Larry Beinhart is a "pantser," so you might get some insight from his book on that score.

Offline ceejay13

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #54 on: July 16, 2017, 11:57:32 AM »
I have a completely outlined and partially finished mystery on the backburner while I write my historical trilogy. This how-to by Hallie Ephron - Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel -  is great. I think it's recently been updated by the author. Hallie's book is very practical, has exercises at the end of each chapter, and a blueprint for planning a mystery novel. You might find it helpful too.

Re-reading novels by that master plotter Agatha Christie helped me plot mine. I'm also an avid mystery reader and I like watching crime dramas on tv.

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #55 on: July 17, 2017, 08:20:04 AM »
I just wanted to give a big, belated thank you to everyone who replied to me - it's been a mad week and I'm just getting a chance to have a good look at this thread now. I've realised the word 'software' in my title was odd so I've taken it out - I think I meant things like Excel spreadsheets, like beat sheets etc :S.

Just for clarification, I do intend to plot my (cozy) mystery rather than pants it but I'm finding the process surprisingly overwhelming. I have my amateur sleuth and the setting figured out fine, it's the actual murder/mystery part that I've been struggling with (if only it were the other way around!). Part of the problem, I think is that I'm used to writing character-led stories rather than anything particularly plot-heavy. But the main issue is that I quickly end up talking myself out of the murder weapon/suspects/clues I come up with - either something is too obvious, too contrived or too 'out there'. It's a confidence issue as much as anything, but it annoyingly puts me off writing the mysteries I actually really want to write!

Anyway, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron is winging its way to me now, and I'm going to have another read through this thread and then get back to the drawing board!

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #56 on: July 17, 2017, 09:41:58 AM »
You may have already done this, but I try to get into my suspect's heads and define their characters, too.  What drives them?  Why are they in this situation?  Would they be willing to commit the murder, but someone else beat them to it?  Why are they a suspect?  Is another character framing them?

This really helped me write my mystery since I knew some of the characters would be in the next book.  If you plan to write more than one cozy, some characters will probably be back and one might even be the next murderer. 

Many great books have been recommended, but one of my favorite mystery movies is Laura from 1944.  A classic film noir with lots of great twists and amazing characters, who almost all make good suspects. :)

« Last Edit: July 17, 2017, 09:46:41 AM by Lorri Moulton »

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Offline ceejay13

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #57 on: July 17, 2017, 01:14:35 PM »
Konolly, delighted that you ordered Hallie Ephron's book. I think you'll find it very helpful; I know I did, esp the blueprint, which I recreated in a Word doc. I forgot to add this in my previous post but Elizabeth Spann Craig has a series of short articles about writing cozies on her website, which also may be helpful to you. 

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #58 on: July 17, 2017, 08:27:59 PM »
I'm starting to plot a thriller that has cozy elements, but I wouldn't categorize it as a cozy. Thanks for starting this thread. There are some great suggestions.
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Offline KayBee123

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #59 on: August 24, 2017, 08:01:09 AM »
Some of you recommended Frey's How-To books (How to Write a Damn Good Novel/Mystery/Thriller)... he's running a 2,5 day story intensive workshop in Portland, Oregon in October (20th-22nd). They're kept small (generally no more than 10) so individual scenes and plot lines can be critiqued/brainstormed. The cost is $250 (tbc - it might be less) which includes the workshop and 2 dinners. PM if you want the email address of the host (it's hosted in someone's home but there is a good hotel within walking distance). I've attended many of his workshops - he's a master teacher, is very generous with his time if you ever want to follow up with him, and has forgotten more than I'll ever know about writing craft and I'm a craft nerd! :)

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #60 on: August 24, 2017, 08:44:50 AM »
I would agree that mystery is not a good genre for a pantser.  Definitely get the hang of plotting if you want to write in this genre

I disagree.

You don't have to plot ahead.....to be a plotter. :)

Both mysteries that I've written have been 100% pantsed. I had an an idea of the overall premise, but no idea who the killer would be. I let it organically unfold by having several people with motives and possibility and so wrote it as if I was investigating everyone and it was a lot of fun to do it that way.

But at the same time, I'm very much aware of the plot as I write and how different scenes are contributing to the story as a whole.

I just read Robert Dugoni's bestselling My Sister's Grave, which seems intricately plotted......and was totally pantsed.  He wrote it, then went back many times through it, fine-tuning and layering.

Maybe come up with a concept and start writing. See where it takes you.

Good luck!

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #61 on: August 24, 2017, 09:04:46 AM »
I disagree.

You don't have to plot ahead.....to be a plotter. :)

Both mysteries that I've written have been 100% pantsed. I had an an idea of the overall premise, but no idea who the killer would be. I let it organically unfold by having several people with motives and possibility and so wrote it as if I was investigating everyone and it was a lot of fun to do it that way.

But at the same time, I'm very much aware of the plot as I write and how different scenes are contributing to the story as a whole.

I just read Robert Dugoni's bestselling My Sister's Grave, which seems intricately plotted......and was totally pantsed.  He wrote it, then went back many times through it, fine-tuning and layering.

Maybe come up with a concept and start writing. See where it takes you.

Good luck!
Agree one hundred percent. Of course a mystery doesn't HAVE TO be plotted. Seems to me it would be way too easy to figure out the killer if it's plotted in advance.
I could be wrong, of course. If you pants a mystery, you can always go back and add red herrings/ foreshadowing/hints when you're done, so the killer doesn't come out of nowhere.

Offline Word Fan

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #62 on: August 24, 2017, 09:21:34 AM »
If you pants a mystery, you can always go back and add red herrings/foreshadowing/hints when you're done, so the killer doesn't come out of nowhere.

This is fine if the author is willing and able to go back and extensively re-write as needed (and if they're able to figure out what's needed). Some (many?) people cannot, and the possibly good story languishes in a drawer, forever unfinished.

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #63 on: August 24, 2017, 10:41:31 AM »
This is fine if the author is willing and able to go back and extensively re-write as needed (and if they're able to figure out what's needed). Some (many?) people cannot, and the possibly good story languishes in a drawer, forever unfinished.

I think what it basically comes down to is people either work from an outline or don't and it doesn't matter much if it's a mystery or a romance, it's still writing. There is no one right way.

Offline juliatheswede

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #64 on: August 24, 2017, 11:10:00 AM »
This is fine if the author is willing and able to go back and extensively re-write as needed (and if they're able to figure out what's needed). Some (many?) people cannot, and the possibly good story languishes in a drawer, forever unfinished.

Why wouldn't a writer be willing to do rewrites? I never do extensive rewrites when the first draft is finished as I keep rewriting as I go along. Takes very little to do the final back writing. After you've read plenty of mysteries, you should get a feel for what's needed and not. I can feel it when something doesn't quite work pretty quickly. Practice makes perfect. Though, of course, always use the method that works best for you, plotting or pantsing.

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #65 on: August 24, 2017, 11:19:13 AM »
Why wouldn't a writer be willing to do rewrites? I never do extensive rewrites when the first draft is finished as I keep rewriting as I go along. Takes very little to do the final back writing. After you've read plenty of mysteries, you should get a feel for what's needed and not. I can feel it when something doesn't quite work pretty quickly. Practice makes perfect. Though, of course, always use the method that works best for you, plotting or pantsing.

Plus, one nice benefit of pantsing is that your subconscious is always working on the story, so will often organically connect stuff without you even realizing it. Very fun when that happens.

Offline juliatheswede

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #66 on: August 24, 2017, 11:28:47 AM »
Plus, one nice benefit of pantsing is that your subconscious is always working on the story, so will often organically connect stuff without you even realizing it. Very fun when that happens.

Absolutely. It always works out one way or another in the end. Somehow. It just comes to you.

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #67 on: August 24, 2017, 12:21:31 PM »
Plus, one nice benefit of pantsing is that your subconscious is always working on the story, so will often organically connect stuff without you even realizing it. Very fun when that happens.

I love those light bulb moments!

Offline michisjourdi

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #68 on: August 24, 2017, 04:53:03 PM »
My advice would be to write it backwards. Know who killed your victim(s) and how. Then write about it about why they did it on some scrap paper. This can help you to come up with some clues. Then you might want to try doing some vague outlining.

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #69 on: August 24, 2017, 05:56:59 PM »
Plus, one nice benefit of pantsing is that your subconscious is always working on the story, so will often organically connect stuff without you even realizing it. Very fun when that happens.
That happens to me all the time. One time I was ringing the bell for Salvation Army and came up with a solution for a plot hole.
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Offline Alan Petersen

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #70 on: August 24, 2017, 06:19:51 PM »
Some of you recommended Frey's How-To books (How to Write a Damn Good Novel/Mystery/Thriller)... he's running a 2,5 day story intensive workshop in Portland, Oregon in October (20th-22nd). They're kept small (generally no more than 10) so individual scenes and plot lines can be critiqued/brainstormed. The cost is $250 (tbc - it might be less) which includes the workshop and 2 dinners. PM if you want the email address of the host (it's hosted in someone's home but there is a good hotel within walking distance). I've attended many of his workshops - he's a master teacher, is very generous with his time if you ever want to follow up with him, and has forgotten more than I'll ever know about writing craft and I'm a craft nerd! :)

Cool. I hope he does another one in Berkeley.

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #71 on: August 24, 2017, 06:21:24 PM »
This is fine if the author is willing and able to go back and extensively re-write as needed (and if they're able to figure out what's needed). Some (many?) people cannot, and the possibly good story languishes in a drawer, forever unfinished.
I've got the t-shirt to that club. No fun.

Offline Word Fan

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #72 on: August 28, 2017, 05:56:10 AM »
One time I was ringing the bell for Salvation Army and came up with a solution for a plot hole.

I see. A little bell went off in your head and... ding!... there it was!  ;D

(Mine always seem to happen when I'm doing dishes and my hands are all wet and I can't remember where I put my iPad and I have to scramble to find a pencil and paper and...  :'(  )

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #73 on: August 28, 2017, 08:51:45 AM »
Yet I've read several interviews by popular mystery writers who said 'I make it up as I go along, figure out who did it at the end, then go back and put in any clues I need to prove it.'

This! I never plot. Mysteries are fun to write for that reason. What I do know when I begin is the killer. I always know who that is and why he or she committed the murder. And back planted clues? They rock and work.  But that's my system. I suspect everyone has to use whatever system works for them.


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Offline D. Zollicoffer

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #74 on: August 28, 2017, 01:07:03 PM »
Pants at your own risk. Some writers can do it while others will have to rework entire novels after realizing that they've written an unfixable mess.

Me, I use "skeleton" outlines. I map out the major plot points and work towards them. After all, it's about the journey, not the destination. It's about how the detective figures it out and what they'll lose along the way. These outlines give me the freedom to play around while working towards a set goal. Feels like the best of both worlds! :)
« Last Edit: August 28, 2017, 01:12:23 PM by D. Zollicoffer »

Offline she-la-ti-da

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #75 on: August 29, 2017, 04:37:43 AM »
I wonder if the OP is having troubles because s/he is trying to write against their natural style (thinking they must plot, when they don't normally do so). That alone could be causing the issues. Me, I say write the way you naturally do, so long as you understand the structure of the genre. Just because you pants doesn't mean you can't edit. It's not an either/or world.
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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips, software?
« Reply #76 on: August 29, 2017, 05:45:01 AM »
What I do know when I begin is the killer. I always know who that is and why he or she committed the murder.

This can even work as the storyline itself. The Columbo television series from the 1970's and 80's did it like that. You saw right at the beginning who the killer was and how and, sometimes, why they did it. The fun was watching the detective seem to bumble and stumble his way through the case, following false leads and red herrings, until he did a classic "British country house" denouement, where he confronted the killer with all of the evidence and wrapped everything up neatly.

From Wikipedia: It popularized the "inverted detective story" format, which begins by showing the commission of the crime and its perpetrator. The series therefore usually has no "whodunit" element. The plot revolves around how a perpetrator, whose identity is already known to the audience, will finally be caught and exposed, which the show's writers called a "howcatchem," rather than a "whodunit."

It was a huge success on television. I wonder if anyone does, or has done, that in books, and if it could be done today.

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #77 on: August 29, 2017, 05:58:12 AM »
I take the Colombo route  in that I have my protagonist say "It's that guy right there. I don't know how he did it, but I know that he did it. Now I just gotta figure out how" 

So it's less a Who-Dun-It and more a How-Catch-em.

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Re: Plotting mystery novels - tips?
« Reply #78 on: August 29, 2017, 06:17:45 AM »
From Wikipedia: It popularized the "inverted detective story" format, which begins by showing the commission of the crime and its perpetrator. The series therefore usually has no "whodunit" element. The plot revolves around how a perpetrator, whose identity is already known to the audience, will finally be caught and exposed, which the show's writers called a "howcatchem," rather than a "whodunit."

It was a huge success on television. I wonder if anyone does, or has done, that in books, and if it could be done today.
I don't know about being a huge success, but my "Corpsickles' Cremains" book begins with the killer fully identified doing the deed. The plot centers around finding the victim, who is classified missing, and keeping others from being similarly killed. Read the Look inside to see whether you think it works.

ETA: The killer's name isn't given at the beginning, but by the end of Chapter 3, the reader knows who he is. I don't know whether that would be the same trope.
« Last Edit: August 29, 2017, 06:24:07 AM by Al Stevens »