Author Topic: Plotting mystery novels - tips?  (Read 4568 times)  

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.

Offline 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...

Offline Edward M. Grant

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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).

Offline Evenstar

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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.

Offline Alan Petersen

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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.


Offline lmckinley

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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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Offline MClayton

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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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Offline Anne R. Tan

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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.

Offline ShayneRutherford

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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.