Cave painting-Hands

Murder mystery 101

I had a writing epiphany today. [personal profile] frith_in_thorns says I should share with the class. :D

Basically, it's this:

For the last couple of months, I've been writing a murder mystery -- a steampunk romance murder mystery set in 1930, to be precise. A couple of weeks ago, some 50K into the thing, I got supremely stuck, so stuck that all of my usual unsticking techniques have not been working at all.

By this point I've written 5 novels in addition to a number of novel-length fanfics, which means I actually have a skill set for unsticking big plots! Believe me, no one is more shocked by this than I am! Usually it's a matter of going back to the beginning and carefully re-outlining everything I've written so far, looking for weak spots and potential points of divergence along the way. Sometimes I write plot points on index cards or post-its and lay them all out on a table. Sometimes I re-enact scenes with toys. When worst comes to worst, I just MAKE A DECISION ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT and go with that -- in my head, I call it the "dancing ninja conga line" because if you imagine a line of dancing ninjas conga-ing through your scene, anything has got to be an improvement over that.

But none of that was working on this one. Even making arbitrary decisions about the next plot point wasn't helping, because I'd just grind to a halt immediately on the next plot point.

But today I figured it out.

Basically, in nearly every sort of fiction, the main characters are the ones that drive the plot. Every important thing that happens, happens to them, and they have at least some agency in it.

In a murder mystery, though, that's exactly reversed. The detective-protagonists do have their own emotional/personal lives going on (ideally) in which they are principal actors, but the main driving force of the plot are actually the killers/victims/suspects.

Which means you have to outline the book from the point of view of the non-primary characters.

And once I realized that, things started falling into place beautifully, because that's why I've been having so much trouble figuring out what happens to my detectives at each stage of the plot; I'm viewing the whole world through their eyes, when actually, their actions and motivations are not the ones driving the big picture.

I think, looking back on it, that this is actually a recurring problem in a lot of my fiction -- original fiction much more so than fanfic, because in fanfic the minor characters are already pretty well known, but in original fiction it's easy to let the background collapse into two dimensions. And now I'm wondering how many of my other troublesome plots could be resolved by doing what I'm currently doing: outlining the movements and motivations of ALL of the characters, not just the ones at the center of the action.

Well, I wanted to write a murder mystery to learn to plot. Today I have learned something, for sure.

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very cool. I'm glad you got it working for you. Sometimes I find minor characters (mine and others) are poorly fleshed out so it is good you've had this epiphany.

Also I want to read this some day so good luck. It sounds like fun.
Having been an editor of murder mysteries, I can tell you for sure that a lot of authors don't bother to work out the motivations of anyone but the detective. Which is why I always had to read a book at least twice to edit it. Once to see how it played out as a narrative, and then I had to go back and see if, knowing the solution, everyone's actions made sense. Hint: they usually don't. So many mysteries are great narratives when you read them, and then you get to the end and you start thinking about it and none of it makes any goddamn sense.

I remember getting extremely frustrated with one author who, in the questionnaire he filled out for publicity, explained that his writing method was just to wing it. He didn't plan out anything in advance. You can't do that with the murder mystery. Murder mysteries are puzzle boxes. If the author is as in the dark as the reader is about what happened in the past, the ending just falls apart like wet cardboard.
ahaha, yeah; I think up to a point a story can carry itself on Rule of Cool (at least the first time) but it's always frustrating when you look back on the plot and it collapses like a house of cards.

Apparently Elmore Leonard was one of the authors who didn't plan anything, just wound up his characters and turned them loose. But then, his plots always relied more heavily on the general insanity and amorality of his characters than on intricate plotting anyhow.

One of my goals with this project was to learn to do those puzzle-box plots. I really admire them when authors do them well, but there are SO many ways to fail.
Some greats have had the problem of the plot not working from the perpetrator's perspective. J.K. Rowling, for example--"Goblet of Fire" makes no sense (much as I love it). Agatha Christie was queen of this. There's no way anyone would ever commit a murder in such an unnecessarily complicated and likely to fail way as they do in "Death on the Nile."
Oh, interesting :D Excellent food for thought, and now I'm wondering if I need to apply the same to my current story. I have quite a few secondary characters who are being a lot more front and center than I intended them to be.

What I find both fascinating and irritating about writing is how your subconscious seems to know more than your conscious. I'll hit similar road blocks and then agonize about it thinking that I lost interest in the story or that I should be writing something else, only to realize, oh, I just needed to write the scene this way instead of that way, and then I feel a little foolish for having agonized so much. Kind of like in those fantasies where the wise old man is being irritatingly cryptic because he can't just outright state what needs to be known "for reasons."
I hope it's helpful! It's been very helpful to me so far, looking at it that way. I'm going to be interested to find out if this particular way of getting past a plot block is applicable to other projects or if it's mostly just a murder-mystery thing.

And yeah, you're right about the subconscious! There are a lot of times when I'm terribly stuck, but if I do something else and let my brain noodle around with it for a while, a solution will pop up. And other times when I have an instinctive feeling that something is off, and eventually it turns out that my subconscious was picking up on problems that I hadn't quite been able to nail down.
Glad you've made a breakthrough, and an interesting one at that! If I ever get the energy to write another fic of any real length, I should probably try to consider the minor characters and their motivations a little more than in the past.

Hope the fic comes together, it sounds interesting. I'm always in awe of detective writers. You may notice that my WC fics don't involve complicated detecting... nor did my The Sentinel fics either! Not one of my strong points! :)
Thank you! :) I'm going to try it on some of my other projects too. It's turned out to be very useful on this one!
Great point and interesting thoughts.
Funny because that's basically what I'm struggling with in my current fanfic I'm writing (at my own padawan-fanfic-writer-level). I didn't intend to focus much on the investigation, but the more it goes, the more I realize it still has to make sense from the bad guys' point of view.

And that's actually something that bothers me in a lot fo fictions (books, TV shows...) that, when you stop and think about it, it doesn't make sense at all.
And as much as I love White Collar, the Kate and the Ellen storylines are definitely that.
Ha, yeah - White Collar's overall plots are really not the best. It's pretty obvious that they start out with a lot of mysteries (like the music box or the "man with the ring" in season one) and have absolutely no idea where it's going until they get there. :D
Season 5 was actually pretty good. They did seem to know where they were going.
Though White Collar is not the worse I've seen. Touch was terrible. The Event too. And most of the multi-season over arcs in procedural series, when you look back and see how complicated the whole thing is, it doesn't really make sense. Like the Red John thing in The Mentalist, or Beckett's mom's murder in Castle... Sometimes I wonder why they even bother...
"in my head, I call it the "dancing ninja conga line" because if you imagine a line of dancing ninjas conga-ing through your scene, anything has got to be an improvement over that."


This is the best thing I've read in a while.
ahahaha. I'm glad you like it! It makes me smile, which can be helpful when I'm in the depths of a frustrating writing block. :D
Oh, I have to do this a lot! I write a huge number of scenes from the non-POV perspectives just so I know where the heck *their* heads are at, which is....not the greatest habit to go *too* far with, I've found, because for every book I write I usually end up with the equivalent of a second novel in deleted scenes and scratch work and other-character-POV rewrites of scenes and "what went on over here in this other place at the same time." I'm actually trying to cut down on doing it because I feel like if I could channel that into more words on the primary narrative, I'd wriiiiite faaaaaster aaaaaaaaaa. ;)

But yeah, I totally agree that it's very helpful! And I LOVE the ninja conga line thing. I'm going to adopt that!
Oh, nice! I love the intricacy of your plots and the depth of the background characters; so that makes a lot of sense to me - I can see how it could get fairly time-intensive, though. (Oh man, and now I REALLY want to read some of those deleted scenes! You should offer them as extras on your website!)
Ooh, you're sweet! *blushes*

I've thought about posting some of them, but . . . they're UNEDITED! (the horror!) And many of them are a bit messy, with no clear beginning or end and references to backstory that only exists in my head. But perhaps at some point I shall. ;)