WRITE Mystery PLOTS for SCRIPTS or STORIES
A MYSTERY STRUCTURE can be divided into seven parts.
Overview of the Mystery Structure
Mystery plots can seem complicated but …
… when you break the structure down to a ‘step by step’ process – it becomes simple!
I often have to come up with fairplay mystery plots (mysteries where the reader or audience has all the clues they need to solve the mystery) on very short notice. Over the years I have created a series of diagrams to help me do this. Below is the COMPILATION CHART – the final step and a consolidation of all the previous steps and diagrams.
Once I have the COMPILATION CHART filled out I have my plot and I know all of the clues that need to be created so that the mystery can be solved.
HOW TO START Writing your mystery
There are at least 7 different starting points for a plot … probably more. Any of the following plot points listed below can inspire you to commit murder. Do you have an idea about …
- What happens – an overview of a captivating situation?
- Who is involved – any particular type of nefarious or super character?
- Why something happened – a motive that gets your blood boiling?
- How it happened – intrigued by a challenging murder method?
- When – passionate about time travel or a certain time of day?
- Where – curious about historic or futuristic locations?
- The Clues – in love with strategy and puzzles?
ANYTHING that GRABS your ATTENTION
can be a
There is no particular order in which to begin your mystery because writing the plot is not a linear process. The setting, the characters and their motives and the crime itself are all intricately tied together. If you are writing a scrip, then the parametres you follow are going to be narrower than if you are writing a story.
MYSTERIES are CIRCULAR by NATURE
Mysterys are circular by nature. Their construction is circles within circles. Because of the shape of a mystery there are many different points of entry when devising a cluetrail.
In the centre of the circle is the crime. Around the circumference are the suspects. Orbiting between the centre and the circumference are the motive, method, opportunity.
“A mystery starts with a question and ends with the answer.” – Lee Child
Whatever your specific question is, it will fall under one of the above plot points. The question starts with ‘What if …’ This question breaks down into a kaleidoscope of other questions. .. all of which must be answered by the end of the story. These questions are the life force of a mystery, the situation into which the characters are tossed and by which the reader or audience is captivated.
Mysteries are incredibly flexible. They can bend and twist to fit any circumstances or situation. If you are writing an interactive mystery event, you just have to know what you have to work with in the beginning to save yourself the work of adjusting elements later on.
If you are writing a book, you have much more freedom – but you still need to know where you are going to end up. One of the great joys of being a writer is being able to lay the infrastructure so that it supports all the twists and turns you are going to pull your reader through on their way to solving the crime.
This does not mean you are married to a rigid outline or structure. Yes, you do have to make one, but if along the way a better idea pops up, follow it as far as you reasonable can. If this bright new idea is asking you to rearrange just about everything – it’s probably a different book. If you can easily tweak existing ideas to support the new twist – by all means follow it if it improves the story.
MYSTERIES are really TWO STORIES
One story is What Appeared to Happen, and the second story, which everyone is trying to figure out, is What Really Happened.
What Actually Happened is the story. What Appeared to Happen is the mystery.
PLAN Your PLOT
ADVISE From The EXPERTS
“With Agatha Christie ingenuity of plot was paramount – no one looked for subtlety of characterization, motivation, good writing. It was rather like a literary card trick. Today we’ve moved closer to the mainstream novel, but nevertheless we need plot.”
“Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it’s a letdown, they won’t buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.”
“If somebody places a gun on the mantle in the first act, it must be fired before the end of the second.”
“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.”
“Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.”
“Don’t just say it’s raining – make us feel the sodden weight of a wall of water driven by winds at sixty miles an hour.”
The TEN COMMANDMENTS of PLOT DEVICES from 1928
In1928, Father Ronald Arbuthnott Knox (1888 – 1957) priest and crime writer, created a “Ten Commandments” of plot devices that more or less codified the rules of the Fair-play whodunnit. A few of them are vastly outdated now, but still, fun to look over and appreciate in principal:
- The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early on, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.
- All supernatural solutions are ruled out.
- No more than one secret room or passage is allowable, and must be appropriate.
- No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
- No Chinaman must figure in the story. ( A case of unsophisticated anti-racism, given the Yellow Peril figures prevalent in dodgy crime fiction at the time.)
- No accidents or lucky intuition must ever help the detective.
- The detective must not himself commit the crime.
- The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.
- The detective and his sidekick must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind.
- Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been prepared for them.