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Things Are Not What They Seem

In last week’s post, I told you about Catherine Aird’s article “Planning and Plotting the Detective Story.” Here are the points that were lightbulbs for me, and why I think you should pay mind to them.

Lightbulb #1
“If the body is not on page one, it certainly must appear no later than the end of chapter one.”

Aird’s “the body” and “story problem” are interchangeable here. What I was doing, without realizing it, was exactly what I was supposed to be doing: getting the story problem, the mystery, out there front and center immediately. I didn’t learn that in a class. I absorbed it by reading hundreds of mystery and romantic suspense novels.

Lightbulb #2

“One of the advantages to having the body in chapter one, is that the presence of a victim demands action.”

Well, of course it does. The discovery of the body is the inciting incident, the event that puts the plot in motion. That was a huge duh for me. Huge, yes, but easy to lose track of in all the story elements you’re fitting together. Make this your mantra—until something goes wrong you have nothing to write about.

Your first duty in every story is to hook the reader. The best lure you have to do that is your sleuth. If he or she isn’t the character that discovers the crime, say your sleuth is a cop, a detective, or a coroner—I’m looking at you Temperance Brennan—get him or her to the crime scene ASAP.

Here’s what you should accomplish in the first chapter:
• Discover the crime and introduce your sleuth.
• Identify what type of mystery you’re writing.
• Establish the setting.

Point two is important because mystery fans are finicky. Some wouldn’t read a cozy if you paid them, others can’t abide murder, even if the death takes place off stage. Identifying the setting early helps with that. Cozies, for instance, take place in small towns or suburbs, though that’s expanding. Cops or private detectives usually operate in cities.

Lightbulb #3
“The murderer should appear, in my view, no later than chapter two, or chapter three, if a particularly large amount of background writing is required—but he must, by hook or crook, so to speak, be there as soon as possible, taking his place in the plot.”

Six paragraphs later, Aird adds: “It is also important that all the main characters of the story are present no later than chapter three. Bringing them in later than, say, chapter four, smacks of contrivance.”

A general rule of novel writing is that all the main characters should be introduced by the end of chapter three, or four at the latest. This is another thing no one taught me—I absorbed it from reading and just followed the pattern.

Another piece of the pattern I followed, without being aware that I was following anything, is—

Lightbulb #4
“Also, before the story advances too far, it is necessary to introduce the particular suspects with whom the detective is concerned.”

Make a note, Miss Frobisher. In chapters 2 and 3 you must:
• Introduce the murderer, the kidnapper, the thief. Subtly, please. You don’t want the culprit sticking out like a sore thumb.
• Introduce all the main characters.
• Introduce the list of suspects.

Your sleuth is one character, the culprit is another. Because it’s common in mystery, let’s give your sleuth a partner, an assistant, a sidekick—pull up a chair, Dr. Watson. That’s three characters. If I were you, I’d keep the number of suspects, including the culprit, to four. That’s a total of six main characters. For each suspect you need a solid motive, and the means and the opportunity to have committed the crime.

Lightbulb #5

“By the time you come to chapter three, you may broaden the situation to indicate that THINGS ARE NOT WHAT THEY SEEM. In fact, in good detective stories, they seldom are, and the experienced reader will expect something more. By chapter three or four, the author should be giving a slight twist to the problem outlined in chapter one. This is more subtle than simply presenting a complicated problem at the outset.”

It also keeps readers turning pages and makes it easier for them to follow the plot if you reveal it a little bit at a time.

I nailed this one, too, thanks to my reading. Through writing I learned it’s the clues that reveal “things are not what they seem.” The kidnapped town librarian I mentioned in the first post? No one, not even her fiancé, knew that she moonlighted as a burlesque performer.

That’s a twist. Does it have a bearing on her disappearance? Maybe. Or maybe it’s a red herring. A good false clue seems plausible enough that it can lead the sleuth in a different direction. I love red herrings planted by the culprit to throw the sleuth off his or her trail.

Once you’ve written Chapter 3, you’ve wrapped up the beginning of the book: the crime has occurred and been discovered; the sleuth and the culprit are introduced, and the suspects identified. Chapter 4 begins the middle of the book. The sleuth’s investigation continues and ends with the climax. The culprit is revealed and apprehended. Justice has been served and the story winds down to the end.

Mysteries have it all over every other type of novel when it comes to a good, firm middle. No sagging here! Clues to follow, suspects to tail and interrogate keeps the plot moving and increases tension and suspense until all is revealed in the climax.

Catherine Aird’s advice and expertise confirmed that I knew what I was doing, even when I had no clue, pardon the pun. Validation builds confidence; confidence eliminates the intimidation of a blinking cursor and an empty Word doc.

Just in time for Halloween next week, we’ll wrap up with tips and tricks for writing supernatural and paranormal mysteries.

There is nothing wrong with your computer monitor…   

Lynne Smith, aka Lynn Michaels, is the author of two novellas and sixteen novels, three of which were nominated for the Romance Writers of America’s RITA award, the Oscar of romance writing. She won two awards from Romantic Times Magazine, for best romantic suspense and best contemporary romance. Her only complaint about writing is that it really cuts into her reading time. She lives in Missouri with her husband, two sons, three grandsons, and one granddaughter, born on Lynne’s birthday. Lynne is also an IFW instructor. She teaches “Breaking into Print” and “Shape, Write and Sell Your Novel.”

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