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Plotting the Mystery

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on June 11, 2011

How do you get started plotting a mystery? Let’s assume you have already created your sleuth, the continuing characters, and the setting. See my blog below titled “Creating a Series: Laying the Groundwork” for more details on these aspects. So what’s next?

The Victim

Answer the five W’s about your victim: Who, What, Why, Where, When.                                       
Decide Who is the dead person. What is the method of murder? Why is this person eliminated? Where does the crime take place? When the crime could have occurred at any other time, why does it have to happen now?

The Suspects

Make a list of all the people who might have a reason to want the victim dead. Consider the victim’s relatives, co-workers, and friends. Give everybody a secret that will make them seem guilty. Now link them up wherever possible.

Here’s an example. DARA is the victim.

ALICE was an employee of Dara, who denied her a job promotion. Did Alice kill her out of spite? Or did Dara find out about her secret affair with Brent and threaten to fire her?

BRENT is Dara’s business partner, who is having an affair with Alice. Did Dara find out and threaten to reveal his corrupt dealings with their subsidiary? With Dara dead, Brent takes over her half of the company. Did he murder her to gain control of her business assets?

MICHAEL is Dara’s brother, who is glad she’s taken a family secret to the grave. He doesn’t know that Dara confided this private matter to Brent.

And so on. After you have your list of suspects and their possible motives, look for photos to match your characters’ appearances. This will help you visualize each person.

At this point, make a drawing with a circle in the center and spokes like a wheel coming out of it. Put the victim’s name in the center circle. Put the suspects’ names in a balloon at the end of each spoke. Where the suspects have a connection, draw a line between them. This should start to look like a web. I call it my Web of Suspects. Branches off each line can represent motive, means, and opportunity.

Which suspect is the killer? Often it’s the one with the strongest motive. You can also decide at this point which one is the best one for a red herring, or a misdirection. You’ll try to fool the reader into believing this person is guilty.                    

Now that you’ve determined the killer’s identity, answer this question: Why has the murderer decided to kill the victim now? What change has occurred or is imminent that threatens the killer? Or what new opportunity has arisen for him to carry out his plan? There has to be a reason why the murder occurs now instead of at some other time in the backstory.

The Story

At this point, you’re ready to write the synopsis. Begin a narration telling what happens from the start of the story. If you’re a newbie writer, it’s best to have the murder up front in the first chapter. Besides a crisis at the opening, creating a sympathetic sleuth is the key to hooking the reader and drawing him in.

Give your sleuth a personal reason for solving the crime and also a subplot that follows her throughout the story and leads to character growth at the end. We’re speaking here of internal and external conflict. The external conflict is the murder. The internal conflict is the personal dilemma afflicting the sleuth that for whatever reason inhibits her from moving on in relationships, from forgiving herself for past mistakes, etc. She should come to a realization about herself by the end of the story that makes her grow and change. It’s more satisfying if this comes after the final confrontation with the killer and hints at a new direction in her life. For example, she may express interest in a new boyfriend, or face a reconciliation with a family member. This personal thread is what will keep your readers coming back for more.           

The story should flow logically from the opening scenes. The crime occurs. The sleuth gets involved. What does she do first? In a classic whodunit, often she’ll interview the suspects, overhear gossip about different individuals, or people will come to her with information. She’ll realize everyone has something to hide. She’ll follow trails, some of which will prove false. Other information will come to light that leads her in a new direction. Here is where you’re planting clues while misdirecting the reader and slowly moving the story ahead. Secrets are revealed, and at last, the killer is exposed. Many times, while you’re writing the synopsis, new connections between characters will come to light. This is great; it means your subconscious is at work. Remember to include the sleuth’s emotional reactions to what’s going on.

Once your synopsis is done, you’re ready to begin writing. Storytelling magic comes into play and the story may take off in unexpected directions. This is okay; you can revise your synopsis later. Keep moving forward until the book is done. You can fix things in the revision and polishing stage. Keep in mind that Action leads to Reaction leads to Decision. The story should flow logically until the compelling conclusion.


12 Responses to “Plotting the Mystery”

  1. All great info. But wait – why does Dara have to be the victim? 😦

    aka Dara

  2. Haha…because Dara is such a great name!

  3. Nancy, this is great. Very clear, very straight-forward. Thanks!

  4. Thank you for stopping by, Lynn and Wynter!

  5. Caroline Clemmons said

    Nancy, thanks so much for sharing! Just what I needed to check over my work.

  6. Caroline, I’m glad you’re finding these tips to be helpful.

  7. Wow! thanks for sharing the great tips. Makes the process much easier to understand…and more fun!

  8. bionic eye said

    This feels like it will be very helpful to me. Thank you so much for posting it, Nancy!

  9. You’re very welcome, ladies. Please spread the word!

  10. This is so helpful; am printing it out and saving it! Thank you!

    Alison Chambers

  11. very well put, Nancy. I’ll keep this on hand when I plot my next mystery.

  12. Thanks, Marilyn. If anyone has more tips to offer, please speak up!

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