Good morning. How was your weekend? Did you do anything exciting? Was the weather a sweltering furnace? I had a good one, since I always enjoy my chances to speak to groups of writers. This weekend I was in front of the local to-me chapter of the Sisters of Crime, talking about mystery and story development.
The conversation we had was excellent. But let me describe where this conversation took place.
Picture a very old colonial church, wooden, not brick and mortar. Okay, now take whatever you’re picturing and have Tim Burton re-shape it. Exaggerate the spire. Gloomy-goth-art-student the interior. Make the parking lot a Stephen King land of angry weeds up through cracked asphalt. Don’t forget that every door squeaks and every floorboard groans.
Now add a 48-star flag:
And add a Kennedy era bingo machine:
If you’ve ever been to one of my events before, you know I don’t make a whole lot of notes, and I swear enough, and well enough to make stevedores shocked. But, because this event was a big deal to me, and because I was really trying to make a good impression, since I’d like to do more speaking like this for other groups, I cut the 300+ usually profanities out of my discussion points and examples. The Batman examples stayed in though, because Batman.
Not every place I speak does audio recording, and the acoustics in the barn-sized room weren’t the best, so there’s no audio. Instead, I’m going to take my notes and expand on them, a point at a time. While this event was targeted at mysteries, it’s not that hard to extrapolate the general craft elements out of what I’m saying.
Cool? Awesome. Let’s do this.
A mystery is a story where the central conflict is a question and there are character(s) compelled to answer that question or face consequences. Those consequences may be short-term (if I don’t catch the murderer, they get away with it), or they may be larger in scale (the serial killer will strike again!), but there are always consequences to not answering whatever the question is, and the fear about how the world will be with those consequences in place is the driving force behind the character(s) taking action.
Unlike other genre where the conflict is an action (thriller, horror, action, etc) the fact that the conflict is a question – often a who/how/why – means that the character(s) trying to answer that question need external elements because they’re only going to start the story with some assumptions. Assumptions about how the world works, about how people behave, that sort of thing.
Side note: Rather than have the assumptions be provided just by the experiences in this story, you can build a better character by basing those assumptions on character philosophy and motivations.
Because the character(s) have a set of assumptions, and need to gain knowledge to dis-/prove those assumptions, mysteries are built on an economy exchanging assumption for knowledge. Like this:
The detective (the character trying to answer the question at the conflict’s heart) gains knowledge that challenges the assumptions (whatever they might be) WHILE the antagonist (the character looking to benefit from the actions related to the conflict’s question) makes and acts on assumptions in the face of knowledge.
That knowledge comes from clues which are pieces of information (not limited to objects, but they’re most commonly objects) that increase the detective’s knowledge. There are three kinds of clues to keep in mind:
A) the inciting clue
This is whatever piece of information indicates that there’s a conflict to resolve. In most murder mysteries or television shows, this is the body. This clue incites the detective’s efforts.
B) “body” clues
“Body” refers here to “body of the story”, and there will be more body clues than any other kind in a mystery. The clues that follow the inciting clue are all body clues. And this can cover everything from the murder weapon to the ATM photos to the piece of spinach stuck in someone’s teeth.
C) the confirming clue
This is the clue that gives the detective that last piece of knowledge to shore up the mystery. We’ve all seen that moment in TV where a secondary character says something innocuous and the protagonist gets up from wherever they’re sitting and when we come back from commercial, the detective is explaining the solution to the whole case.
It’s the sum of all these clues that guide the character(s) forward into answering the conflict’s question.
But (and here’s my last point) … this forward pursuit of the answer has to INTERSECT with the character’s arc without being the entirety of that arc.
Because your MC should be greater than just the operator/actor within one story. What they do is not the complete package of who they are, anymore than it is for you, the person reading this. And when I say ‘greater’, I mean they should have more depth and more to them. Yes, the plot events are a big deal (hopefully), yes the plot events are a challenge for them (hopefully), but you can do better than the stale-from-the-can “troubled past.” I know you can.
And if you’re just not sure how, come ask.
This week is a short one from me, since DexCon is Wednesday-Sunday. We’ll do InboxWednesday for sure, and let’s put a ‘maybe’ on Friday’s post … it depends on if I can write it Tuesday.
Go write good stuff. Follow me on Twitter and Snapchat (johnwritesstuff) for more info and other things of wordly nature.