Showing posts with label Elizabeth S. Craig. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Elizabeth S. Craig. Show all posts

Friday, October 14

The Structure of a Murder Mystery

The Structure of a Murder Mystery

I’ve written many stories in many genres but, until recently, I’d never finished writing a murder mystery. Which is odd given that I absolutely LOVE murder mysteries.

I’ve often wondered why I had this particular disconnect. Here’s what I think:

In writing there's 'head smarts' and what I think of as ' heart smarts.' When we write a zero draft we draw from our heart smarts. This means that, no matter how much we know about story structure, that's not what guides us when we write. (It's what guides us when we edit.) And if we try to impose some sort of structure (head) on our words in the creative moment (heart), it can block those words.

Of course we should still make sure our stories are properly structured! But I think it's best to leave that for the first draft.

Elisabeth S. Craig's Take on The Structure of a Mystery

I love Elizabeth S. Craig’s blog—Mystery Writing is Murder. What a great title! Elizabeth Craig is a bestselling mystery writer. When I started reading her blog years ago she was published by Penguin but is now a "hybrid author" which just means she is both traditionally (Quilt or Innocence) and indie published (Myrtle Clover Cozy Mysteries).

Much of what I say, blow, is inspired by her post, “Pre-Writing.” I encourage you to head over to Elizabeth Craig's blog read her article for yourself.

In any case, in what follows I study EC's structure for a cozy mystery in the hope that we can use it to write better mysteries!

A Mystery Structure in Three Acts

I've attempted to keep close to EC's article, though I have included some information drawn from the many mysteries I've devoured read.

Act One: The Ordinary World

1. Setup/Status Quo

Introduce all your characters starting with the sleuth. EC writes: It’s “best to start out with [the] sleuth so that [the] reader knows who to identify with right away.”

2. Inciting Incident

You have two choices here:

(a) Write a “... scene showing [the] interaction of [the] future victim and future suspects ...”


(b) Introduce a body.

3. Call To Adventure & Acceptance of the Call

If the sleuth isn’t part of the police force then they have to get pulled into the case somehow. A friend has to beg them to become involved, or perhaps the person who died was someone they cared deeply about, or perhaps the sleuth is a suspect, or ... You get the idea.

Act Two: The Special World of the Adventure

4. Tests & Trials/Fun & Games

A number of things happen here:
  • The Sleuth interviews suspects.
  • The suspects provide alibis.
  • A red herring or two is thrown out by the writer.
  • Some of the suspects lie. Perhaps some lies are lies of omission, perhaps other people simply are confused, they mis-recall things. Some lies have to do with awful things they've done, but these things have nothing to do with the murder. And, of course, one person is lying because they're the murderer.
  • And perhaps one of the suspects actually tells the truth!

5. Midpoint

In my experience as an avid reader of murder mysteries, I've found that the midpoint primarily does two things. First, it introduces new information—information that changes the detective's view of the Special World of the Adventure. Second, the detective goes from being passive (or reactive) to active. Let's look at each of these in turn.

New Information

Sometimes another murder occurs. If so, then this will scuttle the detectives current theory of the crime. How? Well, perhaps the person found was the suspect the detective thought committed the killing(s). Or perhaps the person the detective currently likes for the murder had to reason to kill the latest victim.

Or the new information could be about the killer's motivation for the crime(s). Perhaps the detective discovers the murderer's real name and history. While this gives the detective a lot of new information about the murderer and his/her possible motivation, it doesn't reveal who the killer is since he/she is living under an assumed identity.

The new information can be anything that transforms the detective's understanding of the case, raises the stakes, increases the urgency and, in so doing, pushes the story forward.

Passive (or Reactive) to Active

In the first half of the story the detective largely reacts to the situations, the conditions, that the murderer creates. In the second half of the story the detective takes the fight to the enemy. Now the detective sets traps for the murderer and, in general, actively works to apprehend him/her.

6. Setback

Whatever happens at the midpoint, it puts the sleuth back to square one. The sleuth has to re-evaluate the previous evidence in light of the new information. This means going back and talking to many of the suspects again.

EC writes, “Give suspects [the] opportunity to refute [the] evidence pointing to them from the previous murder.” See (4) above.

It could also be that the sleuth is personally affected by the previous death, or by the information revealed at the midpoint. The victim could have been a close friend or perhaps someone who was an exceptionally good person and an enormous loss to the community. Of course, it could be anything. Let your imagination be your guide.

Act Three: The Return

7. A New Plan/The Epiphany

This is what I think of as the lightbulb moment. The sleuth has an epiphany, puts two and two together, something sparks a revelation, etc. But the sleuth has to confirm it. He/she has to be sure.

8. Climax

Put the sleuth in danger. Increase the tension, increase the stakes.

From my reading and viewing experience, the sleuth is sometimes stalked by the killer. But sometimes the sleuth isn't threatened with death. Sometimes his/her job is on the line. Sometimes it's 'just' his/her reputation. Sometimes the life of someone the sleuth cares a great deal about is threatened. There are many different kinds of stakes that can be raised.

Eventually, though, the sleuth will turn the tables on the murderer and bring him/her to justice.

9. Wrap-Up

This is the denouement. The sleuth draws the curtain back and, clue by clue, explains how he/she solved the mystery.

ESC writes, “Are there other components in the story? Of course. But this is the basic structure of a mystery, just as other genres have their own skeletons.”

The Characters

Before you sit down to write your zero draft, think about:

  • Who will your sleuth have as a sidekick?
  • What are the potential motives of the characters?
  • How were the murders done? What weapons were used?
  • Think about what kind of subplot you’ll have. ESC writes that at this point you’re “just brainstorming.” I’ll add here, courtesy of Lester Dent, that you might want to make the murder method big, bold, dramatic, unusual, exaggerated, shocking, different. Think about all the different ways characters were done away with in Midsomer Murders.
  • The murderer. ESC writes that she doesn’t worry too much about the murderer’s identity. Sometimes she doesn’t know this until she’s at the climax of the story! She writes, “The killer’s identity? Not really.  I have an idea who I think may be a good killer, but I frequently change my mind 3/4 of the way through the first draft.  It’s always good to be flexible.”

The Suspects

How many suspects should you have? The suspects are going to be characters who have a reason, a motive, to want the victim dead. In ESC’s example she lists five suspects: the niece, daughter, son, husband and friend.

Did the victim have a lot of money that his/her family and friends had a lively expectation of inheriting?

Did the victim use their money and power to manipulate others? If so, who?

That’s it! I hope you have a great, productive, weekend. I’ll talk to you again on Monday. In the meantime, good writing!

And now, my pitch. :-)

Every post I pick something I love and recommend it. This serves two purposes. I want to share what I’ve loved with you, and, if you click the link and buy anything over at Amazon within the next 24 hours, Amazon puts a few cents in my tip jar at no cost to you. So, if you click the link, thank you! If not, that’s okay too. I’m thrilled and honored you’ve visited my blog and read my post.

Today I'm recommending, Fall to Pieces (A Southern Quilting Mystery Book 7), by Elizabeth Craig. From the blurb: "Dappled Hills quilters are eagerly anticipating new events at the Patchwork Cottage quilt shop. The shop’s owner, Posy, has announced ‘Sew and Tell’ socials and a mystery quilt group project. But one day, instead of emailed quilt instructions, the quilters receive a disturbing message about a fellow quilter. When that quilter mysteriously meets her maker, Beatrice decides to use her sleuthing skills to find the killer before more lives are cut short."

Wednesday, October 10

Organize Your Novel With Hiveword

Organize Your Novel With Hiveword

I love the Writer's Knowledge Base. Every week mystery writer Elizabeth S. Craig posts writing related links she has tweeted that week and enters them into the knowledge base.

At the moment the knowledge base contains just under 2,000 links!

But that's not what I want to talk to you about. I'm excited about Hiveword, the online fiction organizer. When you sign up (it's free!) you get a sample story to play with, Harry Porter and the Guitar of Fire, that will help you figure out how it all works.

Hiveword: dashboard
Dashboard - Click to enlarge
Click on the story title and your story is displayed in the editor:

Editor - Click to enlarge
Scenes (and sequels!) are the building blocks of stories. So lets add a scene, I've called it: Harry learns to fly.
A new scene - Click to enlarge

Having created a new scene we add characters, which POV the scene is from, as well as the setting and the plotline(s) that are going to be furthered.

Need to create a new character? That's not a problem. A new character sheet will be generated. You can specify what your character looks like, where they work, their likes and dislikes, and so on. This is a (gloriously) long form so I don't have a screenshot for you.

Hiveword is a free online editor that's definitely worth a look. I think I'll use it to write my next short story.

Don't forget to take a look back at the Writer's Knowledge Base every once in a while if you need inspiration or feel like brushing up on a few skills. :-)

What do you use to write with? MS Word? Wordperfect? Scrivener? Please share! :)

Other links you might like:
- What Is A Writer's Platform?
- Want Help With Editing? Try Free Editing Programs
- Why Writers Need Editors

Photo credit: Scrap Pile

Saturday, August 18

Spice Up Your Writing: The Passive Voice & Eliminating Passive Verbs

Spice Up Your Writing: The Passive Voice & Elimiating Passive Verbs

Elizabeth S. Craig writes about passive verbs:
What people sometimes confuse as passive voice is really the use of static verbs instead of dynamic (or active) verbs.  But frequently editors will ask you to reword sentences with static verbs because you could write a stronger sentence with dynamic verbs. Journalist Constance Hale wrote an interesting article for the New York Times in April about static and dynamic verbs and some subcategories of each (I loved her list of wimpy verbs.)

Although hunting down “to be” words isn’t necessarily going to help you create active voice sentence structure, if you have a lot of linking verbs in your story, you might want to make sure you’re showing, not telling.  So even though Anna was mad isn’t passive, it might make for stronger writing for you to say Anna slammed John’s plate on the table in front of him, making green peas fly off.  Frequently, when writers talk about finding linking verbs in their manuscript, they’re really advising us to avoid using weak verbs.
Read the rest of Elizabeth's article here: Passive Voice with Elizabeth S Craig.

If you're looking for a good article on the passive voice and how to avoid wimpy sentences I highly recommend Elizabeth's article. 

Another great article on how to avoid passive sentences is the one Elizabeth recommended: Make-or-Break Verbs by Constance Hale. Here's a sampling:
Fundamentally, verbs fall into two classes: static (to be, to seem, to become) and dynamic (to whistle, to waffle, to wonder). (These two classes are sometimes called “passive” and “active,” and the former are also known as “linking” or “copulative” verbs.) Static verbs stand back, politely allowing nouns and adjectives to take center stage. Dynamic verbs thunder in from the wings, announcing an event, producing a spark, adding drama to an assembled group.
. . . .
Power Verbs Dynamic verbs are the classic action words. They turn the subject of a sentence into a doer in some sort of drama. But there are dynamic verbs — and then there are dynamos. Verbs like has, does, goes, gets and puts are all dynamic, but they don’t let us envision the action. The dynamos, by contrast, give us an instant picture of a specific movement. Why have a character go when he could gambol, shamble, lumber, lurch, sway, swagger or sashay? Picking pointed verbs also allows us to forgo adverbs. Many of these modifiers merely prop up a limp verb anyway. Strike speaks softly and insert whispers. Erase eats hungrily in favor of devours. And whatever you do, avoid adverbs that mindlessly repeat the sense of the verb, as in circle around, merge together or mentally recall.
This reminds me of the advice Stephen King repeated gave in his book On Writing to use strong verbs and, as much as possible, avoid the use of adverbs and even adjectives.

Good writing!

Other articles you might like:
- Stephen King: 15 tips on how to become a better writer
- What To Write About: Fiction That Sells  
- Henry Miller's 11 Writing Commandments

Photo credit: photo by Vincepal on Flickr

Friday, July 20

Writers: How To Keep Your Series Straight

Last year Anne Perry was one of the keynote speakers at the Surrey International Writers' Conference--she was completely amazing--and I had the privilege of attending one of her writing workshops.

Ms. Perry spoke at some length about her Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series and I wanted to ask how she kept track of characters, their arcs and whatnot, over the course of many books. Alas, I didn't get the chance, but the question has stayed with me.

Today, Elizabeth S. Craig blogged about tips and tricks she uses, not to write multiple books in one series, but to write multiple series at the same time. Here's what she had to say (I'm paraphrasing):

1. Stagger your deadlines
You don't want to have each book coming due at the same time. That would be stressful and extremely confusing.

2. Re-read the series
Before you start writing the next book in a series familiarize yourself again with the previous books.

3. Develop a style sheet for each series
A style sheet should include:
- character names, descriptions, ages
- the names of businesses mentioned in your series
- a list of the connections/relationships between your characters, etc.

4. Listen to your readers
Elizabeth keeps a file filled with feedback from readers, what they liked, what they didn't, and she looks at this before she begins the next book in the series.

5. Write quickly
If you write quickly there's won't be time for writer's block to set in and you'll be able to keep everything fresh in your mind.

6. Keep all the facts of a series at your fingertips
Keep each book in each of your series in a searchable file. Not sure which character is allergic to peanuts? If you're writing more than one series at a time small details can begin to blur, or you can mistakenly put a character from one series into another.

Having each of your books on your hard drive enables you to search for details like this and saves you a lot of time in rewrites later on.

To read Elizabeth's article go here: Tips for Writing Multiple Series.

Great tips! One day I want to develop a really good style sheet for characters and their relationships. I find a style sheet is especially handy when something has interrupted my writing mid-way through a story and I need to pick up the thread again. Or, as Elizabeth says, to help me remember characters and their many transformations across the span of several books.

I hope these tips have been some use to you and, if you haven't all ready, don't forget to check out Elizabeth S. Craig's many wonderful books.


Related reading:
- How To Sell 100 Books Per Day: 6 Things You Need To Do
- Why Writers Need Editors
- Scrivener: A Writer's Best Friend

Friday, June 1

How To Show Rather Than Tell

Creative daydreaming

Here are mystery Writer Elizabeth S. Craig's tips on how to show rather than tell:
I’m not a fan of reading info dumps.  An author could describe a character with well-written, vivid details and I’ll going to skim it.  I’m usually more interested in picking up on little details that point to qualities the character has. Or a slipped-in description—a character whose shoulders are stooped from listening to shorter people around him. Or the character with lots of smile lines and raven’s feet….sort of a double-duty description.  Cheerful and wrinkly!
With indirect characterization, you let the reader draw their own conclusions: based on character dialogue, internal musings shared with the reader, and other characters’ observations about a character. Then the readers can pick up the hints and feel clever about their deductions.

For instance, we can show one character’s demeanor when dealing with the protagonist—and add dialogue clues to hint at character traits and the characters’ relationship with each other. 

You could have a character that you want to portray as someone who talks too much. This could easily be expressed by interruptions from a second character or their signs of impatience. Or of them putting off a phone call with the character. Much better than pages and pages of chatty dialogue to prove the point. 

Since I’m a mystery writer, I’m also interested in planting the wrong impression of a character. I might  mislead the reader. (Other novelists might want to do the same thing, for different reasons.) Maybe the character is unnaturally chatty because they’re nervous. Maybe the second character is just an impatient person who interrupts—maybe they’re not making a point about the character’s loquaciousness at all.
To read the rest of Elizabeth's excellent article, go here: Showing Character.

I love getting writing tips from established professionals like Elizabeth, especially when accompanied by reading recommendations! I won't spoil the surprise though, it's all in her article. Cheers!

Wednesday, September 7

Elizabeth S. Craig: The First Draft Is Supposed To Be A Disaster

Elizabeth S. Craig, author of Progressive Dinner Deadly, Pretty is as Pretty Dies, among others, has written a wonderful blog post on how to be productive entitled, appropriately, Perfectionism and Productivity.

Elizabeth writes:
I’ve always been pretty good about resisting perfectionism during first drafts. That’s because I’d never get anywhere with a book if I tried to make it perfect as I went. The first draft is supposed to be a disaster. I don’t look at what I wrote the day before, just end my writing time with a quick cheat sheet to tell me where I left off and where I need to pick up.
Read the rest of her article here: Perfectionism and Productivity.