Wednesday, March 19

A Four Act Structure

The Four Act Structure

When I write a story I use a three act structure--Act One (Ordinary World), Act Two (The Special World of the adventure), Act Three (The Return Home)--or I used to. I'm thinking of dividing my next story into four acts.

Today I'm going to talk about what the four act structure is. In a later post, after I've used the structure for a while, I hope to go over the pros and cons of using it.

I've written about the three act structure here (Story Structure) but here's a (brief!) summary:

Three Act Structure

Act One (Ordinary World) -- first 25% of the story

- Flesh out the setting and introduce the characters.
- Hero accepts his call to adventure.
- Stakes increase and the hero is locked into the adventure just before we break into Act Two.

Act Two (The Special World of the adventure) -- middle 50% of the story

- Explore the new world, it's differences, it's rules.
- B-story begins: Subplot that exposes the hero's inner strengths and weaknesses.
- Make friends and enemies.
- First pinch point: get a peek at the Big Bad.
- Prepare for confrontation. (Perhaps there is a romantic interlude.)
- Midpoint. Hero confronts the antagonistic force. The hero learns more about the special world of his adventure; he now has a different perspective. He has confronted death and (probably) survived.
- Hero either celebrates and has bonding time with friends or licks his wounds and rallies from his defeat. (Perhaps there is a romantic interlude.)
- Second pinch point. Another reminder of who the Big Bad is and why the hero has to win.
- At the end of Act Two the hero will (usually) be at his lowest point. It seemed that everything was going the hero's way, then BAM! Everything fell apart. The worst doesn't happen, the worst raised to the fourth power happens!

Act Three (Return Home) -- last 25% of the story

- Third act twist. The hero figures out how to get himself out of the fix he's in, or at least he comes up with a plan that just might work, but probably won't. Chances are very much against it but he has no choice. He has to make it work. Sometimes the hero figures out the 'good trick' by resolving the B-story.
- The climax. The hero confronts the villain or, if the opposing force isn't a person, the antagonistic force.
- The aftermath. Cash out the stakes. If the hero wins, what happens? If the hero loses, what happens? The hero goes back to the Ordinary World. Show how his actions have changed the hero and what this means for him in the Ordinary World.

Please keep in mind that this is how I see the three act structure. I don't think anyone thinks of it in exactly the same way. 

The essential points are:

- There are three acts; the third act is as long as the first and third acts combined.
- In Act One the ordinary world and the characters are introduced and the hero takes up his quest. 
- In Act Two the hero enters the world of the adventure (which often isn't a separate world; it could simply be a different social environment). The hero will confront the villain and attempt to overcome obstacles.
- In Act Three the hero has his final confrontation with the villain and either wins or loses.

The Four Act Structure

The four act structure is a lot like the three act structure with the exception that each act is the same length. Basically, this is the three act structure cut down the middle. 

Here's a fun fact: Christopher Vogler uses a four act structure and so does Lee Goldberg. In fact, Lee Goldberg was the inspiration for this post. As I listened to the Google Chat he did with Libby Hellmann and Paul Levine (you can listen to it here: Secrets to Writing Top Suspense) he rattled this off the top of his head. Great stuff!  

Lee Goldberg's description of a story in four acts:

"For me, the four act structure goes something like this:

"There's the tease, there's the hook, there's ... the Star Ship Enterprise flies through outer space. There's a giant octopus! You stick around to see how the Enterprise deals with this giant octopus.

"Act One sets up who all the characters are, what the stakes are, if they succeed or fail. It basically sets up everything they are trying to achieve and all the obstacles to them achieving it. And then something really bad happens that ups the stakes at the end of Act One.

"Act Two, whether it's a mystery, a doctor show, a science fiction show, Act Two is the hero's ... come up with a plan, an approach to solve their problem, to save the world, to rescue the people, to discover the murderer, and they put that plan into action, and its going great, and then everything goes to crap. At the end of Act Two everything they thought they knew was wrong, the guy they thought was the killer isn't, the thing they thought would cure the patient doesn't cure the patient. There's no way they can win, everything they thought they knew was wrong. They're screwed.

"Act three is essentially the hero's recovering from the calamitous events at the end of Act Two, trying to come up with a new approach, a new way of dealing with things but in the midst of this everything keeps getting worse. The stakes are raised, the pressures increase. By the end of Act Three there is no way in hell they'll win a conviction, they'll save the girl's life, they'll find the murderer, they'll stop the giant planet-eating octopus. They're screwed.

"Act Four. They put a new plan into action and solve the problem. They catch the murderer, they stop the giant planet eating octopus, they save the girl's life, and by the end of Act Four equilibrium is restored and everything is back to, essentially, the way it was at the beginning of Act One and they're ready to face a new conflict.

"And I find that's essentially the pattern of any great drama that is on the TV or even every great book that I've read, every crime novel, anyway."

Once again, that's from a Google Chat Lee Goldberg was part of. You can view it here: Secrets to Writing Top Suspense.

Let's put this in point form.

Four Acts In Point Form

Act One (first 25%)
- The inciting incident occurs (/the hook).
- Establish the (initial) stakes.
- The lock in: something happens to up the stakes just before we break into Act Two.

Act Two (25% to 49%)
- The hero comes up with a plan, a way to solve the problem or a way to approach the problem. If this is a murder mystery, it is a way to find out who is the murderer.
- Put the plan into action.
- The plan fails. Everything the hero and his companions thought they knew was wrong. Back to square one.

Act Three (50% to 74%)
- The hero and his/her companions tries to recover from the calamitous events of Act Two. They try to come up with a new approach.
- Everything keeps getting worse for the hero and his companions. The opposing force increases.
- The stakes are raised.
- By the end of Act Three it seems as though the hero has lost. 

Act Four (75% on)
- New plan
- Solve the problem.
- Attain the goal.
- By the end of Act Four equilibrium is restored and we're back to the Ordinary World of Act One, ready for another adventure.

The biggest difference between the three act structure and the four is that the third act has been split in two. Now we have one major crisis at the end of Act Two and the "all hope is lost" point comes at the end of Act Three. 

Food for thought!

Question: What sort of structure do you use, if any? Three acts? Four acts? Six acts? Another sort of structure completely? Please share! 

Photo credit: "Nokia Lumia 1020 - 02" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, March 18

Three Ways To Create Suspense

Three Ways To Create Suspense

What is suspense? That's the question I'll be looking at today. Specifically we'll cover the role of the following in creating suspense:

- Dramatic irony 
- Conflict
- Well-defined stakes 
- A ticking clock

What Is Suspense?

Suspense is an escalating sense of apprehension or fear, a building of pressure, heading either towards an uncertain conclusion or a horrifyingly certain one. You (/the reader/audience) might know there's a giant monster at the end of the tunnel and our heroes are heading toward it. Or it's a ticking clock of what-the-hell's-going-to-happen and we don't know what's coming. Suspense is getting your readers to ask: What's going to happen next? [2]

So we need: 

a) A real danger to the hero and 
b) the possibility that the hero will escape the danger. 
c) A finite amount of time (/a ticking clock)

Further, dramatic irony can be used to increase the audience's sense of curiosity and concern for the hero.

Dramatic Irony & Suspense

Scenario 1: Imagine a hero inching along a darkened path, oblivious to the deathly shadow soundlessly creeping up behind him, poised to suck the lifeforce from his bones.

Scenario 2: Imagine that, as before, our hero inches along a darkened path anticipating a threat just round the bend. He doesn't know whether there's a monster there, but there could be. Unlike before there's no deadly shadow stalking him ... at least, not that we know of.

The first scenario creates suspense, in part, by giving the reader/audience more information than the hero possesses. We see the danger creeping up on him and want to scream: Turn around!

In the second scenario there is no such disparity of knowledge. We know what the hero knows and, with him, we cringe as he rounds every corner, every bend in the twisty road. 

The elements of dramatic irony:

In order for dramatic irony to exist there needs to be a difference in how much two characters, or a character and the audience, know. Generally speaking, there are two possibilities:

1. The audience knows more about the danger than the hero.

This is what was used to generate suspense in Scenario 1, above. You, the reader, know there's a monster lurking around the next bend but the hero doesn't. Perhaps the hero thinks the evil has been neutralized or he thinks it's somewhere else. But it isn't. It's lying in wait for him and as soon as he rounds the next bend it's going to attack.

Or perhaps the villain has set a trap for the hero that the hero is oblivious to. The hero is rushing headlong to help someone in need. We see the villain set a trap for the hero and watch as he runs toward the trap. We want to warn him, to shout out that it's a trap, to stop, to go another way, but the hero keeps running and we are helpless to prevent the outcome.

Or something like that.

2. The audience knows less about the danger than the hero.

There is a scene in the classic movie The Thing where one of the scientists (I believe it was Dr. Blair) looks through a microscope at a sample taken from a mutilated corpse. We don't immediately know what he sees or know what he knows ... but we want to. He has begun to understand the mystery and we want to as well.  

This short period of unknowing, between the audience seeing the character's reaction to the new knowledge and finding out what it is, creates tension. I wanted to take Dr. Blair by the shoulders, shake him, and say something suitably melodramatic like, "What is it?! Tell me!"

3. (No dramatic irony) The characters and the audience/reader have the same amount of information.

A scene can be tense even though it lacks dramatic irony. In this case the tension will be produced by other factors, factors like a ticking clock, a clear statement of the stakes, and conflict. Lets take a closer look at these.

Preconditions For Suspense

In order for a story/yarn/tale to be suspenseful, the following must be in place:

1. Conflict.

What is conflict? How is it generated/produced? 

It's simple.

Conflict = (a character's goal) + (opposition to that goal)

That is, conflict results from the clash of two things: 

(a) What the hero desires or needs. His/her goal.
(b) Something fearful that opposes the hero, something that can prevent him from getting what he wants/needs. [2]

2. Stakes.

In order to create suspense, the stakes of the conflict should be clearly spelled out well in advance. That is, before the hero is actually menaced by the danger. 

The general stakes for most horror movies are as follows: 

The hero wins: the hero (and possibly one or more other characters) escape the evil and live.

The hero loses: the hero fails to escape the evil and they die.  

By the way, Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard's movie, The Cabin in the Woods, gives these stakes an ironic twist. It's a huge spoiler, so I'll talk about it in a footnote. Don't look if you haven't seen the movie and want the ending to be a surprise. [3]

3. A ticking clock. 

“Make them laugh, make them cry, make them wait.”

You need to build up pressure/tension which means that, in some way or other, the characters must be racing against a clock. This both sets a deadline and gives the character time to plan, agonize and, finally, fight; time in which the reader can agonize.

Lee Goldberg said:

"[To create suspense one needs] A ticking clock that escalates the conflict either within a person or between two characters, and that's an essential part of suspense, its the kindling that creates suspense, the conflict between two characters and the outside force or the outside pressure that makes that conflict even greater and then--boom!--you have the inevitable scary, frightening, exciting climactic verbal explosion."

An Aside: Another way to create suspense: raise a question

When we talk about creating suspense we (of course) are talking about an emotional state that exists within a reader/viewer/listener. Generally we try to evoke this emotional state by getting our readers to identify with our characters--especially our hero/protagonist. We make it clear what the protagonist wants/needs and then we force the protagonist into danger as he/she tries to attain their goal.

Yes, certainly, this kind of conflict creates suspense. But I would like to point out that there is another way to create suspense: raise a question.

Lee Child is a great proponent of this method. He even goes so far as to say that it doesn't especially matter whether your readers care about the subject matter; there is something about a question being raised that makes us want to know the answer.

And you know what? He's right!

The other day I read a fabulous short story--"In The Cave" by Tessa Hadley--where the suspense was generated by a question the storyteller asked: What happened to break the hero's infatuation with her almost-boyfriend? 

Yes, sure, I read on because the writing was enchanting, and because of the conflict generated by the clash of the protagonist's current state of affairs and the state of affairs she desired for herself. But, mostly, I read on because I wanted to know the answer to the question the storyteller had raised in the first paragraph: Why hadn't it worked out between the protagonist and her companion?

That's it! Here's a writing challenge (I'm challenging myself with this as well): Build some suspense in your writing today. 


1. Suspense, Wikipedia.
3. In The Cabin in the Woods Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard put an ironic twist on the stakes making it the case that if the hero (Marty) wins and escapes the evil then the world will end. On the other hand, if the hero allows himself to be killed by the evil then the world will be safe ... and five other people will be brutally murdered every single year the world stays that way.


Google hangout: Secrets to writing top suspense:

Guest post on Lee Goldberg's website about suspense. Post is by Libby Hellmann:

Photo credit: "Bern - Switzerland" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, March 14

One Million Words To Competency, Who Said It First?

In my last post, A Million Words To Mastery?, I talked about whether writing a million words was sufficient to be, if not a creator of effortlessly poetic prose, then a competent writer. My not-at-all startling conclusion was: No!

One million words may be necessary for competency but they clearly aren't sufficient. After all, one could type (like Jack Torrance did in Stephen King's The Shining) "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" 100,000 times and, while it might improve one's typing, it wouldn't improve one's prose! 

But the question was raised: Who first said (in effect) that one needs to write, and discard, one million words before one can be a competent writer? In what follows I investigate whether it was David Eddings, Jerry Pournelle, Ray Bradbury or John D. McDonald.

David Eddings

Trevor Martin, in the comments, mentioned that it was David Eddings who spoke of the one million word rule. And that's true, Eddings did speak of it and he is quoted all over the internet as speaking of it, but I can't find out precisely when or where that happened. Was it in a book? An article? A TV interview? 

In any case, here's an extended quotation:
"My advice to the young writer is likely to be unpalatable in an age of instant successes and meteoric falls. I tell the neophyte: Write a million words–the absolute best you can write, then throw it all away and bravely turn your back on what you have written. At that point, you’re ready to begin.

"When you are with people, listen; don’t talk. Writers are boring people. What are you going to talk about so brilliantly? Typewriters? The construction of paragraphs? Shut your mouth and listen. Listen to the cadences of speech. Engrave the sound of language on your mind. Language is our medium, and the spoken language is the sharp cutting edge of our art. Make your people sound human. The most tedious story will leap into life if the reader can hear the human voices in it. The most brilliant and profound of stories will sink unnoticed if the characters talk like sticks.

"Most of all, enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s not worth doing at all. If hard and unrewarding work bothers you, do something else. If rejection withers your soul, do something else. If the work itself is not reward enough, stop wasting paper. But if you absolutely have to write–if you’re compelled to do it even without hope of reward or recognition–then I welcome you to our sorry, exalted fraternity." (David Eddings R.I.P, Christchurch City Libraries Blog)
That is the most extensive quotation I've found and it was posted by Marion (no last name given) on the Christchurch City Libraries Blog on the 4th of June, 2009, on the event of David Eddings death. 

Although it's only the first paragraph of the above quotation that includes the text in question the whole thing was well said and good advice. Also, it gives us a hint at where Eddings might have said it which might give someone a hint as to when it was said.

It seems as though Eddings was speaking to a group of writers; perhaps a writing convention or awards ceremony? If anyone knows please do leave a comment, I'm looking for the earliest mention of the 'million words required for competency' idea.

Jerry Pournelle

Another commenter, Antares, noted that his friend "Jerry Pournelle advised writers to 'write and throw away a million words of finished material'" but mentioned he didn't know if Jerry Pournelle had gotten the idea from David Eddings.

Antares also gave a (much appreciated) link to the December 1996 issue of Byte Magazine where Jerry Pournelle's article "How To Get My Job" appeared. Although Pournelle notes that he "added a few sentences here and there" the article remains mostly unchanged from its first publication in 1996. Here's a quotation:
"I am sure it has been done with less, but you should be prepared to write and throw away a million words of finished material. By finished, I mean completed, done, ready to submit, and written as well as you know how at the time you wrote it. You may be ashamed of it later, but that's another story."
The entire article is well worth reading, but for our purposes that's the relevant bit. 

Now at least we have a date: December 1996. (Clearly Jerry Pournelle had this million-words-to-competency idea previous to 1996. If anyone has documentation of it's use before this date, please do leave a comment.)

Ray Bradbury

At this point I did a google search on "million words" and "throw away" in an effort to get to the bottom of this minor mystery: who first came up with the idea of 'a million words to competency'?

In December of 1999 Alex Keegan wrote the following:
"It takes a minimum of three years' full time study, or 7-10 years of part-time study to get a university degree. Becoming a writer is harder! I think it was Ray Bradbury who said we need to write at least a million words just to make it to the foothills. Seems like a lot? Not really. 3,000 words a day for a year or 1,000 words a day for three years and you're home free. What d'you mean it sounds tough? It IS tough!" (Advice to the Younger Fiction Writer)
So I googled Ray Bradbury and found this quotation in "What Does It Take To Be A Writer?" by Mark O'Bannon:

“Write a thousand words a day and in three years you will be a writer.”
– Ray Bradbury

That's the idea we're looking for stated slightly differently. One of the things I was looking for was the phrase "a million words" but perhaps I'm being too picky since writing a thousand words a day for three years would yield over a million words (1,095,000 words, to be exact). 

The big question: when did Bradbury write that? 

The best textual evidence I've found for that quotation comes from the blog Life, Literature, & Everything in Between: Underworlds. In a post entitled "Ray Bradbury, In Memory Of … (1920-2012) — SF Writers Pay Tribute to an Icon" Ken Scholes wrote:
"At sixteen, I wrote him [Ray Bradbury] and told him what I was doing, typing up stories and submitting them to magazines, following in his footsteps. He wrote back. He recommended some books and urged me to write a thousand words a day until I had a million words. And he encouraged me to write to him each October. The next year, I wrote again and he wrote back…this time with a silver pen on a Something Wicked This Way Comes poster."
That is only a small excerpt of Ken Scholes beautiful tribute to Ray Bradbury; if you have time, and Kleenex at the ready, I recommend reading it.

We may be closing in on a date. The question is, when (approximately) did Ray Bradbury write that letter? Ken Scholes mentions receiving it when he was sixteen. 

Mr. Scholes was born June 13, 1968 which would make him sixteen years old in 1984. That's 12 years before Jerry Pournelle's article was published so this is the earliest date so far.

Unable to leave the subject be, I did another internet search and hit paydirt:

In a thread on The Straight Dope Captmathman wrote:
"I've long held that Robert Heinlein once gave this sage advice to aspiring authors: "Your first million words don't count." My wife recently repeated this to a third party, but [he/she] insisted that it was originally spoken by Ray Bradbury. In an effort to clear things up, I went online to discover the truth. Seems that Bradbury was the correct answer. As was Heinlein. I could find no authoritative source to provide an attribution. Any ideas?" (Who said, "Your first million words don't count?", by Captmathman, The Straight Dope)
This comment was made in reply:
"Ray Bradbury used to say this at speaking engagements in 1973. I was there, so my post is my cite." (Who said, "Your first million words don't count?", by Fear Itself, The Straight Dope)
1973 is the earliest date I have of this idea being expressed. (Here's an article which corroborates a mid-70s date) I admit, I would be tickled if it were to turn out Ray Bradbury was the first to say this, but I will struggle to remain impartial. That said, I'm sure both Ray Bradbury and Jerry Pournelle had this idea years before their documented use of it.

John D. McDonald

Here's another reply on the The Straight Dope thread I mentioned above.
"Hmm. Elmore Leonard notes a similar quote, which he attributes to John D. MacDonald here [...] (Who said, "Your first million words don't count?", by Captmathman, The Straight Dope)
The last comment mentioned the article Elmore's First Million Words published November 19, 2006 on He writes:
"It wasn’t until 1950 that I really decided to be a writer. I chose westerns because I liked westerns movies and I wanted a market that I could sell to without a lot of trouble, without having to learn too much, I figured I would get better as I managed the craft.

"John D. McDonald said that you had to write a million words before you really knew what you were doing. A million words is ten years. By that time you should have a definite idea of what you want your writing to sound like.  That’s the main thing.  I don’t think many writers today begin with that goal: to write a certain way that has a definite sound to it."
This seems to leave open the possibility that the million words idea was around as early as the 1950s! I've tried to find documentation of this quotation and while many writers attribute the 'million words to competency' idea to MacDonald, I haven't found anything that would settle the matter.


For all my poking around the internet I haven't been able to discover who first articulated the idea that one can't be a competent writer until one writes a million words. If anyone knows of a recorded mention previous to 1973 of anyone using this idea, please do let me know in a comment. I can also be reached through my contact page.

Thanks for coming along with me as I attempted to unravel this minor mystery, and thanks to Trevor Martin and Antares for their help.

Note: Just before I published this post I discovered that Marion Zimmer Bradley had also said (in effect) that the first million words were practice. Unfortunately, though, I didn't find any hint as to when she first said/wrote that.


These links don't have anything to do with the million words quotation, but, still, I wanted to share them. Ray Bradbury was a wonderful writer but he was an even better person.

Interview conducted over the telephone in December of 1975.

(Interview originally broadcast in 1988.)

Interviewed by Sam Weller for the Paris Review.

(Video. "The Lost Interview of Ray Bradbury is a personal tribute to the great sci-fi master. Shot over 20 years ago by Director Harry Hall in the basement/office of Bradbury's home.")

Photo credit: "Tessies" by Thomas Leuthard under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, March 12

A Million Words To Mastery?

A Million Words To Mastery?

We've all heard about K. Anders Ericsson and the 10,000 hour rule of thumb which holds that, roughly, 10,000 hours of practice is required to become an expert in any skill-based field. I'm not sure who first popularized the idea, but for writers this is generally taken to mean writing 1,000,000 words.

To put this 1,000,000 word figure into perspective, if one wrote 1,000 words a day for five days a week and kept this up for four years then one would write over a million words. Or, to put it another way, one would need to write ten, 100,000 word books--or twenty 50,000 word books.

Yes, that's a lot of writing but it is not uncommon for a professional to write 500,000--or even 1,000,000!--words in a year (both Chuck Wendig and Kris Rusch have done this).

But, according to Daniel Goleman, this isn't enough to achieve mastery. In Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, he writes:

"You don't get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal."

That makes sense to me.

I've written about this before (see: The Secret To Succeeding As A Writer: Having A Criterion For Success) but the implications of that comment are far-reaching, especially for writers.

If Anders Ericsson is correct--and I believe he is--then the sheer number of words we write does not hold the key to getting better at our craft. Focused practice does.

1. In order to write well one must write. A lot.

Goleman says the 10,000 hour rule is only half right. Practice may not make perfect but no one will get far without it. 

2. Focused, or directed, practice.

a. Concentrate. Mentally attend to what you're doing. Think about it. 

Goleman suggests eliminating distractions from your workspace, distractions such as the TV and access to social media.

b. Build your writing muscles by working on new aspects on the craft, or aspects you would like to improve. 

For example, hooking characters into setting, giving each of your characters a unique voice, using dramatic irony, pacing, weaving description seamlessly into a story, creating believable dialogue, writing from unusual points of view, using an unreliable narrator, giving your narrator personality, making your narrator invisible. And so on.

3. Get feedback.

For writers this can be tricky since what counts as a good story can differ from person to person. What I think is a terrific story, others do not. For example, Stephen King is on record as saying that he didn't enjoy the first book of the Hunger Games enough to continue the series. It wasn't his favorite book, but, nevertheless, Suzanne Collins' books are loved by many.

I honestly think that talk of 'good' or 'bad' books isn't profitable. It is, I think, much better, much clearer, to talk about the potential readership for a book than it is to talk about good and bad books. (I talk more about this here: The Dark Art Of Critiquing, Part 1: What Makes A Story Good?)

Find your ideal reader

Your ideal reader will be someone who shares your tastes. Millions of people love Nora Roberts' romance novels* and buy every book she writes. But millions of people also say (different millions, presumably!) that they wouldn't be caught dead reading her books. If you give one of these folks Roberts' latest book their dislike of it wouldn't tell the writer anything useful.

(* "As of 2011, her novels had spent a combined 861 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, including 176 weeks in the number-one spot. (Nora Roberts, Wikipedia)")

Why? Because those folks aren't part of the potential readership for that book.

If you know someone who shares your reading preferences and is willing to take the time to give you a detailed critique of your work, then (all things being equal) they are your ideal reader. Hang onto them!

What An Ideal Reader Can Do For You

Ever since I wrote that blog post The Secret to Succeeding as a Writer I've been doing short little writing exercises every morning as a kind of writing workout. 

But doing these writing exercises isn't enough. We need feedback from a (compassionate!) reader (or readers) who is familiar with our writing and can help us judge whether we are improving as well as suggest what other areas we could work on.

I know that, often, I'm blind to the mistakes I've made in my own writing and need someone--a compassionate someone--to point them out. This is one of the reasons writers seek out beta readers to go over their work.

Choose someone--someone who shares your tastes in books, someone compassionate--to look at the exercises you've done and give you feedback. 

For example, let's say that every day for a week you wrote 500 words and that every day you concentrate on a particular area of writing; for instance, creating vivid characters with distinct voices. After you've done a few if these your reader could look them over and tell you whether they saw improvement and perhaps suggest other areas you could work on.

This isn't about skill level, it's about improvement.

One thing I want to stress is that this is not about how well you write--it has nothing to do with how evocative your descriptions are compared to, say, Neil Gaiman's--it is how much you improve.

And, again, I'm not talking about improvement relative to Neil Gaiman! I think well over 50% of writers who earn a good living from their craft would get dangerously depressed if that were the criterion! No. I'm talking about improvement relative to yourself.

Using yourself as a reader.

If you don't have an ideal reader; that is, if you don't have anyone you trust to help you evaluate your writing progress, take heart! There's still a way to do this.

Use yourself as an ideal reader.

Although beta readers are essential for vetting material destined for publication, I think writers themselves can act as their own readers when it comes to their writing exercises.

Here's one way this could be done:

a. Pick an area of the writer's craft you would like to work on. For example, using dramatic irony to increase tension. Or, if you have Roy Peter Clark's book, 50 tools that can improve your writing, make a list of the 50 tools Roy Clark talks about and practise using those tools, one tool per day, to help build up your writing muscles.

b. When you do an exercise make it clear which element of the writer's craft you are targeting.

c. After you've worked on the same area a few times look at your first exercise and your last. Did you improve? 

That's it for now. I'd love to hear from anyone who does writing exercises on a regular (or semi-regular) basis. Has it helped improved your craft? Do you have tips, hints or suggestions?

Thanks for reading and, as always, good writing!

Photo credit: "Baltic Sea" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Monday, March 10

Two Ways To Introduce Setting Quickly And Effectively

Two Ways To Introduce Setting Quickly And Effectively

When I first started writing, I had no idea how important a well-developed setting was for enabling a reader to imagistically enter into a story and wrap it about them as one would a warm blanket. I knew the importance of characterization and 'hooking' characters into the setting, but not setting itself. I didn't yet view setting as almost a character in its own right.

For example, here's a passage from P.D. James's short, wonderful, book on the writing of detective fiction:

"[...] I was on a visit of exploration in East Anglia, standing on a deserted shingle beach. There were a few wooden boats drawn up on the beach, a couple of brown nets slung between poles and drying in the wind, and, looking out over the sullen and dangerous North Sea, I could imagine myself standing in the same place hundreds of years ago with the taste of salt on my lips and the constant hiss and withdrawing rattle of the tide." (Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James)

Wow. I'm there, I taste the salt, feel the wind, hear the ocean.

Of course I always had known, even if I was unable to articulate it, that the author's description of the setting was a large part of my reading experience, but knowing is one thing and being able to articulate exactly what it is about a piece of prose that causes a location to become so real to one's imagination it seems one is transported there ... well, it's difficult. I've become better at it lately, but it has not been easy.

Still from the first episode of Sherlock, season three: The Empty Hearse.
I wish I could be like Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch's interpretation) and instantly spot which elements of story contributed to my immersive reading experience. But, alas, in this I am often more like Watson.

I have a tendency to shortchange setting and go right to the action--perhaps because I'm worried readers won't find my description of setting terribly interesting and will move onto more engaging pursuits. Which is why I found Deborah Chester's recent blog post, Setting on the Run, so encouraging: she talks about two ways of introducing setting that won't bore the pants off readers.

Weaving Setting Into Narrative

To recap. The problem is that a storyteller must describe setting even though doing so will slow the pace; and slowing the pace isn't the best thing to do at the beginning of a story when we're trying to hook a reader's interest. 

Deborah Chester puts it this way: "Description is notoriously slow going. It basically puts the action on 'pause' while the author inserts whatever details of the locale are deemed important."

Here are DC's two solutions to this problem:

1. The Dominant Impression

DC writes:

"Now, I was trained to use dominant impression when describing a place or person. Dominant impression is simply selecting the primary detail or information that you most want the reader to absorb and focusing on that in a brief, vivid paragraph."

I looked around for an example of this and finally chose the following. It doesn't describe a physical characteristic, but it does describe an aspect of character:

"I don't call people for help. It's not because of the way I was raised, at least I don't think so; it's the way I was made. Johanna once said that if I was drowning at Dark Score Lake, where we have a summer home, I would die silently fifty feet out from the public beach rather than yell for help. It's not a question of love or affection. I can give those and I can take them. I feel pain like anyone else. I need to touch and be touched. But if someone asks me, 'Are you all right?' I can't answer no. I can't say help me." (Bag of Bones, Stephen King)

2. Deborah Chester's Method

DC says the following is effective in fantasy, but I think it generalizes to other genres.

a. Tell "readers where they are--for example Dickensian London or the fire pits of Ustan."

b. Plunge "the viewpoint character into immediate trouble–either in scene action, conflict, or peril" and present "the dialogue and character reactions true to their particular locale."

Why this works:

"The reader, reading quickly to stay with the story action, has to keep up, orient himself to the locale, and envision the kind of place where characters would speak and behave in this particular manner." DC comments that this method of introducing setting is "quick, engaging, and anything but boring. Avoid the temptation to explain and embroider. Give it a try, and see how it works for you.

DC recommends "The Anubis Gates" by Tim Powers as a book with examples of this technique.

Question: How do you communicate a sense of place quickly and effectively?

Photo credit: "Sunrise under scrutiny" by Loco Steve under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Friday, March 7

The Importance of Setting In Writing A Murderously Good Mystery

The Importance of Setting In Writing A Murderously Good Mystery

Today I continue talking about murderously good mysteries and how to write them.

The Five Elements: Milieu, Victim, Murderer, Suspects, Detectives

"The detective story has five elements — the milieu, the victim, the murderer, the suspects, the detectives."

I want to look at each of these in turn but that's going to take a while so, for today, let's start with a murder mystery's milieu.


a. The Society/Setting must be closed.

I think that what W.H. Auden meant by "society" was, in practical terms, the sum total of characters that would have to be taken into consideration when solving the murder. One's pool of suspects.

Small suspect pool. When Auden writes that the society must be closed he means that, in selecting the setting, we need to pick something that will limit the number of people who could have committed the murder; that is, limit the number of suspects we'll have to deal with.

For example, in Agatha Christie's Murder at the Vicarage the society would be everyone in the village of St. Mary Mead where the murder took place. The suspects are those who had, or could have had, the means, motive and opportunity to kill the victim, Colonel Lucius Protheroe.

One murderer. In addition to having a relatively small suspect pool it must also be clear that the murderer is one of the people in the society you set up.  Auden writes that what the murder mystery writer needs to avoid is any possibility the murderer comes from outside the society. For example, it wouldn't do for the murderer to be someone on a road trip from London who killed the Colonel for kicks and then drove back to London. 

It must be clear from the beginning that one of the people in the society (in the case of my example, the village of St. Mary Mead) must have committed the crime. The only question is: who?

By the way, it doesn't have to be just one murderer, but the principle of parsimony applies and if the evidence doesn't suggest more than one murderer was at work, it's likely best not to complicate matters. On the other hand, as time goes on it may appear that there was more than one murderer. In several of Agatha Christie's books it turned out this was the case but she tended to use this as a twist near, or at, the end of the tale.

Every character within the society should have multiple connections with every other member.

Characters, like people, aren't islands unto themselves; each character has--or should have--multiple connections to every other character. This raises certain questions: i) what kind of connections and ii) how are they relevant to the murder (many connections probably wouldn't be) and iii) how will the sleuth discover them?

Kind of connections. Auden writes that everyone in the society should be closely related either by family ties, by geography (a small village such as St. Mary Mead), by occupation (they all work at the same company or go to the same lodge) or by happenstance (happen to be trapped in an aeroplane together). 

Relevance and discoverability. Each and every character should be a potential suspect, but the detective might have to dig a bit; do some research, interview a few characters; to figure out the exact nature of the connection between the suspect and the victim and whether it's relevant to the murder.

In the beginning, the members of the group--the society--will first appear to be strangers to each other, but the sleuth will discover they have many interesting, intimate (and possibly scandalous) connections with each other.

- Group of relatives (Auden gives the examples of the Christmas dinner at the country house).
- Geography keeping people together; a small rural village, a college campus, a military academy.
- A group of people who work together. Auden suggests a theatre company, but it could also be a band, choir, writers' convention, and so on.
- A group isolated by technology: an airplane, a train, an RV, and so on.

b. Nothing bad ever happens here.

Auden writes that:

"Nature should reflect its human inhabitants, i.e., it should be the Great Good Place; for the more Eden-like it is, the greater the contradiction of murder. The country is preferable to the town, a well-to-do neighborhood (but not too well-to-do-or there will be a suspicion of ill-gotten gains) better than a slum. The corpse must shock not only because it is a corpse but also because, even for a corpse, it is shockingly out of place, as when a dog makes a mess on a drawing room carpet." (Auden)

The setting should be unsullied by murder. The society should be such that murder is ... well, if not unthinkable, then very very unlikely. A nunnery, academia, the church choir. This way, when murder occurs, the crises is greater. If a murder were to occur, say, in the bad area of a big city late at night we wouldn't be as shocked than if it occurred in the middle of a play on a cruise ship in mid-afternoon.

Also, having the murder occur in a setting, a context, where murder is rare helps put pressure on the law to solve the crime in order that things can get back to normal. 

In addition, the law itself would be a disruptive influence, one that many would find unwelcome. This may be bad for the characters, but it's great for the storyteller because it's a source of conflict. Every character--even the (apparently) most blameless, most upright, is cast under the same pall of suspicion. This makes everyone--everyone except the murderer!--anxious to expose the murderer and get things back to the way they were.


Auden writes:

"The characters in a detective story should [...] be eccentric (aesthetically interesting individuals) and good (instinctively ethical) — good, that is, either in appearance, later shown to be false, or in reality, first concealed by an appearance of bad." 

In other words, it should, on the face of it, seem implausible that any of the suspects committed the murder. (If there is someone around who hated the victim then give them an ironclad alibi.)

As the murder mystery unfolds, those who seemed to have no motive will become serious contenders for the murder. Similarly, those who seemed most likely to commit the murder will be shown either not to have had the opportunity, or to have vastly different motives than it first appeared.

Thats it for today! It looks as though these posts have morphed into a series. In the next instalment I will look at what W.H. Auden--lifelong lover of murder mysteries that he was--had to say about what makes the perfect victim. In the meantime, good writing!

Photo credit: "Recreation" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Wednesday, March 5

Lee Child's Three Tips For Building A Loyal Fan Base

 Lee Child's Three Tips For Building A Loyal Fan Base

According to David Vinjamuri (The Strongest Brand In Publishing Is ...) Lee Child's fans are the most loyal of any bestseller, even Stephen King and John Grisham.

That is, Lee Child has the highest percentage of readers/fans who will buy his next book, sight unseen. 

David Vinjamuri writes that:

"Child carries a higher percentage of his readers with him to each successive book than any other bestselling author.  While just 41% of John Grisham’s fans owned or planned to buy his newest novel Sycamore Row, 70% of Child’s fans wanted a copy of the last Jack Reacher tale “A Wanted Man”."


The question: What's Lee Child's secret? What did he do to generate such reader loyalty?

David Vinjamuri caught up with Child in Manhattan and asked him.

Lee Child: The Three Key Factors In Reader Loyalty

1. Consistency

Lee child said:

"A series is better than a sequence of [unrelated] books in terms of building brand loyalty. There are two components of loyalty: one is the author and the second is the subject.  If you like the author but you’re uncertain of the content of the next book, that’s an obstacle. It runs counter to the literary view of writing that values originality and growth.  Jack Reacher is the same person in every book.  He’s unemotional and focused on detail. There are lots of things that he always does that characterize who he is."

Since all of Child's books are from a single series, and since Jack Reacher is the same person in every book--unemotional and detail oriented--fans can be confident about what the next book will be like ... well, more or less. It's the old dilemma. Readers often want a story just like the last one, only different. (grin)

By the way, an interesting article on Lee Child is: Lee Child debunks the biggest writing myths over at

2. Authenticity

Child holds that in order to inspire reader loyalty one must give one's stories a sense of verisimilitude. Child states:

"Authenticity is not the same thing as accuracy.  I live in New York.  If you know New York then some of the actual reality of [life in] New York might not seem believable to the reader who doesn’t live here."

That it happened in real life is no guarantee your readers will find something believable.

To create a believable story it helps to begin with believable characters; a story is only as good as its characters just as a cake is only as good as its ingredients.

When I create a character I ask myself:

- What would make this character do something they don't want to do?
- What would make this character do something they vowed they would never do (again)?
- What would this character die for?
- What would this character kill for?

3. Uniqueness

Child says:

"I ignored all the other series.  If you start with a laundry list of things then the book won't be organic.  Reacher is not a white knight.  He lies and cheats and steals but because he’s doing it with integrity, people recognize him as a real human being."

There are two things here, and both concern the protagonist: uniqueness and (for lack of a better term) "relatability." Here's how I would cash them out:

a. Make the protagonist unique.

As much as I love Indiana Jones, or Hercule Poirot, I wouldn't want my protagonist to be exactly like them. What would be the fun in that?

Ignore what everyone else is doing and do your own thing, go your own way, but make sure your hero/protagonist has integrity.

b. Make the protagonist relatable.

Give your protagonist integrity, where that cashes out to having a clearly defined personal code and sticking to it, even when that's not comfortable.

Much has been said--and, I'm sure, will be said--about the relative importance, or unimportance, of likability as a character trait. Some swear by it and other's scoff at it. 

We can all think of characters who we loved that were likeable (Harry Dresden, for example), but many aren't: Dexter, Walter White, Frank Underwood.

What attracts us to unlikable characters? In a word: relatability.

It isn't important whether readers/viewers/listeners like your protagonist, what matters is whether they have some sort of personal code that they stick to.

c. Have the protagonist seek justice.

A protagonist can be one bad dude or dudette as long as they are trying to do something just, something noble. For example, a hitman struggling to save a child from being murdered by another hitman.

d. Measure the protagonist against the other characters.

Your character will be measured against the other characters, especially the antagonist and his/her minions.

I've just finished watching the second season of House of Cards (don't worry, no spoilers!) and--wow--Frank Underwood is not a likeable character. But Frank Underwood (his initials: FU) lives in a dystopia where every character is a shark and no one is likeable . When the viewer measures him against the other characters, especially the antagonist and his/her minions, we find that he's not so bad.

He's a shark, but he's a shark swimming with sharks. That's the background against which we evaluate his actions.

e. Have the protagonist be the best.

There's something to be said for having a protagonist who not only does something well, but does something better than anyone else. Of course then the storyteller has the problem of figuring out how to plausibly put the character in danger, a problem which can be overcome by (among other things) pairing them with someone weaker whom they must take care of.

Part of the reason I care about Frank Underwood is that he is the biggest and baddest and best shark of them all. He will grit his teeth and make painful personal sacrifices where others won't. Further, he is self-aware. He knows his strengths and his weaknesses and this allows him to see other people's strengths and weaknesses, and then exploit them. No, he's not a nice character, but one can still find qualities to admire. He has--if I might put it this way--a twisted semblance of integrity. He values ruthless pragmatism above all else. 

If you haven't already read David Vinjamuri's article The Strongest Brand In Publishing Is ... ( I would encourage you to. And thanks to Michael +Kelberer for sharing the link through his (excellent!) Google+ account.

Until next time, good writing!

Photo credit: "Friends for life" by Joan Sorolla under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, March 4

Narrators, Their Knowledge And Awareness

Today I'm going to pick up where I left off Thursday (see: Point Of View: Elements) and talk about a narrator's knowledge (restricted vs unrestricted) as well as what I've been calling transparency/awareness. 

But first ...

Why is this important? Why should we care about the narrator and his/her/it capabilities?

The short answer is, because it's fun! It's fun to employ narrators who depart from the omnipresent third person limited viewpoint where the narrator has restricted knowledge (that is, only knows what the viewpoint character does). Stephen King's sprawling, immersive novel, Under The Dome uses a narrator with an omniscient voice. As I discussed last time, at one point the narrator floats through town acting as a virtual tour guide and addresses the reader directly. Brilliant! I laughed out loud. 

Joe Hill, in his book NOS4A2, uses a narrator who--while using third person limited--has an omniscient voice. That is, the narrator knows all about the viewpoint character, knows things about the viewpoint character that character doesn't know. The narrator even knows what will happen to that character in the future. But that's it. Other character's minds and futures are closed to him/her/it.

Having written a bit about why a writer might care about dusty sounding phrases like "narrative voice" let's continue looking at the various abilities a narrator can have. (Note: I'm only addressing third-person narratives in this post.)

3. Restricted vs Unrestricted Knowledge

This refers to the extent, the scope, of the narrators knowledge. Does he/she/it know only about the viewpoint character's present and past or does he/she/it also know:

- what the viewpoint character doesn't
- about the viewpoint character's future. 

Restricted knowledge: 

The narrator is restricted to knowing only what the viewpoint character (or all the characters if using an omniscient perspective) does at that point in time. Therefore, the narrator doesn't know what will happen to the viewpoint character in the future.

Unrestricted knowledge: 

The narrator's knowledge is not restricted. He/she/it knows things the viewpoint character is ignorant of, things about themselves. Also, the narrator can know what will happen to the viewpoint character in the future.

Keep in mind, though, that this is a continuum. On one end of the continuum the narrator has restricted knowledge of the character and only knows what the character does at that moment.

On the other end of the continuum the narrator has unrestricted knowledge of the character; he/she/it knows everything about them, past, present and future. The narrator knows things the character has forgotten as well as things about herself she was never aware of.

For example, Joe Hill in NOS4A2 writes:

"Her Raleigh Tuff Burner had been her birthday gift in May and was also, quite simply, her favorite birthday gift of all time ... then and forever. Even at thirty, if her own son asked her the nicest thing she had ever been given, she would think immediately of the Day-Glo blue Raleigh Tuff Burner with banana yellow rims and fat tires."

We aren't told that her son will ask that question. No. The narrator's knowledge is more extensive than that. The narrator knows that if he asked that question then that would be her answer. That is, the narrator's knowledge of the viewpoint character extends to counterfactual situations (/other possible worlds). At least, that's how I read it.

"The square of brightness at the far end of the bridge expanded and intensified. As she approached, she was conscious of an almost brutal heat emanating from the exit. She inexplicably smelled suntan lotion and onion rings. It did not cross her mind to wonder why there was no gate here at the other end of the bridge either." (Joe Hill, NOS4A2)

I thought that was a nice example of the narrator knowing something about the viewpoint character that the viewpoint character did not. For me, it gave the novel an extra dimension, it seemed to expand the universe of possibilities. It, in an odd sort of way, made the story world seem more real. 

Third Person Limited vs Third Person Omniscient

What POV was that last bit of writing told from? It seems to me it's third person, limited, even though the narrator seems to have full knowledge (/unrestricted knowledge) of the viewpoint character. 

You might wonder why I put such emphasis on this, I used to have the idea that if a narrator was omniscient concerning the viewpoint character--if they had, say, total knowledge of their thoughts and their future actions--that the viewpoint had to be third person, omniscient. 

4. Transparency/Awareness: Representational vs Presentational 

As I discussed Monday, transparency has to do with the narrator's relationship with the audience.

Representational: The narrator never addresses the reader.

Presentational: The narrator addresses the reader and may also express personal opinions.

A presentational narrator will make it clear he/she/it is speaking, not to characters in the story world, but to readers in the real world. A thoroughly presentational narrator knows he/she/it is the narrator of a work of fiction and that someone is reading it.

That said, even in a presentational narrative the narrator will, at times, fade into invisibility making the text seem representational. However, if a narrative is truly representational, the same will not be true. A representational narrative will not have any presentational moments. 

As Orson Scott Card writes in Character & Viewpoint, it is jarring if, in the middle of the story, the narrator suddenly starts addressing the reader. Which is not to say it should never be done, it would just be tricky to pull it off without jarring the reader. 

By the way, all the narrative examples in this post are representational. See my post on Monday for an example of presentational prose.

The Narrator's Presence In A Story

Think of a window. A freshly cleaned window is--as many birds have discovered--practically invisible. It is so clear one gazes through to the other side without noticing it. 

If a window is a little dirty, one notices the window but barely. Most of one's attention is still focused on what is on the other side.

On the other hand, if the window is very dirty then one notices the window almost as much as what is on the other side.

A transparent window --> An invisible narrator
An invisible narrator  --> No personality of their own

An opaque window --> A visible narrator
A visible narrator --> A personality of their own

What is the difference between a visible and invisible narrator? Well, clearly, the least visible narrator is going to be one that tells a story from the third-person, limited, where their knowledge is restricted to what the character knows. Also, they will never turn to the reader and indicate they know what's going on, that they are a narrator in a story you are being entertained by. In this case, the narrator seems non-existent and one focuses solely on the viewpoint character and experiences the story world through the viewpoint character's senses.

On the other hand, the most visible narrator--or one of them--would be one who turns to the audience and announces that the gig is up. They know they're telling a story to an audience--to you. But that's not the only way to become aware of a narrator. Whenever the narrator tells you, the reader, about something the viewpoint character doesn't know the narrator becomes visible. That is, such things encourage a reader to focus on the narrator and not just the viewpoint character. 


As you can tell, I'm currently fascinated with narrators, the kind of abilities they can have, and how storytellers can use them to weave a story.

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, I'd love to hear from you. Good writing!

Photo credit: "Intrigued" by Marina del Castell under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Saturday, March 1

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery

How To Write A Murderously Good Mystery

I said I would finish my post on narrators today but I've decided to put that off until Monday. Today lets revisit one of my favorite topics and examine how to write an engrossing murder mystery.

The idea for this post came to me because, over the past few days, I've come across several top notch posts about writing a murder mystery. The one I'm going to draw from for this article is "The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict," by W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden over at (This article is from the archives and was originally published in Harpers magazine in 1948.)

In The Guilty Vicarage Auden--a self-confessed addict of murder mysteries--talks about what elements go into creating a great, wonderfully escapist, murder mystery.

The Basic Formula of a WhoDunit:

Auden writes that the "basic formula is this: a murder occurs; many are suspected; all but one suspect, who is the murderer, are eliminated; the murderer is arrested or dies." (The Guilty Vicarage)

Generally speaking, mystery stories conform to the overall structure of a genre story:

1. The Ordinary World.

The state of the story world before the murder.

2. Inciting Incident. 

The murder.

3. Call To Adventure. 

The detective takes the case.

4. The Special World of the investigation.

The detective crosses the threshold into the special world of the adventure. Something might happen to lock him into the investigation. Perhaps he discovers he needs the money, or a rival detective bets he will fail, or his love interest is arrested for the murder.

5. Tests and Trials.

Clues. The detective discovers many clues. Some of them are false (red herrings), some of them are true but not related to the murder (irrelevant), and some are true and related to the murder (critical). The detective's job is to figure out which clues fall in which categories. 

Suspects. The detective interviews suspects, gathers evidence and thinks about the crime. Perhaps more murders are committed. 

If there is a B-story it will come into play around points (4) or (5), if not sooner.

6. Ordeal.

False success. It seems as though the murderer has been found. This could be someone the police have fixed on and the detective doesn't agree, or it could be that the detective is working from false or insufficient data and identifies the wrong character as the culprit.

7. Peace. 

The police, and perhaps even the detective, believe the case is closed. This would be a good place to have something exciting happen in the B-story.

8. Suspicion. 

Something ruffles the still waters of the newly accepted status quo. Suspicion is raised that the person arrested for the murder might be innocent.

9. Major Setback. 

Everyone comes to know that the person they thought was the murderer really isn't.

Perhaps someone comes forward with evidence that the person thought to be the murderer couldn't possibly have committed the crime. For example, the suspected murderer is a parent who believes their child is the murderer and, since they feel they are somehow responsible for their child's actions, seek to take the blame.

Perhaps evidence is discovered which reveals it was impossible for the supposed murderer to have done the crime(s).

Perhaps there's another murder while the suspected murderer is behind bars.

Perhaps something, an idea, was nagging at the sleuth but he couldn't quite but his finger on it. Something happens, he sees something, hears something,  remembers something, that convinces him the person accused of the murder is innocent.

10. All Is Lost. 

Or all seems to be lost. The police and/or the detective suspect the wrong person. Perhaps they're on the right track but something--perhaps some item of information--they've accepted as true really isn't and is leading them astray. 

Of course it doesn't have to be misinformation that throws the detective off. Perhaps his personal life is blinding him to something (his love interest is leaving him; children in crisis), perhaps there's someone he believes is above suspicion that he hasn't examined seriously enough; his mentor, for instance. The mentor might not be the murderer, but the detective's failure to take that possibility seriously has, perhaps, kept him from fully examining those around the mentor, like the man's personal assistant.

11. "Use The Force, Luke."

This is the detective's 'ah ha' moment. If, as I suggested above, the detective believed something false that was tripping him up, this is removed. If there's a B-story, then this is where the resolution to the B-story could supply the missing piece of the puzzle.

12. The reveal.

This is where the detective gathers everyone together, lays out all the clues, explains which category each falls in (red herring, irrelevant or critical), unveils the deep dark secrets the suspects were hiding, and, finally, unmasks the murderer.

13. Aftermath.

The guilty party has been exposed and so we know that those who appear innocent really are. The detective has removed the pall of suspicion from the community and they can return to their ordinary lives.

There's a lot more to say about this but that's enough for now. I'd like to come back in the near future and talk more about setting (both human and physical) and characters (suspects, detective, murderer).


Here are some links to articles about mystery writing you might find interesting:

- "The Guilty Vicarage: Notes on the detective story, by an addict," by W.H. (Wystan Hugh) Auden over at This article is from the archives and was originally published in Harpers magazine in 1948.
- "Raymond Chandler’s Ten Commandments for Writing a Detective Novel," by Jonathan Crow over at
-  "A Plot Begins to Take Shape," by Margot Kinberg over at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist ...

Photo credit: "Orchard At Twilight" by Karen Woodward under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0. Photo is based upon Anne Worner's photo, "In the Clearing (Explore 10/16/2013)", licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.