Test the Integrity of Your Mystery – Part 4

Continued from last week.

This final blog involves the fourth column of your worksheet. You already know from the first three parts where your seen takes place, who’s involved in the scene, and what action takes place in those scenes. Now it’s time for:

Unanswered Questions.

Unanswered questions must be addressed. Remember the old adage about the gun on the mantle? To paraphrase, if the gun is there in ACT I, someone had better shoot something before the end of the story.

At the end of each scene, list the questions raised during the scene.

Let’s say that your slueth discovers a scrap of paper in the victim’s fireplace. The questions this raises in the reader’s mind are “What was written on the paper?” “Who tried to burn the paper?” “Is it relevant to the mystery?” List all three in the Unanswered Questions column.

When all of your columns are complete, scan down the Information column until you find the answer to each of your questions. It helps to place a checkmark next to both the Information and the corresponding Question. By the end of your story, everything in both of these columns should have a checkmark.

If Aunt Gertrude wonders aloud what ever happened to her diary, the reader will carry that question to the end of the story. Left unanswered, it won’t matter that the murderer has been caught and that the sleuth survives to solve his next case. The reader will want to know why no one ever found the diary and what information it contained.

Even if a piece of Information provided is a Red Herring, it will still raise questions. It doesn’t matter if the answer is “Aunt Gertrude’s diary has nothing to do with the murder.” As the author, you need to make sure that the slueth recognizes that the Question asked has been answered. If you leave anything hanging, you risk irritating your reader.

I hope that using this chart will ease the way to a balanced mystery with a tight plot. You should wind up with a story that makes sense and, as a result, satisfied readers.

Test the Integrity of Your Mystery – Part 3

Continued from last Friday.

Now that your Scene column is filled with the various locations and the action that takes place in each scene and your Character column lists every character who appears or is referenced in those scenes, let’s move on to the facts.

Information.

In this column, you will note the clues and pertinent information passed on to the reader during the scene.

Avoid Ommisions

Once this column is complete, omissions stand out. In Agatha Christie’s “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe”, Hercule Poirot notices that the shoe on a battered corpse is old and worn, whereas the same exact shoe was new and shiny when he saw it on the woman shorty before–suggesting that the woman he saw alive was an imposter. If Christie had not included a scene allowing Poirot to get a good look at the imposter’s shoe, then the detective’s discovery would have seemed omniscient, rather than logical.

If you have a scene at the end of your story where the sleuth tells all, you can make a list of her summation in the information column and cross reference it with earlier information given just to make sure you’re playing fair. For example:

“I noticed a hidiously large footprint in the begonias which could only have belonged to Gregor the Giant who worked with the traveling circus.”

Did you give the reader these clues ahead of time?
Is there a scene where you show the discovery of the footprint?
Is there a scene where you let the reader know the circus is in town? Maybe a character is perusing the local paper and saw an advertisement.
Is there a scene where the slueth at lease sees mention of Gregor the Giant, if not the giant himself?

Create Balance

Once you see all of the information as it is relayed to the reader, you may also find that you could time a revelation to better advantage. If all of the clues cluster around the beginning or end of the story, the middle will drag.

It’s especially disheartening to read an entire story where not much happens only to have the clues pop up on the final pages. (Trust me. I just read a book like this. I loved the characters, loved the dialogue, but by the last quarter of the story, I didn’t care. Where was the detection? This was supposed to be a mystery!)

It feels as if the writer is saying, “Oh! I forgot to tell you.” and “Let me get this bit in here because the ending doesn’t make any sense as it stands now!”

In Plain Site

When you look over the information imparted, you might find that you tell too much, or tell it too early. It’s not very satisfying to read a mystery when you know who the murderer is by page twenty-five. Maybe the clue could be sublter. A giant footprint outside the library window when there is a giant in town is not very subtle. What about two narrow, deep holes? What could have made these? If your references to the circus aren’t over the (big) top, it may come as a surprise to find that the holes were made by Sammy the Stilt-walking Man.

When I first began reading Agatha Chrisie, I found myself crying, “Cheat!” at the end of her books. Then I would page back through and find that the clues were all there! But they were subtle. I highly recommend writers read her books to discover how to lay a path of clues without using neon signs.

That’s it for Information. Next week I’ll show how Questions Asked can ensure there aren’t any loose ends.

Test the Ingegrity of Your Mystery – Part 2

Continued from last week.

Now that you’ve listed all of the scenes including where they take place and what action occurs, move on to the second column of your chart.

Characters.

The point of listing the characters is to help you keep track of everyone who makes an appearance in your story. List every character who appears in each scene. This includes characters who are not physically present but come up indirectly in conversation. Also, if Mr. X speaks to Ms. Y on the phone, add Ms. Y to the list.

This serves a few purposes.

Avoid Irritating Surprises

If your victim has an identical twin sister and that fact is crucial to the plot, it’s not really fair to the reader if no sister has been mentioned until the crucial moment when she pops up. By all means keep the fact that she’s a twin under your hat, but even a casual mention of a sibling earlier in the story will keep your reader from throwing the book across the room when one conveniently shows up. Put twin sister in the character column of the scene where “siblings” are mentioned. 

If you want to make her appearance a complete surprise, there must be a hint that this unknown person exists, such as a conversation the victim has with her over the phone or a letter signed with her initials. The reader gets enough hints from the conversation or letter that the person involved is important even if the reader doesn’t know exactly who it is. Even an ambiguous mention by the detective that “there must have been someone else in that room the night so-and-so died” will do. If the twin sister is on the other end of the phone, has written the letter, or is the unknown someone who must have been in the room, put twin sister on your character list for the scene. 

I also list characters who I assume are involved in the story but aren’t specifically mentioned. For instance, if the victim’s will comes up in a scene, put (attorney) in the character column. The parenthesis show that you haven’t decided how to introduce the character, but that he should exist. Consider it a reminder that your sleuth wants to talk to the attorney. If the will has nothing to do with the murder, it would still be the natural inclination of the police to investigate the angle, even if it’s a dead end. You may decide to handle the will in a clever manner that won’t involve an attorney at all, but it will have been a deliberate move, not an omission.

Keep Suspects on Even Ground

Tracking the number of times a character receives mention will also ensure that the detective gives the suspect proper consideration. If Harry Cheese is the killer, but the sleuth only discusses him once during the course of the investigation, the reader will feel cheated. Conversely, if every chapter includes Harry Cheese, Harry Cheese, Harry Cheese, you might as well light a neon sign flashing Killer over his head.

Balance the Investigation

Listing the characters will also show if your story lacks character balance. Some writers have amateur detectives who assist the police. Stephanie Plum exchanges information with Joe Morelli, Cora Felton has Chief Harper, and Hercule Peroit has Chief Inspector Japp. If your sleuth and the police share an equal number of scenes, ask yourself if you want them to be co-protagonists. If your intention is to include the police officer only as a supporting character, you will have to either condense his scenes or find a way for your sleuth to uncover the same information.

Next week I’ll discuss how to avoid the bad joke syndrome. You know. You get to the punch line and say, “Wait! I forgot to tell you____!” 

Testing the Integrity of Your Mystery – Part 1

WinR Jacqueline Vick shares a writing tool she uses when reviewing her mysteries.

Some writers thrive on it. Some writers dread it. All writers do it.

Rewrites.

Mystery rewrites involve an extra step because the story depends on logic. If there are misplaced clues, forgotten hints, or unexplained details, the climatic moment (and the murderer is…) will result in an unsatisfying “Huh?” Unfortunately, by the third pass through your manuscript, your subconscious has a tendency to fill in the missing information, because you know what should happen. This makes it difficult to catch mistakes.

One way to test the integrity of your mystery is make four columns in a notebook (electronic or paper) and then break the story into four parts: Scene, Characters, Information, and Unresolved Questions.

Scene

A scene tells its own story; it has a beginning, middle, and end. It may take place over more than one location. For instance, the conversation may start in the drawing room and then move out onto the lawn. The purpose of every scene is to reveal character and/or (but hopefully and) to move the plot forward.

In the Scene column, give a brief description including Action and Location:

Discussing clues in the Garden.

Location is important.

Everytime a new location comes up, the writer must give enough description to convey a sense of place to the reader. An author once said that if it wasn’t necessary for a scene to take place at a particular location, get rid of that location. I think the author’s point was that new locations shouldn’t appear randomly. If deadly nightshade is the weapon of choice, then it would make sense to have a scene in a the woods where the slueth could discover a ready supply of the plant. If she’s simply contemplating the appearance of a new suspect, there’s no need to describe the lovely fauna. If possible, move her to the setting of the next scene–have her ponder this new suspect while climbing the porch steps to her next interview.

And make the location fit in with your character. Poirot disliked the untidy nature of the wilderness. He wouldn’t have gone for a relaxing stroll through the woods, though he might have unwillingly traversed a path if he suspected the existence of a clue.

Action keeps the story moving.

By listing the Action, you’ll notice where the story stagnates. The detective needs to regroup and lay out the information gathered so far and readers appreciate these recaps. However, if you have ten scene descriptions in a row that read “thinks about…”, you might want to reorganize or add some action. Otherwise you’re in danger of the dreaded “talking head” syndrome.

Laying out your scenes will also make it obvious if there are bits that should either be cut or combined.  The sleuth spots a clue in the drawing room fireplace. Later, he runs into the maid and discovers the butler was suspiciously missing from his duties during the critical hours. Why go back to the drawing room twice if you can take care of it all during one visit? The sleuth follows the maid into the drawing room to ask her a question and notices the clue in the fireplace. And if there’s a dangly scene that doesn’t serve a purpose, off with its head! Let’s say the sleuth looks for the maid in the drawing room but doesn’t find her. He comes back later. Why, why, oh why would you waste space on that first trip?

Next week, find out how listing the characters in each scene can help you avoid embarrassing mistakes.