The Formula, or What I Learned in Mystery-Writing Class

I just completed a class in writing mysteries. I took it because I wanted a bit of training, having completed my first Victorian mystery and started a second. The first one I wrote as a “pantser”, working an hour at midnight every night, just writing. I had no idea where the story was going until I wrote it. My characters developed as I went along. This, I had learned, was wrong. Particularly with mysteries, one must plot and outline. I purchased two books on how to plot fiction, and signed up for the class.

My second mystery would not be so slipshod. I would plan it out in this class, and it would be even better than the first. Ready, steady, go!

Problem 1: the protagonist’s flaw

We were taught that all mysteries must have a protagonist who has a flaw. This flaw must block the protagonist from solving the crime right away. There should also be an antagonist whose flaw is fatal, and will be exploited by the protagonist once s/he has an epiphany and realizes their own flaw is preventing their progress.

I am a fan of Agatha Christie and Anne Perry. If you know Agatha Christie, you know Hercules Poirot and Miss Marple. I could not find a flaw in either one that was so big it carried across their stories. Certainly Poirot has peculiarities, like fastidiousness. Miss Marple is somewhat cloistered in her village. In Anne Perry’s Pitt mysteries, the Inspector is rumpled and has pockets full of stuff. These are simply traits, not deep flaws. But the instructor didn’t like Agatha Christie, saying her protagonists are too perfect.

My protagonist in the first book was an Inspector whose only flaw is a penchant for buying and reading books. In the second, my protagonist is an artist for the magazines. So I created her flaw, a difficulty with her not seeing below the surface to understand people’s duplicity. Naïvete, if you like. I didn’t really want her to have a flaw. She’s forthright and talented and smart. I kind of wanted her to solve the mystery by being forthright and talented and smart. But I’m a good student. I then made up an antagonist. I didn’t want her to be the murderer, though. But she also had to have a flaw. OK, cynicism. Or maybe pride. How do I know? I haven’t met her yet.

Problem 2: The Hook

The mystery must start with a hook, something to pull the reader in and make them want to read on. I hadn’t devised one of these. There wasn’t one in my first mystery either, which I was trying to get an agent to read. So I added one to each story: a body! in a mysterious place! what could it mean?

Yeah, ok. But why do readers need a hook? I don’t need a hook. Just give me an interesting character and/or setting in Chapter 1. I’m in. I’ll trust the author until they prove unworthy of trust. We had been encouraged to look at examples from mysteries we love. I looked. The hooks, such as they were, were too long to qualify or not exciting. The ones I liked best start slowly, with character and setting. Ugh, I thought. If you don’t want to read my book, then don’t read it. I want to start with the Inspector coming home after a lecture. Sigh.

Problem 3: The Map

This all-important Hook is followed by Backstory and Trigger for Act I. Crisis, Struggle, and Epiphany are Act II. Plan, Climax, and Ending are Act III. We had to map those out. Before writing.

I did it.

Hook: A body is found at the Exhibition.
Backstory: Jo is an artist whose flaw is that she assumes that people are as they appear to be. Several scenes take place which establish the main characters, especially the protagonist: their goals, activities, location in the city, connections to each other.
Trigger: Jo’s best friend Bridget, a photographer’s assistant, is kidnapped.

Crisis: Jo is unsure how to find the kidnapped Bridget, police aren’t helpful, and she can’t think of what to do.
Struggle: Using deduction, Jo finds Bridget safe, but then Mr Pratchett is found dead, and Jo has to untangle the mystery with witnesses who all seem nice and personable.
Epiphany: Jo realizes she’s been naive to assume that people are, like her, what they appear to be. As with art, she needs to think in terms of creativity, imagination, and duplicity to devise a plan to find the perpetrator of both crimes.

Plan: Jo devises a plan that involves a disguise, to pretend to be in the market for a forged painting.
Climax: She discovers that Cecil is the forger, and that his father is the killer.
Ending: James Robson is arrested for the murder and kidnapping.

In the first book, my backstory was the entire first third of the book. Very bad, that. As I wrote out these elements, my phrases got shorter and shorter. I had no place to put Rossetti, and I wanted Rossetti. Why hadn’t he showed up? I started to realize I’d stopped actually writing in my midnight sessions. Instead I was plotting. I thought it would be like non-fiction, that I’d have a great outline I just had to fill in. Yet I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything.

Problem 4: The Scenes

Then we worked on scene structure. Another formula: Goal, Conflict, Disaster, followed by Emotion, Thought, Decision, Action.

I like my scenes. They wrap. They have a beginning, middle, and end. They either move the plot (events) or the story (character) along. I didn’t want to do Goal, Conflict, Disaster, followed by Emotion, Thought, Decision, Action.

I had just written a scene. If all scenes are like this, as I was taught, I should be able to take any scene from my book, and if I was doing it right, it would work. I broke down the scene to show these elements. It didn’t work because it had two points of view.

Problem 5: Points of View

Apparently, most mysteries should be in the first person. I didn’t want mine in the first person. Pros and cons were presented for each point of view.

Third person has both limited and omniscient. This was helpful. Omniscient you don’t use much because that would tell the reader everything as it happens, which you never do in a mystery. So I chose limited. But my scene had two characters walking together, and I showed what each of them was thinking. Not ok. Too confusing; it should be one point of view per scene. So I showed the scene to a couple of friends. Not confusing at all, they said. It’s kind of cute to know that both characters secretly like each other.

But at least I know I’m writing in first person limited. Next step would be to plan out which characters would have their thoughts revealed, and which didn’t. Sounds like a lot of work.

Conclusion

As the course went on, I lost interest in writing my story. I felt like I already knew the ending, like I peeked at the last page, so why bother? The characters weren’t developed as I went, so I didn’t even know them, and here I was at the end, knowing whodunnit. The topic of forgery got stuck on like a plaster rather then evolving organically within the plot. I didn’t even want to read this, much less write it.

This is not to say that the class was bad. It was great. Beautifully organized, very clear, the instructor always on hand to answer questions. He was very helpful and funny and wise. And I’d read some of his work before I signed up, and he’s a good writer.

But before this class, I wrote in the dark, with no outline, looking up research as I went. It was always exciting. I never knew exactly what was going to happen. My characters did all the work, and even though I was writing I was also just watching as they did their thing. And you know, I’m not writing to feed my family. I don’t need to pump out six formulaic best-sellers a year. I’m writing for the joy of writing, the thrill of historical discovery, the transportation away from our current “challenging times”.

That’s it then. I’ve put the books on plotting in the garage and bought one on being a brilliant pantser. I am going to embrace this rather than trying to change it.

That decided, it’s hard to put aside the plot I already developed. Maybe it’s just one possible way the story could go?

So late last night, Bridget was locked in the dark-room by an unseen intruder, rather than kidnapped. She was only trapped for one day, because she was missed at dinner and Jo went to find her and rescued her. She’d had to pee in the developing pan. I had no idea that would happen. . .

 

 

 

 

12 comments to The Formula, or What I Learned in Mystery-Writing Class

  • Jmm

    You probably figured this out already, but: you were getting a template to crank out genre fiction. This is What Sells.
    It’s interesting to me because I spend lots of time deprogramming students who were taught the 5 paragraph essay template and can’t imagine writing anything else.(And, unsurprisingly, can’t write anything else.)

    • Lisa M Lane

      The word “template” helps my understanding a lot. It was also obvious in one of the plotting books I got, which used “fast” and “efficient” and talked about cranking them out.

      And I am guilty of helping them use the 5-paragraph format, as you know. Because they’ve experienced it, they can focus on the history. Sorry. 🙁

  • Steve Gossard

    I like your organic approach; letting the plot grow as you write.
    I think too many people write to a formula for success. They write because they want to BE a writer, not because they have something to say. I like your approach. If it keeps you interested it should keep the reader interested as well.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Hi Steve! Yes, I figure I’m a very picky reader, so if I find it interesting maybe others will too. 🙂

  • John Mackness

    I don’t know what the five paragraph essay template is but in general I like templates – not to follow blindly but to think about and prompt ideas – positive and negative. And deprogramming students? What’s this all about? Teach them templates by means but use them wisely
    !

    • Lisa M Lane

      Certainly knowing what the template IS can be helpful. Perhaps there’s a point where a “template” becomes a “norm”, and then a “norm” becomes the only way to do it?

  • Erika

    And there you have it, my lovely. Follow your heart and your gut. Haven’t I been saying that all along? 😉❤️😘

  • Dakin

    The template is useful because we can break it. It is good to understand the expected pattern, but that hook? That hook can be the inspector coming back from a lecture, because it is unexpected. Stories should never be predictable. As soon as I feel one is, I put it down and never read it again. Even a hero who is a Mary Jane can be enticing if we like them enough. Or if they are quirky enough. And those are often the same thing.

    • Lisa M Lane

      I do like the idea that templates are there, in a sense, to be broken. Perhaps it’s like abstract artists knowing the academy rules, and deciding to eschew them. I also like your thinking that anything unexpected can be a hook. My books have a lot of unexpected elements. So thank you!

  • I agree Lisa. Templates could only be OK if you are aware that they can and perhaps should be broken. The problem with any sort of model/template is that it determines what you see and stops you from even being aware of what you can’t see, what is beyond the model/template. I think we should always be prepared to go beyond the model/template. I thought you might like this. Philip Pullman’s writing tips – https://www.thendobetter.com/arts/2017/10/19/philip-pullman-writing-tips 🙂

    • Lisa M Lane

      Thank you – I like your idea that a template can stop you from being aware of what you’re not seeing. I do think the template is acting as a blindfold of sorts. Now, how to shake it? Pullman’s writing tips are great. I need total silence too, but my typing fingers couldn’t possibly hold anything as archaic as a pen for more than 10 minutes. 🙂 I’m going to keep repeating in my mind that the characters can take the lead, and it’s great to see a writer of his stature encourage doing that and dealing with structure later. Thanks again.