Murder mysteries: a loose outline

I’m writing from a farm in Tennessee right now, a little less than halfway through a week-long writing retreat. It. Is. Great. It’s amazing how much writing I can get done when it’s my only job.

The story I’m working on is essentially a murder mystery in the clothes of a fantasy novel (which, minus the “murder”, is also true of most Harry Potter books, in case you didn’t know.) Mystery is probably the genre I read the most, and I’ve always known I was going to write one someday — but the idea of plotting one was daunting.

There are a lot of plot outline templates for novels, which give you a layout of what beats to hit when, which is the kind of thing that’s hugely useful to me. But I needed something specifically for mystery, and something that could be adapted to a very different setting than the classic real-world investigative whodunnit. I started working out my own theories, and halfway through doing that I found this Two-Body Plot breakdown by John P. Murphy.

Below, I’ve basically taken the two-body plot as described by Murphy, and thrown in my own take at a couple of points. I think it’s a pretty good act framework for a mystery, and is certainly what I’ll be using for my first stab at outlining.

Act 1: the characters are introduced: the eventual suspects, killer, and victim, and sometimes also the detective. Conflicts and tensions that hint at the murder motive, as well as some red-herring motives, are presented. If the detective has personal issues to work out in this story, they come up here too. The reader should be getting invested in either the detective’s situation, some of the characters’ conflicts, or just in trying to guess who’s going to be killed and why (I always do this if I know I’m reading/watching a murder mystery — if your readers aren’t likely to know that, though, you need to build tension in one of the other ways.)

Act 1 ends on the discovery of the initial victim, which pivots us into the investigation.

Act 2: Early-stage investigation. The detective and reader are scoping out the terrain of suspects, motives, and clues. During this act we should be rapidly piling up questions in addition to the main “whodunnit” question. Why did Sally go visit Jane in the middle of the night? Who moved the teakettle from its usual place? How could someone have gotten to the fifth floor of the building? What are suspects X, Y, and Z hiding?

Act 2 ends on the discovery of something that dramatically alters the tone of the investigation. In the original essay it’s another body, but I think a major reveal (“Jane is secretly Sally’s mother, and Sally had no idea!”) can serve the same role. Even if it’s not a corpse, it should represent some kind of failure or disaster for the detective: their main working theory disproven, the person they love suddenly implicated, something like that.

Act 3: Late-stage investigation. The stakes are raised by the Act 2 corpse/reveal; the detective is more emotionally invested and driven. Where in act 2 we raised more questions than answers, here we should be getting answers in pretty quick succession — but answers that create additional questions, or tension or danger. Often there’s something in place to put time pressure on the solving: fear that the killer will strike again, a suspect the detective who’s in growing danger of being arrested although the detective believes they’re innocent, the risk of the detective being taken off the case. In general things are moving much more quickly, and with much more tension, than in act 2.

Act 3 ends with the big reveal. The reveal scene needs to be very tense, dramatic, and exciting, even though ultimately the reveal can be expressed in three words: “X did it.” There are two time-honored ways of doing this. You can create some action around the scene: a chase, a third murder attempt narrowly averted, a life-threatening trap the detective walks into. Or you can assemble all the suspects in a room and let the tension come from everybody’s suspicion of each other, and the slow unpeeling of secrets by the detective.

In the denoument (Act 4 in the original scheme) you answer any unanswered questions, resolve the relationships of the remaining characters, and sort out whatever personal consequences the detective faced. Mystery readers want to walk away with everything tucked neatly to bed, with the possible exception of some personal arc for the detective that will carry over into the next book.

Writing bootcamp

I always like to have a plan; if I’ve figured out where I want to go, I want to plot out each step of the path before I set out. What I’m slowly learning, though, is that this doesn’t allow for flexibility in myself, or responsiveness to surprises that the world might hand me. (I tend to assume that surprises the world hands me are always going to be terrible — I’m working on shifting that assumption.) I’m also learning that pretty great things can happen when I move generally toward things that I want, even if I don’t have a clear plan forward, even if the landscape starts shifting as I move.

For example: a couple of years ago I took advantage of a NaNoWriMo promotion to sign up for Novlr, a writing platform, and through that I learned about Tim Clare’s Couch to 80k Writing Boot Camp, a free podcast-based writing course. And that, for the last 4 weeks, has been knocking down so many of the blockades that have gone up around my creative, fiction-generating brain over the years. When I was a kid and a teenager, I was constantly having story ideas, constantly drawing up characters and writing scenes and plotting out novels, and I had begun to fear that that was just lost to me in adulthood. I’m so, so happy to discover that it’s not.

I’m not going to post many of the excerpts I generate through this, and in fact might not do any at all besides this one. They’re all done in ten minutes, and so there’s no polishing and I don’t want “someone else might read this” to get in the way of my being able to put down whatever terrible words come out. But this one was a fun exercise — this week we are writing the same scene, a memory, with different stylistic constraints. See if you can tell what the rule is for this:

The wind was strong, and it pushed the waves high and rough. Mom was with the kids, so Dan and I could get out to play and swim in the sea. We ran down the wood planks to the shore, and stood and watched in awe at the fierce waves and loud wind. Grey sand, grey sky, and slate grey sea spread out in front of us.

We ran down the beach and plunged in the surf. The wind was so cold that the sea felt warm. Up, the waves rose, us with them, high and low, some from the north and some from the south, crossed swells on all sides. The wind tore at my hair. We could have been killed, if a wave too strong had pulled us down, or out to sea, but we swum strong and laughed and rode the waves.


Anyway, it’s been really fun. And this weekend I woke up with an idea that I’m so excited about, and dying to start working on. I promised myself a full first draft of something by the end of calendar year 2018, and I think this is gonna be it.

Growth shoots

[I’m going through old drafts, and finding lots of posts that I quite like but never quite finished and published. Some, I’m going to put the final touches to and then publish. Some, like this one, I’ll just publish as they stand.]

I often don’t do New Year’s resolutions. What happens instead is, as spring comes around and my spirit starts getting into gear for action and productivity, I notice patterns. Or more often, breaks in patterns. I suddenly do something I wouldn’t have done a year ago. I respond in a way I wouldn’t have responded. I notice my thoughts trending… differently.

And when I see this shift in an old pattern, I think, “Huh. Yes, that works. I like where that trend will take me.” And then I make it into a resolution, of sorts. I start to encourage that pattern and remind myself to do it in other relevant situations.

I learned a long time ago that forcing myself into the mold of the person I thought I should be doesn’t work. I can usually do it, because my willpower is strong, but it disconnects me from myself. Instead of genuine growth and change I learn to put on the costume and mannerisms of the person I’m trying to be, but it’s never quite right. It never filters down to my instinctive thoughts and feelings, and so I lose touch with them while the outward show becomes more and more work to keep up. And sometimes it turns out I was wrong about the direction I should be changing in in the first place.

So I’ve been taking this different approach, which feels more like noticing growth, and feeding it. It’s like I’m a plant putting out new shoots, and after a bit of reflection I decide that yes, this is a branch worth growing, so I send energy to it.

What I’ve learned is that if I reflect on the triumphs and failures of the recent past (which I can’t not do) and keep people around me who hold me up and call out the best in me, growth happens naturally. I don’t have to force it or organize it. I can just notice and encourage it.

This year so far I have noticed two little shoots of growth, that I am pleased by and want to encourage.

1 – Reach after my desires. I have always felt like I needed to wait for good things to come to me, especially big things like lovers and friends and jobs. I have felt like if something isn’t happening, then it’s not for me. I’ve often taken an excessively stoic approach, insisting (to myself most of all) that I’m fine with whatever comes, because I don’t feel that I can affect the big things in my life.

Now suddenly I’ve started to imagine that I could think about what I really want, what would make me the happiest — and then reach for it. Actually put myself forward and take steps toward making it happen. Maybe it will work out, maybe it won’t… if it doesn’t, that could mean many things but it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have tried. That I was somehow foolish or out of line for even asking.

I realize this is something many people have done their whole lives, but to me it feels foreign and a little bit like magic. I’m still stunned with wonder that a big wish I made –and actively pursued — a few weeks ago came true. Like, wait, you mean I’m allowed to ask for what I want, and not only will I not be stricken down for presumption, but sometimes it will even happen? (There are lots of other reasons I’m stunned with wonder. More about that later, maybe.)

It’s a big development and it’s giving me Notions about what kind of future might be possible for me in a world where I’m allowed to actually protag in my own life.

2 – Don’t apologize when I’m not responsible. This comic was kind of a lightning bolt for me, of the terrific kind that joins and illuminates several unconnected thoughts. I struggle to respond to other people’s “I’m sorry I’m such a burden” type statements (because most of the time, I don’t feel that way, so I have to awkwardly tend to their feelings of being burdensome while trying to convey that I don’t see them that way.)

And I also get so, so tired of apologizing for the same things in myself over and over (usually “sorry I’m late” and “sorry I left the dishes undone” and such things.) It feels hollow to say sorry about something I know, from long experience, is going to change slowly if at all, but I don’t just want to let the thing pass without acknowledgement either. So. Thank you. Thank you for being patient. Thank you for listening. Thank you for putting up with a messier house than you would prefer. Thank you for valuing me enough to not mind the ways in which I’m imperfect.

(In case it’s not clear, “thank you” would be a pretty crappy response if the person I’m talking to was expressing their upset at my lateness or messiness. I’m talking about cases where I’m apologizing compulsively and habitually without the other person actually expressing unhappiness… as the cartoon says, apologizing for existing.)