A well-crafted mystery is like a braid. Each link is discrete, but it moves the entire story along. With every fold of the story fabric tension and conflict are wound in. As with a braid, the reader is hopefully following each strand as it weaves in and out of the story, sometimes taking a subordinate posture, other times taking the more dominate path.
There are many books on how to write mysteries. And there are many theories and templates available. Some work, some don’t. Some work for some writers, others prefer different paths. Having spent a lot of time studying these tomes (and sometimes only putting them on my shelves and running a finger over them hoping to absorb the knowledge without the necessity of actually reading the book), I have discovered that a combination of the Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and the Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid work best for me. Interestingly enough, each of these systems follow the three act structure.
The hero in both starts out in the ordinary world, experiences the inciting incident, moves on through complications to crisis, then to climax and resolution. It’s all about a series of ups and downs, positives and negatives. While Campbell gives an overall view of how the hero progresses through the story, Coyne gets a little more detailed. Coyne believes that each scene should be a photo negative of the one before it. So, if your scene ends on a positive note the next starts on a positive note and ends on a negative note. The mini crisis if you will. If you have two positive scenes (or negative ones) in a row, you are missing a scene and need to revisit the plot.
Campbell’s journey forms the visual of the braid but does not necessarily show the detail. Instead it is the beautiful rope. The outline of the plot. Coyne’s is more nuts and bolts. I graph my scenes as I am writing them. Showing how each links to the next, making sure a positive links to a negative. It’s the detail of the braid, and it lets me know when I’ve missed an opportunity to bring tension and conflict to my story. Each scene has an emotional intensity and each scene has a resolution. A character has to want something, and the want is either resolved or it’s not. When it’s not, it’s tension. That’s what builds the mystery. The rise and fall of emotion mixed with the certainty of the clues and the paths of the red herrings.
When the system works, at the end of the story, my braid is not a series of knots, but an intricate pattern of texture that draws all the strands together and brings the protagonist back to the ordinary world.
Writers, do you have a favorite plotting/story technique? Readers, does the analogy of the braid work for you?