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?




Author: kaitcarson

I write mysteries set in South Florida. The Hayden Kent series is set in the Florida Keys. Hayden is a SCUBA diving paralegal who keeps finding bodies. Underwater, no one can hear you scream! Catherine Swope is a Miami Realtor with a penchant for finding bodies in the darndest places. I live in an airpark in Fort Denaud, FL with my husband, five cats, and a flock of conures. And oh yes, a Piper Cherokee 6 in the hangar!

13 thoughts on “Twisted”

  1. Kait you and I are on the same page here, only i equate braiding to weaving. It’s the same idea and each time while rereading a manuscript I’ve worked I start to see the braid, or in my case, the weave come together with a colorful pattern of surprising textures that sometimes even surprise me.


  2. I use Scapple. I start throwing out ideas and seeing how they might connected. Ideas that don’t connect to anything get tossed. I also use James Scott Bell’s “Write Your Novel From the Middle” technique. I construct my triangle and see how my ideas relate. If they don’t quite seem to “fit,” I brainstorm new ideas. Then I do a loose outline chapter by chapter as I write (rarely more than one or two chapters ahead).


  3. I have adapted Blake Snyder’s screenwriting beat sheet as my plotting template. I may not use all the beats, but it does force me to think about them ahead of time. Like ‘theme,’ my nemesis. I love the image of the braid. I hadn’t thought of that, but you’re absolutely right.


  4. What a thought provoking post! I have followed Campbell pretty closely in developing my main plot. I also found James N. Frey’s books helpful. Currently I’m reading Steven James’ Story Trumps Structure. When I was overhauling my first book last winter, I followed Hallie Ephron’s suggestions in Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, to wit: I made an outline of my story as is, then I outlined a book by Stuart Neville I recently read to see how he worked in his plot points, different POVs, intertwining sub/parallel plots. The comparisons which showed me where my story was sagging. In so doing, I was able to feather out the themes I wanted to develop as counterpoint and harmony to the main plot. Not sure if I have the Coyne book. I’ll check the shelves before I hit Amazon. PS. In law school, I found the osmosis method of absorbing information gets better results if you actually sleep on top of the book.


  5. What a great post. I much prefer blog post-length writing advice, so this is perfect for me. Much more digestible than all those books. 🙂


  6. Awesome post, Kait, and love the braid analogy. I like James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure, which sounds similar to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I’m definitely going to check out Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid! 🙂


  7. You might be interested in a workshop given by Michael Hauge and Christopher Nobler. It’s available on DVD called The Hero’s 2 Journeys.

    My process, at the developmental stage, involves a lot of stream of consciousness writing. With the manuscript I’m writing now, I have a ton of research material, but one major book. As I took notes on the right-hand pages of a spiral notebook, I noted plot ideas on the left. From those I had the beginning of my SOC (Stream of Consciousness). When I read Elizabeth George’s WRITE AWAY, I immediately felt I’d finally found someone I could relate to.

    Love, love, love the braid concept. There’s always a bit hidden, isn’t there?


  8. Wow. Love the braid image! As a pantser, I’m a frustrated, wannabe plotter. I usually start with knowing my characters really well and then figuring out a serious problem for them and seeing what happens. Am looking forward to checking out all the recommendations. What great stuff!


  9. Yes, the “braid” is a new analogy, but it certainly works for me. When I read a mystery, I don’t like too, too many stray strands sticking out of the braid. I like tight, focused stories with a clear direction. I appreciate colorful peripheral action and people, but characters and events without purpose are just a waste of my time. I like mysteries that have characters with CHARACTER. I do not like one-dimensional characters — all good, all evil, all boring. People are just not like that. I like people whom I might meet in the grocery story. I really like mysteries, and I think there just might be a mystery behind every person I meet in the grocery store.


  10. I love all the interest this post has generated and all that I’m learning! I’ll try to respond to each (beware, I am checking in late because I’ve been down with a migraine–spelling might be a bit funky).

    @Max – Character driven stories are always the most interesting to me. I find though that I still need some kind of road map, a way to keep track of where they are and although definitely a failed plotter, hopefully have a direction as to where they are going. Do you have some kind of map? How do you keep track of it all?

    @Nancy, I know exactly what you mean!

    @Mary – Scapple. Yes, I keep meaning to download that. I’m a Scrivener user and it’s a related program isn’t it? Was it hard to learn or is it intuitive as Scrivener? Haven’t heard of James Scott Bell. intriguing concept. I too loosely outline a few chapters ahead using the Scrivener index cards, then I keep track on the split screen. Sounds like our process is very similar.

    @Becky, theme is so hard! I wish I could figure a way to work that out from the start. I always have to back into it when I read the first draft and say, “Oh, yeah-there it is!” Blake Snyder is that the Save the Cat beat sheet method? Been meaning to read up on that. The name alone sells me!

    @Keenan, Hallie’s book is wonderful I write my first novel using her method, but I confess, I never did the outline part. I have promised myself to do that and I think I have found the perfect book for me. Thank you for reminding me–and for the tip about sleeping ON the book. I’m trying that tonight!

    @Sam, me too! I often will print them and find I even do refer to them. So much easier to look at Titles then flip pages in books where you know you saw something you wanted to try in one of the books somewhere!

    @Kimberly – Snowflake is great, and how can you beat the title! I use it at the very start to get an idea of where I want a story to go.

    @Kate, thanks! Shawn Coyne has a blog that I often skim – he’s recently done podcasts too.

    @Peg, I have to check the CD out. I also like your tip about the spiral notebook. When I was in high school we were taught to take notes by drawing a line down the left side of the page, questions, topics, and high points were on the left of the line, detailed notes on the right. I think it’s the Cornell method? I know there was a name for it. Anyway, your spiral notebook technique brought it to mind. I started WRITE AWAY but haven’t finished it. Don’t know why – the something shiny syndrome I think. I’ll have to get back to it.

    @Cynthia, Thanks!

    @Sue, I can totally relate – Me too! I envy plotters, they always seem to have so much more direction.

    @3 no 7 – I’m with you. Every person does have some mystery to them. It’s all in drawing it out. Truth is often stranger than fiction! People watching is a favorite past time. There is so much character, history, and mystery imprinted in the faces we see all around us.


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