Imagination Plots a Novel

Recently I had the pleasure of teaching a mystery workshop.  In such situations, I like to encourage as much audience participation as possible.  One of the most fun activities we did together was an exercise in plotting a mystery.  While the participants worked the game, their imagination bounced off the walls!  Here’s how it went:

First, we reviewed many of the special elements that make up a mystery story, specifically the differences between 5 of the following subgenres:  cozy, P.I., hard-boiled, noir, and police procedurals.

Then we broke up into small groups, and I assigned one of the subgenres to each group.  One person in each group volunteered to record that group’s plotting.

I gave the participants a series of questions, one at a time.  They were the same 8 questions for everyone, regardless of which subgenre their group was plotting.  Their answers reflected the issues we’d discussed for each subgenre.  I gave them several minutes to discuss each question among themselves, but then they had to pick an answer, and the recorder wrote it down.

The 8 questions, in this order:

  1. What is the crime?
  2. Who is the villain?
  3. Who is the victim?
  4. Who is the detective?
  5. What are the clues that will be uncovered?
  6. Who are the suspects?
  7. What is the resolution?
  8. How does the detective solve the mystery and bring the criminal to justice?

When their time was up, each recorder read what his/her group had created.  Each group turned out to have a full plot, from beginning, through saggy middles, all the way to the end.  And the imagination behind each plot was off the charts!  It was a fun exercise, and any of those plots could be fleshed out to become a finished mystery novel.

Do you ever start a new novel by asking similar questions?

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16 thoughts on “Imagination Plots a Novel”

  1. That’s a great list. I have a somewhat abbreviated one I use to get the creative juices going. Some questions I don’t need when plotting a book in a series, like “who’s the detective?”, but I definitely use it when I’m writing short stories.

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  2. Wow, those are fabulous questions, Sue! I usually tackle a similar list when prepping to write a new mystery, although I tend to have a hard time answering all of them until I’ve played with the characters and story a bit. One additional question I usually consider is: what actions does the villain take to make things harder for the sleuth? Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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  3. Fabulous exercise! The small groups is a great idea. I was in something similar where the class did the exercise as a whole and eventually the two-three loudest most insistent voices dominated. I would have left if I was sitting close enough to the door to make a slick exit.

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  4. What a great list of questions! It’s probably good to ask yourself them again throughout the process just to stay on track, especially for those of us who go off on tangents and can’t find the glasses on our face. I’m going to jot them down. 🙂

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  5. Thanks, and I’m glad to know this is helpful. Kate, you’re so right about the villain making things harder for the sleuth. That’s a great question to add because it builds in conflict. I am adding it now to my list. Keenan, I know what you mean about those 2-3 loudest voices. Good thing they come up with answers when there are time limits!

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  6. Small groups like that are definitely less intimidating than doing it by oneself, or in the big group, where some more timid types would never feel free enough to speak up.
    I start my books with the title and build an idea around it, but these are important questions for any book.

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  7. Starting with a title is a huge challenge for me, Sheila! The possibilities seem endless.

    Thanks, Pamela. I’ll let you know if I ever repeat it someday.

    Connie, summarizing those definitions would take at least an hour or two!

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