Don’t let an outline prescribe your novel’s plot rigidly – use it compliantly.
Novel plot outlines are extremely useful for giving your story a clear sense of direction and purpose. Writing a book is like heading out to an ocean in a small boat. The outline helps if you have a method and a course laid out. The same time, you need to be equipped for sea changes.
Sticking to your outline, you might ignore places where variation would make sense. Where your outline might say, your tale should go in one course while the characters (your creative intuition or Pantsing attitude) are telling you to go in another. It’s essential to treat your outline as a guide – this way you can chart the entire course of your novel while still allowing for sensible detours. Use the brainstorming and three-act structure to create a blueprint for your book.
1. A reader must have the same opportunity with the investigator for solving the crime. All the clues must be plainly stated and reported.
2. No deliberate tricks or dishonesty may be placed on a reader other than those performed legitimately by the perpetrator on the detective.
3. There must be no love engagement. The profession in hand is to bring a perpetrator to the bar of justice, but not to bring a lovelorn pair to their wedding
4. The detective themselves, or one of the official police investigators, should never turn out to be the offender. This is plain trickery, on a par with offering someone a penny for a ten-pound note. It’s false pretences.
5. The offender must be concluded by logical reasoning — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated admission.
6. A detective novel must have a detective in it, and a detective is not a detective unless he or she detects. Their purpose is to collect clues that will ultimately lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter being apprehended. If the detective does not reach their conclusions through an investigation of those clues, he has no more solved the problem than the pupil who gets their answer out of the back of the arithmetic textbook.
7. There frankly must be a corpse in a detective novel. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. A couple of hundred pages is far too much bother for a crime other than a murder, or a few. After all, the reader’s task and investment of energy must be rewarded.
8. The puzzle of the crime must be solved by naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic seances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. The reader has a chance when matching his wits with a typical detective, but if they must compete with the world of ghosts and go chasing around metaphysics, they are surely defeated.
9. There must be only one detective — that is, but one protagonist.
10. The offender must turn out to be a person who has acted a more or less prominent part in the story (antagonist) that is, a character with whom the reader is familiar and in whom they take an interest.
11. The butler or servant should not be made by the author as the culprit. This is begging the question; it is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that would not ordinarily come under suspicion.
12. There must only be but one offender, no matter how many murders are perpetrated.
On a different note to my regular diatribe, passive voice can also make your writing more concise, strangely enough, by removing unnecessary words, i.e. information that isn’t required to get the message across or are unimportant.
“John Doe was hit by a car and then rushed to hospital.”
“John Doe and what happened to him is the focus of this sentence, not the thing that hit him.”
Additionally, it isn’t important how he got to a hospital, only that he’s there. (I’m particularly upset at ending a sentence with a preposition)
This passive construction is much more efficient than;
“A car hit John Doe, and then an ambulance rushed him to a hospital,” which sounds as awkward as ‘passive’ sounds when ‘active’ should be used.
It isn’t vague like passive can be, but it isn’t concise, either. Another example is “John Doe was charged with the murder of his wife, Jane,” which sounds much simpler than “Police charged John Doe with the murder of his wife, Jane,” or even “Sergeant James Ryan charged John Doe with the murder of his wife, Jane,” where it isn’t clear whose wife Jane is. (or this one)
If writing a short story that only should contain 1500 words then you could look for the words that just add completeness like;
“John sat down and read a book.” – 6 words
“John sat and read a book.” – 5 words
There is sat down and stud up.
Some quick helping points that can improve the very next piece you write.
1. Know your reader, and this means more than knowing a few demographics (how old they are, their average income, etc.). To know your readers means you understand their fears, frustrations, and aspirations. Writing from the reader’s perspective will dramatically change the way you write.
2. Know your objective.
3. The pieces you write like blog posts, press release, video script, or anything else, need have only one aim. I can call this objective the Most Desired Result, or “MDR.” Knowing your MDR forces you to write with crystal-clear focus.
4. Use short words; you don’t need a thesaurus.
5. To convince, you must be clear to understand. Utilising short words is one of the best ways to make your meaning clear. So, don’t show off how many big words you can use.
6. Use short sentences. Your thoughts come across more clearly in short sentences. A bonus is that short sentences prevent you from confusing your readers.
7. Use short paragraphs.
8. Let’s imagine you come to a webpage filled with a large block of text. There are no paragraph breaks. Are you likely to read it? Most people would say no. Make your writing skimmable, scannable, and scrollable. Use short paragraphs.
9. Use active language.
10. Active language is powerful and interesting. In contrast, passive language is tedious. How do you identify which is which? In an active sentence, the subject is performing the acting: “Bill fixes cars.” But in a passive sentence, the target of the action becomes the subject of the sentence. For instance, instead of saying, “Bill fixes cars,” I might say, “The cars are fixed by Bill.”
Passive language presents your idea inadequately. It does feel “backwards.” Also, it is more difficult for many readers to understand. Write with power. Use active language.
11. Write recklessly, re-write ruthlessly.
12. When you eventually write your first draft, it’s okay if it’s appalling. In other words, write carelessly. After you have your first draft on a document (or in memory), filled with strength and power, you can clean up any “messes” you might’ve made. Be ruthless when you edit and re-write.
1. The cosy mystery genre, the detective, usually is an amateur, a detailed description of the violence or a sex scene is never given, and this is why it’s called cozy. The setting is often a small town. The detective uses their powers of observation and deduction, as well as excellent general knowledge to solve the crime. Example: Agatha Christie’s ‘Miss Marple’
2. In the hard-boiled private investigator genre, the detective works in a large city, and the violence is explicit. The detective follows clues in the dark underbelly of the city. Example: Mickey Spillane’s ‘Mike Hammer’
3. The legal thriller needs research into the rules and methods of the legal world. Readers usually want to know what happens after a crime is committed with an arrest. You can use crises of legal conscience to make your characters more rounded. Examples: John Grisham and Richard North Patterson write in this genre
4. Modern PIs are sometimes women, often former policemen, and wisecracking loners who usually carry a weapon. But, in the U.K. there are no guns. (They can also be bounty hunters.) They are usually hired by private people to solve mysteries or crimes and to find people. Examples: Lawrence Block’s ‘Matt Scudder’, Janet Evanovich’s ‘Stephanie Plum’, and Sue Grafton’s ‘Kinsey Millhone’
5. The police procedural story is realistic and should be as accurate as the author can create it. The reader is taken to some squad rooms, morgues, courts, and crime scenes. This genre is quite complicated, and the investigator is often under a lot of stress. For example, the detective could be dealing with many cases, he has personal problems with relationships, and his superiors want the case solved. There are secondary characters, including suspects, police officers, lawyers, and criminals. Examples: Ian Rankin’s ‘Rebus’, Michael Connelly’s ‘Harry Bosch’, and James Patterson’s ‘Alex Cross’
6. The medical thriller is a suspense story that takes place in hospitals. The protagonist is usually a doctor or nurse. The plot is based on conditions unique to medicine and medical research. Examples: Robin Cooke, Michael Crichton and Tess Gerritsen, write in this genre.
7. The forensic thriller is a reasonably new genre. The lead character or protagonist is usually a woman who is a scientist or pathologist. Research is needed for these jobs as accuracy is essential. Most of the action takes place in crime scenes and morgues, and in the lead character’s home. Examples: Jeffery Deaver’s ‘Lincoln Rhyme’, Patricia Cornwell’s ‘Kay Scarpetta’, and Kathy Reichs’s ‘Temperance Brennan’
8. The general suspense thriller features a protagonist who is driven into the action in the result of a crime. This hero is often just an ordinary character who is called on to resolve a problem. Sometimes, this character must prove his or her innocence, often to the police and other characters in the novel. Examples: Lee Child’s ‘Jack Reacher’; Gillian Flynn and Dennis Lehane also write in this genre.
9. The military thriller has a lead character who is often part of the military, MI5 or MI6, the CIA or the FBI, or a consultant to a military agency. Readers of this genre love the details, and a lot of research is necessary. Often the criminals are crooked politicians or terrorists. The action usually spans continents.
What is Fiction?
Fiction is lies; the writer is writing about characters that have never existed and scenarios in a novel that never happened. Reality usually is utterly dull. To make it more interesting, you have to complicate it, and complicate it some more. Occasionally, the reality becomes complicated and hectic, almost as complex as fiction. I’m sure many of us have been through those situations.
Telling Better Lies
Fiction novels are based on reality and then made more complex with exciting characters. You find an interesting scenario in real life and think that it can be made into a novel or a few scenes in a novel. The first thing you do is ask yourself, “How can I make this outrageous?”
As a new writer, you’re thinking, “But, I need to make it believable to keep the suspension of disbelief. This means that you hover too close to reality and being dull. If anything else, reading about a wealthy landowner who has ghosts that suck blood in their house probably won’t be boring. The idea is to set your fictional world, in the beginning, then your reader will be less in reality.
Star Wars, although a movie, started off showing a reasonably sized spaceship being pursued by a massive great big one. Going onboard the smaller ship, there was robots and laser beam fighting. After the first scene was complete, we had been taken to a space travel capable race and introduced to two main characters. From then on the characters were developed and exciting problems were included to outrageous standards.
Things that are at stake must be important. This might be a character’s life or living, a long-held dream or something else, but it cannot be immaterial. Moreover, over the course of the novel, the stakes must go up rather than stay the same or decrease. For example, a crime novel might begin with a police detective being given a murder case. Over the course of the story, your detective’s job could start to rest on determining this single crime, and the detective’s matrimony might begin to suffer. The stakes become higher than the initial motives for solving the crime.
Another example of raising stakes: an amateur detective starts out interested in solving a crime. Over time, the protagonist’s loved ones might become potential targets of the antagonist. This format of raising stakes was used successfully by the writers of TV’s crime thriller series ‘Dexter’. Suddenly the protagonist’s action has much higher stakes.
Understanding with the Reader
You can only build suspense if the reader trusts you to play fair. Build the reader’s trust by fulfilling any promises that you make throughout the book. This means you must follow through on any significant set-ups. This might feel tricky in the context of red herrings, but red herrings are not so much intended to trick as to mislead the readers. In other words, red herrings must always have an alternate explanation so that the reader does not feel cheated and remains within the suspension of disbelief.
If you spend a lot of time on some detail so that it seems like it is going to be significant and then you abandon it, your reader will undoubtedly feel frustrated. On the other hand, if you show your reader early on that your set-ups pay off, then you can build suspense with longer and more complex set-ups with story arcs across the entire novel and sustain your reader’s interest throughout your book.
All of this foreshadowing and suspense-building, that we spoke of in recent blogs, does little if the reader does not care about what happens in the climax of your novel. The best way to make sure that the reader cares is by creating strong characters that are real to the reader. When characters feel real, the reader will care what happens to them and about the suspenseful situations they encounter. Characters’ behaviour should seem reasonably plausible to the reader.
Building suspense requires mastering some writing techniques. It also requires making sure that you have engaging characters whose challenges matter to them and your readers. Suspense needs conflict and drama to grow. Compressing time or limiting the character’s freedom or means in some other way can help build suspense. Planting false clues via red herrings that leave the reader and characters unsure as to who can be trusted is also useful. Authors writing crime fiction must create a strong motivation for readers to invest in seeing suspenseful setups through to their conclusion.
‘Red herrings’ are hints that intentionally deceive readers, and they can be used to a great effect in writing crime fiction. For example, one red herring may include the murderer’s identification. David Lynch’s TV show Twin Peaks made commanding use of this method. If you have created several likely suspects, the reader may become particularly engrossed when the protagonist is alone with any of them.
You might plan your red herrings so that there are some possible alternatives answers. If you just produce one red herring, then the savvy suspense follower might see it coming, but if you include multiple ones, you may keep readers guessing.
Red herrings do not just link to murder suspects. Just about anything could be a red herring including a piece of information or a situation. As an example, you could create a series of red herrings as a protagonist is walking down a road at night. The protagonist might think a man is trailing her, but he ends up entering a regional restaurant. A little while later she might think she overhears his footsteps again, but it’s only a part of newspaper scudding behind her.
Also, red herrings can work with other elements to develop suspense:
Foreshadowing, atmosphere and mood
Foreshadowing includes suggestions of things that may happen. It may be direct or indirect. For example, an example of indirect foreshadowing might be the protagonist’s arrival at a house during a terrible storm (a well-known cliché). The storm is a suggestion of the awful occurrence the protagonist may have if a crime is perpetrated at the house.
Moreover, for politicians, red herrings do come in handy as they use them repeatedly to dodge difficult questions in a conversation or an argument. They do it by referring to a different issue, which of course is irrelevant, to sidetrack from the original subject under discussion.
Unfolding your novel within a tight timeframe is one of the most significant methods for developing suspense. Whether your protagonist is in a one day race against time like Robert Langdon in The Da Vinci Code or has a total of 61 hours to rescue the day like Jack Reacher in the novel by Lee Child, putting your protagonist on a ticking stopwatch will likely make readers turn more pages.
Traps to be cautious of in a time-focused path to writing crime fiction, or a short story, like my last published story ‘Newton’s Second Damn Law’. One is that effective suspense requires some set-up. If you have ever been through an extended period of very high stress, you know that there comes the point where you begin to disengage from the situation to reduce stress. The same thing can happen with fiction. It’s seldom useful to sustain a constant mood of highest-level suspense for the entire duration of a novel. Giving your protagonist a short period to solve a problem is an excellent approach to building suspense but be sure to create contrasts. Downtime offers readers a chance to take their breath. It can even calm them into a false sense of security as you construct the next surprise that will leave them more interested and invested.
The other issue you must deal with is the implication of having something unfold in a short period. Your protagonist could be on the run for 48 hours, but is there time to drink, eat or sleep? If not, what effect will all this have? As I’ve said in previous blogs; be sure that you do not reach beyond your readers’ suspension of disbelief.
Providing your character with a limited amount of time to solve a problem is a great way to build suspense, but you can place constraints on your protagonist that increase tension in other ways as well:
Writing crime fiction that transpires in a limited physical space is another efficient way to create pressure. 12 Angry Men, is set in a one room with the jury of a murder case for the whole of the 96 minute movie. Stephen King explores this in some of his novels: trapped in a car by a rabid dog, is in Cujo, a woman and her son and Gerald’s Game handcuffed to the bed is a woman. The principal characters in the Elizabeth Engstrom novel ‘Lizard Wine’ are snowbound in the car with a menacing ex-convict.
It is also possible to challenge your character in other ways, too. The protagonist of King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon cannot find their way within the woods. If your protagonist is in a different country where they cannot speak the language or has run out of money, what happens? By reducing the possibilities available to your main character, you will create suspense.