Create Obstalces for Your Sleuth With Alternating Scenes
Scenes are the building blocks of your story. Each scene moves the story forward. As you build your story alternate between action and reaction.
When you go through the first edits of your story make certain that all scene components are in each scene. You’ll take your reader by the hand to lead them through the story.
Two Types of Scenes
Alternating between Proactive and Reactive scenes is a cycle that builds story in increments.
The Proactive Scene
Challenge your protagonist.
By the end of the scene, the protagonist has not only failed to reach his goal but has a setback that leaves him worse off than at the beginning.
Checklist for the Proactive Scene
Put your hero or heroine in the worst possible situations as they seek what seems like an obtainable goal at the beginning of the scene.
The Reactive Scene
Now that your protagonist is thwarted, it’s time to give him some space. This scene is where your heroine makes a decision about what to do next.
Checklist for the Reactive SceneThese are the basic elements to include in the Reactive scene when your protagonist makes a decision.
Reactive scenes provide a way for your character to make really bad decisions which will create even greater conflict later on. She may be blind to the motivations of another character. He may find that getting into the boardroom isn’t a slam dunk. Reactive scenes are your opportunity to build conflict and tension because the following action scene may be based on a very wrong decision that seemed right at the time for the character.
Why This Structure Helps
For beginning writers, all this alternating of scenes may seem forced. I know, I was a beginning writer, and thought the same way. But my stories went nowhere and lacked tension. Readers want and expect your characters to have problems and overcome obstacles. Unless you are very compulsive, you don’t need to write these lists down. Just know which type of scene you are writing, create the obstacles either to action or decision making, and write the scene. Your story will benefit and your readers will love your story.
Z ara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy and coaches mystery writers.
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash
How To Not Get Lost In Your Mystery
Writing a first mystery can be challenging as a new author. With all the information out there about writing a story, you may be tempted to get "everything" into your story.
And, with your creative mind buzzing, it's easy to have lots of ideas for your story and add them all in. You come up with plot twists or add interesting characters to your suspect list.
In the end you have a unwieldy story that is hard for you to manage, especially closing it all out. And, worse yet, a story that is hard for readers to follow.
A fellow mystery writer in Sisters in Crime told me at our last meeting her first book was over 400 pages long and included 26 suspects. Way too long and complicated to gather a solid reader base. She laughs about it now.
In this week's Mystery Monday I talk about ways to avoid the fog of putting too much into your mystery.
Get Organized Before You Write
You will enjoy the writing process more if you organize your thoughts before you start writing the story.
Get to know your protagonist. Your mystery detective carries your story. Know as much as possible about your sleuth. The deeper you probe the more your readers will engage.
Plan the important details of your storyline. As you write you'll have a roadmap of where you are going. This plan will help you stay on course so you don't end up with a 400-page story with 26 suspects. Instead, you will have a select group of 5 to 8 suspects to develop and keep your sleuth and your reader guessing.
Flesh out your perpetrator. He or she needs to be smart, clever, and able to tell lies well. The more you know about this character, the easier it is to hide important details. Keep your reader guessing.
Manage the Main Storyline
If plotting sounds intimidating, don't use the word. Develop your storyline to follow as you write scene by scene.
The guys at Sterling and Stone put together a brilliant 40 chapter outline. Here's the sequence to help your build your mystery. If you follow the sequence you will outline your story from start to finish.
1 Everyday world, everyday conflict
2 Setup for the inciting incident
3 Inciting incident
4 Aftermath of the inciting incident
5 Setup for the first complication
6 First complication
7 Aftermath of the first complication
8 Minor dark moment
9 Setup for the first plot point
10 First plot point
11 Aftermath of the first plot point
12 Second complication
13 Aftermath of the second complication
14 Setup for the first pinch point
15 First pinch point
16 Aftermath of the first pinch point
17 Third complication
18 Aftermath of the third complication
19 Setup for the midpoint
21 Aftermath of the midpoint
22 Fourth complication
23 Aftermath of the fourth complication
24 Setup for the second pinch point
25 Second pinch point
26 Aftermath of the second pinch point
27 Fifth complication
28 Aftermath of the fifth complication
29 Setup for the second plot point
30 Second plot point
31 Aftermath of the second plot point, part one: the dark moment
32 Aftermath of the second plot point, part two: the resurgence of hope
33 Climax, stage one: preparing for battle
34 Climax, stage two: taking the fight to the enemy
35 Climax, stage three: first contact
36 Climax, stage four: war of attrition
37 Climax, stage five: mano a mano
38 Climax, stage six: from the ashes of disaster
39 Resolution, stage one: sweeping up
40 Resolution, stage two: reconnection
Fill in the 40 chapters with brief descriptions listing the characters involved. It's a quick, smart way to get your story outlined so you can cut through the fog and start writing.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy.
How To Meet The Challenge of Editing Your Manuscript
As a novel writer, the editing process seems mysterious, daunting, and unmanageable when you view it through your creative writer lens. You are right, manuscript editing requires a different mindset and separate skills.
If you approach editing with a perspective that aims to make your story the best it can be and arrange the editing process into manageable chunks, you will find that editing is a skill you can learn to make your story ready to go out into the world so you can be a successful published author.
Create Your Editing Mindset
Creating a critical mindset is the first step in the editing process. As an editor, you will examine every part of your story to make it seamless and engaging from the first sentence to the last.
You need to establish a distance to apply your critical eye to your novel. You can build your critical distance with a few simple steps.
When you take off time from your own story and practice critically examining other stories in your genre, you get your mind in gear to examine your own story with the same critical distance.
Gather your notes, take a deep breath, and pull out your novel manuscript. You’ll work through the editing process from the big picture down to the tiniest details.
Start with The Big Picture - The Content Edit
As you prepare to reread your story after your break and critical exercises, plan on making changes. As wonderful as your story is, you can make it better. Your aim is to make your novel as professional as possible.
You’ll be going through your story at least three times. The first pass at editing focuses on the story elements. There’ll be time enough for details like punctuation, spelling, and grammar after you make your changes. The story editing, often called the content or development edit, looks at your story structure, character arcs, dialogue, and scene sequence. Keep asking yourself, does this work in the story?
You’ve just read three great novels in your genre, compare your story to these examples. Know those professional authors, went through this very process before they sent their manuscript off to their professional editor.
Print out your manuscript formatted for lots of white space—wide margins, double spaced. You will hold it in your hands, make marks, and read it as a book. You’ll be entering “track changes” in your word processing software later.
Now you will use your personal editor’s blue pencil. Yours may be red or purple or green or any color that shows up against the black print. Some authors use different colors for different editorial changes—grammar and spelling, character arc, plot, scene changes. If this is your first time editing, pick a contrast color like red and start reading your story. You can refine your system later as you become familiar with the editing process.
Questions to Ask As You Read
In this first editorial read you’ll be scrutinizing your story. If you find smaller issues like grammar or spelling mark them knowing they may disappear as you make editorial changes. Be looking for ways to make your story as crisp as possible.
Does the first page hook you? Does it plunge you into the story? Does it clearly reflect the genre? Do your protagonist’s words and actions introduce his or her character?
Notice pacing like chapters or scenes that rush the story or get bogged down with detail or long descriptions.
Does each scene move the story forward? If not, mark it for deletion. If you need an element from the scene, think about where you can include it in a different scene.
Does the story have a clear three-act structure? Is your protagonist confused and thwarted in the first part of Act 2? Does she take the reins after the midpoint? Once the story reaches the climax, does it take too long to wind down?
Is the story predictable? How could you improve the twists, turns, and reversals to challenge your protagonist?
Do two characters have names that start with the same letter? If so, find a new name for one character.
If your story feels overpopulated, combine two characters with similar motivations to keep your reader from being confused.
Do your subplots integrate with the overall story? Are the spaced throughout the storyline?
Is the voice consistent throughout the story? Is one passage in a different tone?
Do you need to research a location or an object to give it more punch?
Does each character speak in a recognizable voice? Would your reader know who is speaking by the way the character speaks? Does the dialogue reflect subtext rather than always being on point?
Is the point of view consistent throughout? Is each scene told from only one point of view? If your story is told from multiple points of view, is it clear who is “speaking” in each scene?
Content editing is a long process. Plan to spend at least a week going through your story looking for every way you can tighten your story to give your reader the best experience in your genre.
Before you go to the next stage of editing, rewrite your story making the changes you noted during your critical editorial reading. Take as long as necessary to make your changes. Remember you are doing the hard work of becoming a professional writer.
The Language - The Line Edit
Once you’ve made your story changes, it’s time to look at the language you use to convey your story. Now you are looking to refine the language in the text. You are not looking so much for mistakes as the best way to structure your sentences and paragraphs to improve the readability.
You want the language to be fluid, clear, and pleasurable for your reader.
Language Questions to Ask
Are your words precise rather than general? Have you avoided clichés?
Do you repeatedly use the same words or sentences?
Are there run-on sentences? Sentence fragments?
Is the same information repeated more than once?
Does the tone shift?
Is the phrasing natural?
Is the language bland causing readers to skip a passage?
Do you use strong verbs rather than describing an action with adverbs?
After you read through to line edit your manuscript, you can use software tools to help you with your language editing. Hemingway app helps you with sentence structure to make your writing bold and clear to improve your story’s readability. ProWritingAid examines text for several writing style elements including readability, grammar, clichés, diction, and dialogue. The premium version integrates with Microsoft Word and Google Docs so you can edit in your document.
Once you have performed your content and line editing, is a good time to get feedback from other people. It is easy to get lost in your own story. Feedback from other people who read in your genre can help you spot content and language gaps you may miss. The more readers the better at this point. You want as much feedback as possible to catch any places that detract from the flow of your story.
If you are a member of a writing group, you can present your new passages for feedback and comments from members of the group.
This is a good time to get beta readers involved in your story. These are non professionals who read in your genre and will give you honest feedback about your story. You want these readers to share anything that gives them pause while reading your story from a passage that isn’t clear to a typo.
The Proofread - The Copy Edit
This final editing process and takes a fine eye for detail. You’ll want to do this in small batches because it is easy to overlook details if you spend hours working through the manuscript. You’ll be looking for consistency as well as grammar, spelling, punctuation, and syntax.
The copy edit is what many people consider is editing a manuscript. But, as you have learned, this is the last step in editing your book.
A copy of The Chicago Manual of Style is your guideline for editing a professional book manuscript. Don’t guess. Look up questions you have.
What To Spot in Your Proofreading
Double check spelling, grammar, and sentence construction (syntax).
Make sure your usage is consistent. Throughout your book hyphenation, numbers, capitalization, and fonts appear in the same manner.
Check for ambiguous statements or incorrect facts. Remember how you checked your research during the line edit?
Internal consistency. Is your blonde always blonde? Does your stutterer lose his stutter? Is your setting consistent when it shows up in various places in the story?
Mark your printed copy and then go to your writing software to make changes. The search and replace function will help you spot every use of a word to make it consistent throughout your manuscript.
One Last Check - Read Aloud
However diligent you are throughout your editing process, hearing your story read aloud can help you find awkward sentences, repeated words, and typographical errors.
There are several options to help you hear your story. Text to Speech Reader has a Chrome extension that will read your text. Natural Reader provides several voices so you can hear your text read by male and female voices with different tones and inflections.
Open your manuscript so you can make edits as you listen.
From Writer to Professional Author
Taking the time to edit your novel before you send it out sets you apart as a writer who takes the publishing process as a professional. Every step in the editing process refines your story to appeal to your target audience. They are the readers who love your story and become your fans.
As excited as you are to get your story out there, taking the time to go through the editing process not only improves your story, it gives you a better understanding of what it takes to make yourself a professional.
Keep in mind that bestselling authors take these editing steps and then work with a professional editor to find the spots they missed. Publishing houses assign a professional editor to your book. Using professional book editing services works in the same way as beta readers but with a trained professional focus to give your book the best readability and flow.
The result is a professional book that can lead to you becoming a bestselling author.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries. Argolicus uses his observation and reason, with help from his tutor Nikolaos, to provide justice in a province far from the King’s court.
Tips to Draw Your Reader Into Your Mystery
Create a mystery that gives your reader opportunities to play and active part in unveiling the suspect.
Mindset and Methods
Beginning writers often are so involved in the process of creating a novel, they forget the reader. Readers are an author's lifeblood. They post reviews which are critical in getting your book noticed. And, as an author, they send personal messages about your book.
So, while you are writing, keep your reader in mind.
Readers, including agents and editors, need to puzzle along with your sleuth. Give them problems to solve.
Zara Altair writes traditional mysteries set in the time of Ostrogoth Rule in Italy in The Argolicus Mysteries. She coaches writers on story, especially mysteries.
Zara Altair, Author
The puzzle of politics, the mystery of murder in ancient Italy. After Rome, before the Middoe Ages, Italy belonged to the Ostrogoths.