From Murder to Trouble in Your Mystery
In the first five chapters you introduce your detective, connect your detective with the murder, and start your detective off with a plan to find the murderer.
Your main goal in those beginning chapters is to bring the reader into your story world, get them empathizing with your detective—even if he’s not likeable—and bring them onboard to follow the detective as she begins to piece out the puzzle of who the culprit is.
In the next five chapters, you are still in Act I and you are still setting up your story. Now that your reader is hooked, you can add dimension to your story. Introduce subplots like a love interest or an opponent who wants to keep your detective from succeeding.
As you expand your story, remember that conflict keeps readers reading. So whether it’s the main story or a subplot, cause trouble. Make your detective work for even the slightest clue. Expose her weaknesses.
Chapters 5 -10 of your mystery novel get your detective headed for trouble and straight to Act II of your story. Introduction of subplots and their relation to the mystery of your story which is the main story arc.
16:34 Questions and Answers
16:57 One of my characters isn’t a suspect, but they have an important clue. Does this work?
19:23 I’m feeling like my mystery is an epic. It’s 140K words. Is this a good length?
The Next Five Chapters - 6 - 10
Using the 40 Sentences model you can apply the novel structure and adapt it to your mystery crime fiction.
6 He leans on his usual allies and resources, but they’re not enough; even worse, the trouble he gets into triggers his flaw or wound—this new situation feels a little bit like that thing he never got over. (Subplot A)
Your detective starts working on the plan from Chapter 5, but the plan doesn’t work. A rival or a superior who wants things may deter him to get things done their way.
For those who have studied plot, this is the first complication.
7 Taking a step back, literally or metaphorically, your protagonist tries to figure out how he lost control of this situation. He might go looking for advice, or advice might come looking for him…but either way, his misbelief prevents him from understanding it. (Subplot B)
Your detective looks at the original plan to see if he can spot the error. A suspect or a new suspect gives him a piece of new information that seems like good advice or a new insight into the murder victim. The detective meets a member of the opposite sex who is some combination of intriguing, sexy, smart, so unlike him that as attractive as she is it won’t work, but still…
Plot students, this is the aftermath of the first complication.
8 Realizing it’s time to pull out what he thinks are the big guns, your protagonist does something he would normally consider to be a last-ditch effort to get his life back on track—but instead, whatever he tries ends up backing him into a corner. (Subplot A)
Your detective latches on to a clue or suspect and thinks he has the answer, he may even take a risk to prove his point. Instead the mystery becomes more mysterious. To add insult to injury the detective’s opponent wins a minor triumph.
Still loving those plot labels? This is a minor dark moment.
9 He might have a moment of false success before he finds himself stuck outside his comfort zone, exposed and vulnerable. (Maybe he wasn’t expecting there to be a twist here?) He’s made his situation ten times worse, and none of his usual allies can (or will?) help him.
You detective blunders along on her discovery path and even makes a find that seems to lead her closer to the killer. But everything, especially the new discovery, is not as it first seems and a step forward sets her back.
For plot aficionados, this is the set up for the first plot point.
10 Maybe he has no choice, or maybe they’re all bad choices—either way, your protagonist has to choose between letting his everyday world become intolerable or stepping into uncharted (for him) territory. He commits to entering the extraordinary world.
So far all your detective’s choices have led down a false path. People around him, even friends, seem to get in his way and he pulls back, takes a look, examines his previous actions, and starts down a new path.
Plot freaks, this is it. The first plot point.
Move the Story
Using the 40 Sentences is the fastest way to plan and work through a story without spending time trying to slap a label on each sequence. Your writing focus is on the story, not matching plot points, beats, or any other “story structure” to your planning process.
If you are struggling with trying to fit pieces of your story into a framework, try using the 40 Sentences to make your story flow.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Her course for beginning writersWrite A Killer Mystery is coming soon. Get on the notification list.
From Story Idea to Story Summary
Once you create your one-sentence story idea, build out to a summary paragraph to include characters, main story points, and the climax. Expanding your story idea builds your story writing momentum.
Years ago Randy Ingermanson proposed a way to summarize your story highlighting the important pivots: three disasters plus an ending. Based on Aristotle’s three-act structure, the summary outlines the crucial events in the book.
From One Sentence to Five Sentences
Begin with the setup and go through the story to the end in five sentences.
This structure is the framework for your storyline and all the scenes that build your story.
How These Sentences Work For Mystery Writers
Seen through the lens of writing a mystery you can focus your sentences.
With this structure in place, start creating your scenes. As you brainstorm, the structure helps you find plot holes from places where you have yet to create a scene. As you write each scene the structure guides you toward moving the story forward.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Her course for beginning writers Write A Killer Mystery is coming soon. Get on the notification list.
Photo by Craig Whitehead on Unsplash
so you want to be a writer? Charles Bukowski
so you want to be a writer?
Charles Bukowski, 1920 - 1994
if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.
if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.
don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was.
Hook Your Reader Now
Image attribution eflon
The first page of your book is that first impression that doesn't get a second chance. Whether your reader is a bookstore browser or an agent, the first page is the introduction to the story.
Key elements of that introduction tell the reader about the story.
RAGE: Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage, Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls Of heroes into Hades’ dark, And left their bodies to rot as feasts For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done. Begin with the clash between Agamemnon-- The Greek warlord--and godlike Achilles. Which of the immortals set these two At each other’s throats? Apollo Zeus’ son and Leto’s, offended By the warlord. Agamemnon had dishonored Chryses, Apollo’s priest, so the god Struck the Greek camp with plague, And the soldiers were dying of it.
That's just the first 15 lines of the Illiad. The reader knows the theme: RAGE. Achilles is the character. Bodies rotting. Gods. War. Emotion.
Modern readers may want a different style, but the elements are the same.
If you think immediacy your first page will draw the reader to keep reading. Get your character in action. Give them something to say. Without being heavy handed or long-winded, show (yes, don't tell) your reader where they are and when. Give your character an obstacle that shows the reader how they react.
Save physical details, long setting description, and thoughtful passages for later. Your goal in the first page is to get the reader into the story as quickly as possible.
Give your reader a taste of your story.
Here's the first passage in The Roman Heir. Do you think it meets first page criteria? Leave a comment.
“You see,” Boethius said, leaning toward Argolicus in a confidential manner, “Rome is a closed community. When someone like you whose family lineage is not from one of the great families of Rome and as a newcomer attempts to take on a centuries-old Roman position, you set yourself up for strife. You are wise to retire, go back to your provincial Bruttia and live as local nobility.”
Check Out Your Favorite Authors
Select five of your favorite reads and examine the first page. Identify the elements that brought you into the story...and kept you there.
Here are a couple of mine. The text is copyrighted so go to the Amazon page and Look Inside.
Adrian McKinty - A Cold, Cold Ground
Amory Towles - A Gentleman in Moscow
You may find yourself editing the first page more than once. The best touchstone for your first page is that it brings your reader into the story.
Playing with Writing
A writer who wants to write good stuff needs to read great stuff.
Ursula LeGuin says in her book Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. The book is a guide for writers. Each exercise is prefaced by examples from writers followed by a writing exercise following the premise of reading good stuff.
I've read many, many books about the craft of writing most of them filled with exercises that did not appeal to my imagination. I tried a few exercises and they felt...well...boring. I'd rather be writing my story.
On the other hand, improving my craft is important to me. That's why I read all those books and took a stab at the exercises. I resonated with this book. If you are a writer, I highly recommend approaching your craft through the exercises.
If you are a reader, you may like seeing the kind of work a writer does that never makes it into the story you read.
The first chapter is about the sound of words, sentences, syntax and calls for some playful use of phrasing and has two parts.
The first exercise: Being Gorgeous
Being GorgeousMoisture dripped from the leaves--ferns, vines, orchids, and the round leaves of the giant tree; filled the air and planted inaudible droplets on the skin--cheeks, forehead, arms, ankles--like an unseen jacket against the cool grey day. The flutterings, slitherings, jumping, and hopping among the leaves--flashes of blue, green, red and slow and fast movement crept, crawled and leaped sustained by air and water. In her lungs the air was soft; breathing a quiet rhythm, a secret music filled with the air around. Anna said, “You know that play The Steam Room? What if waiting for God was like this?”
When he entered, what was left was things. He walked to her dressing table and touched each jar one by one. He opened one--Spikenard and something, an evening under the stars. He opened another and sniffed--faint earth in red powder. He opened them each, one by one and mixed all the contents on the table top. There was the white robe ready for the Christening hanging from the wardrobe. Her writing desk was clean except for a piece of thin vellum and a pen. He bent to look at the vellum: a quick note unfinished. Dearest Mother, I miss you. I feel alone. I am afraid. You said it would be like fire and joy...
He turned to look at the bed. The stripped mattress was covered in fresh bleached linen. He bent over and looked under the bed to see: nothing but the sunlight through the window lighting a bright spot on the floor on the other side of the bed. Not one piece of swaddling cloth. Not one drop of blood. He put his hands on the bed and raised himself up off the tiled floor. He put his face to the mattress; nothing of her. Nothing of a child. Nothing of a blue baby. Nothing of Julia.
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.