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How I Wrestle with Red Herrings or, The Herring Stratagem January 30, 2011

Posted by laurenrobbins6 in Characters, Plot.
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Cover of "Clue"

Cover of Clue

I have decided, rather foolishly, to try to learn how to write mysteries. Old fashioned mysteries with, you know, suspense, thrills, intellectual puzzles and all that. NOT to be confused with “mysteries” following such clichés as “the man against the system”, “the D.A./attorney/doctor with a vendetta”, or “follow the ancient clues to a conspiracy theory”…not naming any names (Dan Brown).

What I’m thinking about is something more along the lines of a Wilkie Collins/Agatha Christie sort of mystery. Which brings us to the question of the red herring. I find, at least, that red herrings are always the key to a good mystery. (If anyone is familiar with Clue! it’s also the key to a good spoof). But whenever I attempt to write a mystery, it always ends up being blazingly obvious “who dunnit” or so obscure that the motive is obliterated, never to return to any semblance of believability.

Writing a good mystery is no easy feat! And writing a thriller/mystery is even more of a challenge because you have to set the tone and mood with a wide, varied, and brilliantly descriptive vocabulary in your arsenal. Reading Mary Stewart novels, for instance, has been like seeing so many old friends  I’ve been out of touch with. I’ve stumbled across some very good, descriptive words that I haven’t heard for ages…especially in the real world, and perhaps in America. And, of course, you need to be descriptive about what your hero/heroine is feeling–“blood racing”, “heart pounding”–things like that. A good way to do this is to take particular notice of how YOU feel in terrifying situations (or, if you can’t think of anything particularly terrifying and have been incredibly happy-go-lucky, you should go watch some horror/thriller movies at the cinema). 

As I see it right now, the formula for a red-herring mystery is to set up your hero/heroine who necessarily (according to the rules) is above suspicion and perhaps a trustworthy sidekick/victim (unless you are Wilkie Collins and even the main character is not eliminated from the list of suspects). Then, you should plant at least two to three more characters with varying personal histories/motives. Either your protagonist or reader should, at this time, begin to suspect one character in particular, putting more trust in the other characters until… *Bam!* It turned out that the planted character that you trusted the most was the culprit!

I still, obviously, have more tweaking to do on the formula, more mystery novels to read and movies to watch (Hitchcock is particularly good for this sort of research).

If anyone has suggestions for good red herring stratagems, I would love to hear them!

Plot *sometimes* happens July 30, 2010

Posted by laurenrobbins6 in Plot.
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Image by wakingphotolife via Flickr

I don’t know if many writers experience this but it is very difficult for me to both write compelling characters and a good plot-line. I’ve heard from different sources that all you need to do is choose whether your novel should be plot centered or character centered. It’s the difference between an Ian Flemming novel and an Ernest Hemingway short story. But shouldn’t your story really have both to make it a ripping read?

And it isn’t true that once you’ve fully developed your characters, the plot will fall into place. I’ve tried to find a good plot to put some of my better characters in but I keep starting and stopping. Maybe I’m trying too hard, maybe I just need to start writing and see where the story goes. But I know that a successful story takes at least a little planning. If you are writing and then suddenly hit a road block, you need to know at least a little of what’s going to happen at the end in order to overcome it.

And some writers have different strengths. Some can hatch fantastic plots (the Ian Flemmings and Dan Browns of the writing world) and others realistic characters (the Ernest Hemingways and Wilkie Collinses…though Wilkie Collins does an amazing job with both). What I’m thinking of doing is putting my ideas into two categories. 1) Plot ideas and 2) character sketches. Would it be easier to match the character to the plot separately, or would it be more consistent if  the two were created at the same time? In any case, there must be a writing excercise to strengthen the bond between character and plot. Sometimes plot happens naturally and sometimes it doesn’t.

Wait for it… July 16, 2010

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Psych

It dawned on me as I was watching Psych the other day that the epilogue is one of the most overlooked parts of the story arc, yet also one of the most important. In writing, I often forget about what should come after the climax and resolution of the novel. What else is there? So my characters are often left holding the trophy without a plan for the future at the end.

For a past NaNoWriMo novel, I even jumped the gun–putting the climax/resolution in the middle of my novel and then having to make up a whole other plot…which didn’t work out too well. Heavy on Russian spies and short on sense.

But I think that crafting your epilogue is one of those things that novelists can learn from the structure of TV shows. I used to think that novels, TV, and movies were very separate things, but in reality, they’re all fruit of the same tree. Everything (except maybe the modern novel) follows the mythic structure. In Joseph Campbell’s journey of the hero, you have the home-away-home cycle. The hero (or heroine) always needs to return to the starting point even after solving the mystery, or succeeding on the quest.

And after they come back, it’s important that there is a take-away message at the end. How did the quest benefit the hero or their home town? This is where the epilogue comes in. In a TV show, the crime is solved, the journey is done, but there’s a commercial break and you are ten minutes away from the end. Wait for it…wait for it…there’s more!

Why do we stick around to see the rest of the show and suffer through the ever-increasing stream of mindless commercials? Because the tag-line of the show contains some real gems:

  1. It wraps up all the loose ends
  2. It continues or begins a subplot that is usually character-centered
  3. It encourages you to watch the next episode

And that, in a nutshell, is your epilogue right there. Because a good novel always leaves readers wanting more.

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