Good Bones: The Secret to Plotting a Mystery Novel

February 2, 2013

One of the most frequently asked questions for a mystery writer is, “Do you have everything plotted out in advance?”  The answer – my answer at least – is “no.”  There have been times when I’ve been halfway through a book and not known who the killer would be.  Okay, that happened once.  But you get the idea.

This isn’t because I’m a daredevil or have no respect for a good plot.  I’m devoted to plots.  It’s mainly because figuring out where everything is going would take me nearly as long as writing the book or screenplay itself.  And then it probably wouldn’t be as good, because you can never foresee everything.

You have to live with a story for a while and make it real before you can figure out where the flaws are, when it’s time to give a character more motivation or where to insert a twist that propels it to a new level.

Since I’m not a complete idiot, I do start from an outline.  These are the bones, the skeleton on which I’ll layer my story.  But that’s the tricky part, to give your mystery the “good bones” that can hold up to all of your pushing and tugging and still look like a supermodel at the end.

For instance, a friend once told me a true story.  A flamboyant relative had died and left instructions in his will to pay for a dozen of his closest friends to fly to Paris and scatter his ashes into the Seine.  This instantly struck me as a great idea.

Within a week, I had a rough outline.  A retired maid dies of cancer, but has enough money to send all her old bosses on an around-the-world trip, scattering her ashes on the sites she’d always wanted to visit.  Over the years, the trusted maid had been the recipient of everyone’s secrets, including an envelope with these words: “In case of my death, give this to the police.”  In short, years ago someone had entrusted the maid with an “If I Die” note for safe keeping.  But the maid had died first.  And the contents of the envelope are missing.

To me, these were good bones.  I didn’t have to know what had been in the envelope, who was in danger or who the killer would turn out to be.  Those details would all come.  But the core of the story had enough richness to assure me that everything would work out.  And the characters were there, a flock of spoiled New Yorkers, all dependent upon an eccentric maid who had once dominated their lives.

In case you’re wondering, this is the plot to “If I Die Before the Wake”, the next book in the Abel Adventures series.

I guess what I’m saying – my golden words on plot structure – is to spend time on your bones.  Is it a plot you’ve never heard before?  Is it an idea that can keep you excited and creative for the next six months?  Does it hold enough possibilities to take you wherever you might need to go?

If not, keep looking.  The world doesn’t need another mystery where a person knocks on the door and says, “You have to help me, (insert name of amateur detective).  The police think I killed my boss.  Sure, I hated him, but…  zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.”  Sorry, that was the sound of me falling asleep.

If you do have good bones, ones that you trust, then go for it.  Start immediately and don’t look back.  Or as the British say, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”