Monday, March 14, 2011

For Writers - The Plot & Working it Backward

Our tip this week comes from a discussion recently with the online mystery writing class this month. We talked about one method of plotting that involves uncovering the main plot points of a novel by starting at the solution/climax and working our way backward.

The question arose: "I'm having trouble with working backwards and setting up the "getting there." For instance, if Col. Mustard killed Miss Plum in the Library with a wrench, because she knew he stole money - that would be the ending - but how do I work backwards?"

The answer/example: With the scenario you presented, let's say the question is, Who killed Miss Plum? And the solution is: Col. Mustard killed Miss Plum in the Library with a wrench, because she knew he stole money.

Picture that solution at the top of a ladder.

Now, as the detective, what clues will they need to find in order to determine that it was Col. Mustard who did the killing? Or, visualizing it, what rungs do you need to climb to reach the top of a ladder?

Here's where we work it backward:

Col. Mustard had to have opportunity. How did he get to Miss Plum? Where was he in relation to the library? What's the timeline?

To work on the timeline, your ME will need need to establish time of death.

Determine what Col. Mustard was doing at that time and how he was able to get to her and do the deed.

The murder weapon was a wrench. How will you tie this wrench to Col. Mustard? Did he leave fingerprints? Did he have a collection of wrenches seen earlier in the text? Plant this clue beforehand for your detective to discover.

Now, what did Col. Mustard say he was doing at that time? (Alibi)

What clues are going to tell you, the detective, that he was not where he said he was? (Or that he was able to slip away and come back.)

Col. Mustard will need to have motive. As you said, Miss Plum knew he had stolen money. So, establish that there is money to be stolen early on. Now, determine why and how Col. Mustard stole that money.

Also, determine how Miss Plum would have discovered Col. Mustard stole the money. What was their relationship? What clues did he leave behind that she could have picked up on? Or, did she witness the theft? Were they in on it together and she was going to tell? Had he planned to off her all along, or did she turn on him?

Now, having worked backward through this question, let's say your hard work has established the following:

Col. Mustard runs a skate shop in Venice Beach. He builds custom skateboards with his partner, Major Pain. Miss Plum is a graphic artist and student at the local community college, making her way through school by designing boards for the shop.


While Col. Mustard and Major Pain were having lunch on the pier, a random homeless dude broke into the skate shop and stole the week's earnings from the cash box they keep in the back. Miss Plum startled the guy and he chased her into a neighboring shop, The Library of Love and killed her with a wrench he had taken off the workbench in the skate shop.


Col. Mustard, heavy into gambling, has run up a huge tab. He needs money, so he stages a break-in and clears out the cash box. All day he's been complaining of having a bad case of the runs, so when he excuses himself from the table for a moment during lunch to use the bathroom, Major Pain doesn't think anything of it. Col. Mustard runs back to the shop to grab the money.

But... he wasn't expecting Miss Plum to be in the workshop. Miss Plum sees him and tries to sneak out the back. When he hears the door shut, he realizes she has seen him. He can't have her telling Major Pain what he's done. Desperate, he grabs the first thing he sees - a wrench from the workbench, and runs after her.

Miss Plum ducks into the seedy Library of Love and tries to hide in one of the dark corners, but Col. Mustard corners her and, when she won't listen to reason, wallops her on the head, then arranges her body to look like she's a stray drunk asleep against the display shelf. He wipes down the wrench and drops it in the cart of a wandering bum, and runs back to where he was having lunch.

Major Pain is like, "Dude has a serious case of the trots!" Which is what he tells Police when they start asking questions.

The police recover the wrench from the homeless guy and determine that there are traces of blood on the handle. It matches Miss Plum's blood type, and is consistent with the blunt force trauma the ME determined has killed her. The weapon has been wiped, so they can't find prints, but a search for the manufacturer shows that it is a custom wrench, belonging to a special limited-edition set of wrenches.

In the skate shop, a set of wrenches hangs on the wall, with one space missing. It is determined that the wrenches come from this limited-edition set and that the murder weapon is the correct size to fit the empty space on the wall.

The homeless guy swears he was never in the shop and says he saw Col. Mustard drop the wrench into his shopping cart. A search of Col. Mustard's finances shows that he is in deep caca with the local loan shark = motive to take the money, kill Miss Plum.

Et voila, there are the clues/events you figured out you needed by working backwards from the solution.

This week's link roundup:


Beginnings - 5 tips (Write it Sideways)

What makes a good middle (The Other Side of the Story)

Endings establishing character (Plot to Punctuation)

Writing memorably (Superhero Nation)

Voice with Natalie Fisher (Adventures in Children's Publishing)

More on voice (Dancing With Dragons)

Six fillers to avoid in dialog (Author Culture)

On changing POV (The Other Side of the Story)

Distance and POV (AWP)

Goals and Obstacles Driving your Plot (Help! I Need a Publisher!)

6 Plot Fixes (There Are No Rules)

Breaking the rules of the narrative arc (The Book Deal)

You don't have to show every little detail (Chatterbox Chit Chat)

Overcoming writing tics (Wordplay)


Five top authors - what makes them good? (Tips and Tricks)

Nine fantasy writers share advice (The Enchanted Inkpot)

Sticking with it (Mandy Hubbard)

Some people have all the luck (Denise Jaden)

Reading to be a better writer (Mary Carol Moore)

Permission to suck (Fiction Groupie)

Best and Worst Editor Advice (Beyond the Margins)

Lovely essay for writers (The New Yorker) Thanks to Kate Coombs for this link.


Top 20 Best Oxymorons (Author Culture)

Now go. Write!