Thursday, December 5, 2019

Plotting the perfect crime: the 4-act structure

Hello, troops. It is not even officially winter yet and I am so over it. Northeastern PA got hammered with a winter storm that kept us inside for a few days. Our school district has also already used up one snow day. I guarantee we will use up all eleven (that's right! We get eleven!) and then some. Blech.

So what's a girl to do to defeat winter doldrums? Concoct the perfect murder? For my book, of course.

Truth is, I don't believe there is such a thing as a perfect murder. Not in books and not in real life. Killers evade capture--not because they're sticklers for details and thought of everything--but because of timing, chance, lack of evidence, lack of witnesses, lack of reasoning. But that doesn't bode well for a mystery novel. I don't need to create the perfect crime. I wouldn't even know how. I just need to fuss with variables such as timing, chance, and evidence, so that it seems near perfect. So it seems damn near unsolvable.

And how do I do that?

Well, I work backwards. I start with the victim. Who is she? Or he. What got them to this place? Then I wonder who would kill them and why? None of my books, so far, have focused on serial killers or random violence. Every crime has a reason, and every criminal, a motive. A puzzle to solve.

I then focus on the murderer. What are they afraid of? What is their motive? What is behind their rage? And then I write two scenes: one from the victim's POV, and the other from the killer's POV. These scenes don't always make it in the book, but they provide me with something for my protagonist to figure out. Also, if you know your crime scenes (ha! pun), then you can figure how realistic it is to die that way. *Looking at you wonky poisons.

Once I have the murder(s) down, I break up my Scrivener file into four acts. Why four? Well, it's because a few books ago I read this great blog post by John P. Murphy in which he elaborated on how the talented P.D. James would plot her novels using, what he calls the two-body plot, and what I just call Kim's New Outlining Method. Either way, it works. I can also break down my word count this way to keep the pacing on point.

In Act 1, I introduce my protagonist (detective, amateur sleuth, whatevs), a cast of characters, and the crime. This might be a murder or it could be a missing person or kidnapping. In School Lies, I introduced readers to a missing person. In Dead and Breakfast, I introduced a ghost who had been murdered in the 1960s. In other words: shady stuff has happened.

In Act 2, my protagonist is on the case. Either metaphorically or literally. In my current work-in-progress, my detective is trying to solve a murder. She unravels the clues in a linear fashion. She learns A so she investigates, which leads her to B, so she investigates. She's picking up those breadcrumbs and seeing where they lead. BUT, she's also making judgements. Preconceived biases get in the way. So do unknown villains. And then, ANOTHER BODY!

This is where I took Murphy's/James's second body advice and put it in practice. I killed another person. I feel like murder mysteries are most fun when there's more than one victim. It revs up the intrigue.

In Act 3, my protagonist is done with everyone's bullsh*t and she starts to take all those little clues and shove them together into a more cohesive bunch. She knows who is lying to her, but not necessarily why. Anyway, no more screw-ups here. She's out for blood. Whereas before, she was collecting the right info with the wrong intent, now she's on the right track. And so is the antagonist. Danger lurks everywhere.

In Act 4, she's got 'em. She knows the identity of the killer(s) and she's out to expose them. Here is where I make it life-or-death for my protagonist. How will she get out of this alive? There's a showdown and the aftermath. My protagonist is a changed woman. And safe. Until the next book.

So there ya have it. My mystery writing outlining as succinctly as I could put it. If you write crime fiction and are struggling with plotting, take a look at John Murphy's blog post. Read a P.D. James book.

Do you write murder mysteries? How do you plot the 'perfect crime'?

No comments:

Blogger Template by Designer Blogs