Today I have the pleasure of having Margot Kinberg guest post on the blog. Margot is a mystery writer (her newest, B-Very Flat has just been released.) But Margot is also a mystery novel expert—and I don’t use that word lightly. If you check out her blog, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, you’ll see what I mean.
When people find out that I write novels, one thing they ask me is, “How do you make a book come out of your ideas?” “How do you put all those chapters together?”
Well, the fact is, I have a dirty little secret – I’m organized. You couldn’t tell if you looked at the contents of my purse (Oh, please, don’t do that!), but when I write, I am organized. Sometimes, that slows down the pace of my writing, and I am in deep admiration of my writer friends who just start writing and then write until the story is told. But that’s just not the way I think. So I use a story frames strategy.
Maybe it’s the educator in me, but I’ve always liked the idea of focusing on the story’s structure: it’s the backbone of a story, so to me, it needs to be strong. Story frames focus the writer on the way the story’s put together. In a way, it’s like the frame of a building. Once the frame’s in place, the writer’s creativity adds the wonderful architectural touches that can make buildings beautiful. To show you what I mean, let me, if I may, share the story frame I used when I wrote B-Very Flat.
Every good story has a problem, or a conflict. If the characters don’t have to deal with anything, there’s not much of a story, really. Umm…I’m a mystery novelist, so in my books, the problem is murder. So the challenge for me and other crime fiction authors is to figure out where the problem will begin.
This is a pretty important question, because it’s very often when the problem begins that the reader decides whether or not to take an interest in the book. There are a few ways to make a crime fiction novel interesting at the beginning. One of them is to have someone stumble upon a body. That’s a problem. The advantage of that frame for the beginning is that it gets the reader’s interest right away. Who’s the dead person? What’s the body doing there? Several excellent novels like Martha Grimes’ The Man With a Load of Mischief begin that way – with the finding of at least one body.
Another way to introduce the problem is to introduce the victim right away, and let the reader “meet” the victim and find out who she or he is. That’s often an effective way to give the reader clues about why anyone would want to kill the victim. This approach also allows the writer to build tension and suspense, since crime fiction lovers know that somebody is probably going to die in the book. Introducing the victim first also allows the writer to develop the victim’s character a little. That’s one reason I chose that approach for B-Very Flat. The victim in that novel is Serena Brinkman, a very gifted violinist who’s a student at Tilton University. I wanted readers to get to know her and find out a little about her family, friends and so on. With this approach, the problem begins as we see the interactions between the victim and other characters, and we can see the tension rising. That culminates with the victim’s death.
Since crime fiction novels center around a crime – often a murder – the “what comes next” part is usually the investigation of the crime. Of course, that leaves a lot of leeway for the writer. There are a lot of ways, for instance, to involve the sleuth in the investigation, and as long as a way is logical, the writer can be creative. Does the sleuth investigate because the victim is a friend, family member, etc.? Because the sleuth is in law enforcement? Because the sleuth’s been accused of the crime? The nice thing about crime fiction is that there are any number of ways that people can get drawn into investigating crime, so long as they make sense.
Since my sleuth, Joel Williams, isn’t in law enforcement any more, it wouldn’t have made sense for him to just start investigating Serena Brinkman’s death. In real life, that wouldn’t likely happen. Instead, I decided to have him involved through his academic status. Williams is a professor at Tilton University, so it would make sense for one of his advisees to consult him. That’s just what Serena’s partner, Patricia Stanley, does. When Serena suddenly dies on the night of an important music competition, her death looks accidental at first. But Patricial is convinced it was no accident, and asks Williams for help. Williams is a former police officer, so he has great respect for the local police, and no desire to “step on their toes.” He has several friends on the force, though, and is able to work with the police to solve the mystery of Serena’s death.
The problem is solved when…
This is one of the tricky parts about mystery novels. On one hand, in many of them, the sleuth solves the crime, the “bad guy” gets caught and is punished, and all is explained. Some crime novelists do that sort of ending very effectively.
The truth is, though, that life’s not really like that. People’s lives are changed forever when there’s a murder. Investigations can be hard on the sleuth, too. So endings that are too “neat” can present a problem. That’s why some of the finest mystery novels have “messier” endings, or at least endings where the characters don’t walk neatly and happily away from the murder. That’s also why I decided not to have everyone happy at the end of B-Very Flat. Of course, Williams does help to track down Serena Brinkman’s murderer. In that sense, the story has a “clean” ending. But the people in Serena’s life have to deal with her loss and the murder investigation, and this affects them.
So there you have it. I used this sort of story frame when I wrote B - Very Flat, and I found it very helpful. Story frames aren’t for everyone, though, and every writer has to make an individual decision about whether to use some sort of organizer.
The Pros of Story Frames
- They help keep the writer focused.
- They help with the daily discipline that’s required to write.
- They help the writer decide what needs to be in the story and what doesn’t.
- I’ve found they help to prevent writer’s block, mostly because they give the writer a direction.
- They are very useful for writers who can only write in short “dollops” of time. It’s easier to figure out what to write in the short amount of time one has.
- It’s much easier for the writer (and therefore, the reader) to follow along with the plot.
- Story frames help prevent “saggy middles” of stories. Everything that happens is part of the plot.
The Cons of Story Frames
- They can be limiting. If the story takes the writer in a new direction, especially a better direction, story frames can make that harder.
- Not every crime fiction novel fits a “typical” story frame. So if the writer is going to use a story frame, she or he has to choose a flexible frame.
- They can make a story too linear, and without enough depth.
- They can hamper creativity if they’re not broad enough. If the writer gets a terrific idea, and it doesn’t quite fit the frame, this can cramp the writer’s style.
- Drafting the story frame is not as interesting as writing the story is. Many writers would rather get on with the writing, and the frame can seem like an impediment. So….
- They can slow down the writing process.
In the end, every writer has to find for him or herself the most effective strategies for getting those wonderful ideas into final form. Story frames are just one way to accomplish this. They work for me, but that’s the kind of writer I am. Are you? Do you organize your work in some sort of structure like a story frame? If not, how do you focus your writing?