Why Your Mystery is Like a Lost Puppy

cropped-ramonagravitar.jpgSome time ago at a conference, I sat with a friend and bemoaned the state of one of my stories. “It’s lost,” I said. “It’s like a lost puppy.” She laughed, which I took as encouragement to pursue this analogy. Below is the result, which I shared with my scene-writing class for mystery writers:

A lost puppy is wandering around the neighborhood of your story. Because your Main Character is a decent human being, she scoops it up in her arms. The puppy is wearing a collar but there are no tags that would provide an easy solution.

In a mystery, this is called the Inciting Incident. The MC’s normal world has shifted. Something must be done about the lost puppy.

From its physical condition, the MC can surmise if the puppy has been cared for and loved, or neglected, abused, abandoned; if it is young or old, sick or healthy. From its demeanor, the MC can tell if it is a pet or a feral, if it is aggressive, friendly, or timid.

The MC wonders if somewhere in her neighborhood, a little child is weeping because it can’t find its puppy. In a mystery, this is known as, every victim has a mother, because somone in the story must care about the victim.  

For the sake of the puppy, and the weeping child, action must be taken. The choices are:

  1. Find the owner. This is the Right Thing To Do.
  2. Keep the puppy. However, doing this would complicate the MC’s life.
  3. Call the SPCA. If the MC does this, the dog may get adopted or it may get put down.
  4. Call Animal Control. If the MC does this, the puppy is probably doomed.

The MC decides on #1 – find the puppy’s owner.  In a mystery, this is a Call to Arms or Moment of Decision.

The MC begins going house to house, asking if anyone recognizes the dog.  Some neighbors are home. Some are not. The first few houses provide no clues. The unpleasant lady in the blue house on the corner thinks it’s the puppy that nipped at her niece last week.  Another neighbor says it resembles the dog that belongs to the sweet older couple three streets over, but that proves to be a false lead. The grumpy ex-Marine says if the dog disobeyed commands and got loose, the dog catcher should be called. The conspiracy theorist in the cul de sac peers through a crack in the door and whispers that the dog looks rabid, so the MC should run! Run, quick!

Neighbors.  You never know what they’ll say.

The MC begins to wish she’d never gotten involved with the puppy. She doesn’t need this in her life. She sits on a bench in the little park near her neighborhood, contemplating her options. She could walk away and leave the puppy to its own devices. But the puppy tilts its puppy head at her. How could she abandon it? She has a flashback to when she was a girl and lost her puppy. She has to see through the problem of the lost puppy. In a mystery, this is the Point of No Return.

Suddenly, a big dog comes tearing across the playground. The puppy yelps and dashes into the adjacent wooded area. Oh no! The lost puppy is lost again!  The MC yells for help, but everyone in the park is playing. They don’t hear, or maybe they just don’t care. She’s on her own. Here we have the Moment of Despair.

The MC runs through the woods, frantically calling for the frightened puppy. She hears the big dog crashing around, too. Is it mean or being friendly? She can’t tell. She just knows she has to reach the lost puppy before the big dog gets to it. In a mystery, this is calling Rising Tension.

She finds the lost puppy cornered under a wooden bridge by the big dog. The MC grabs a fallen tree branch and, because she knows a dog will bite and hang onto something poked toward it, she waggles the branch in front of the big dog. It clamps down. She hangs on and grabs the lost puppy with her free arm.  Faced by a big woman with a big stick, the big dog backs off. In a mystery, this is the Climactic Battle.

The big dog’s ears perk up as a voice calls, “Killer! Where are you?” Killer runs off. MC follows the dog to its owner, who looks at the lost puppy and says,”Hey, it’s you!” He pulls a flier from his back pocket. It’s a picture of the lost puppy!

The MC goes to the address on the flier. The puppy wriggles in her arms when she approaches the front door. It opens and a little girl flies out.

“You found my puppy!” she cries. “He wandered off because I forgot to lock the back gate, and I removed his tags to polish them, and I’ll never never never do it again.”  The explanation of how the puppy got loose is called the Denouement.

The two exchange many little girl and puppy kisses, and the MC feels virtuous  for her morning devoted to bringing the lost puppy home.

Just as the MC turns to leave, a deep, sexy voice says, “Wait! Did you find my adorable daughter’s lost puppy?”

The MC turns to find a handsome man–6’2″, blond, well-built–holding a novel in his right hand and his firefighter’s hat in his left hand. Now that she’s solved the case of the lost puppy and is an amateur sleuth with super-observant powers, the MC notices he is not wearing a wedding ring.

“Why, yes, I did,” the MC answers. “I spent all morning searching for its owner because I am a lovely person, and isn’t it amazing that I am single and not seeing anyone at the moment?”

“What a coincidence! Nor am I,” the handsome, well-read, firefighter father says, but the MC thinks to herself, but not for long, I do believe. 

^^In a novel, that last bit is called the Payoff.  In a blog post, that is called the blogger having a little fun with you. Woof!

Is your story like a lost puppy?



13 thoughts on “Why Your Mystery is Like a Lost Puppy

  1. I loved the ending, Ramona. This is great instruction. When I read your post, I tried to identify those elements in my WIP. I only missed the “point of no return.” Mine is not overt, but it’s implied. Perhaps I should make it more pointed.


    1. E.B., the story ends twice, but that’s okay. A lot is forgiven when it involves gratuitous hunkery….Of course it’s hard to tell without seeing, but your point of no return may be obvious to readers. One part of our class next time will be to highlight plot markers to make sure all are there.


  2. As a former romance writer, I see the whole find-the-adorable-kid to reunite the puppy as the inciting incident—-or a meet cute—-and the rest of the story is yet to come. What better hook than a well-read firefighter? 😉


  3. This is excellent. In real life, I always choose #2, keep the puppy and live with the complications. I suppose my MC needs other tendencies.


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