In every career, there is a project or a contact or a conference that is a game changer. For me, a professional boost came in 2010, with the offer to edit the first Guppy anthology. Continue reading “Swimming with the Guppies”
Once upon a time, a cowboy from Texas took a bunch of pot shots at the broad side of a barn. When his gun was emptied, the cowboy moseyed to the barn and found the spot where the most bullets had hit. He took a can of black paint, marked a bullseye around the cluster of bullet holes, and announced, “Hey, look! I’m a great shot!”
True story? Tall tale? You decide.
The Texas Sharpshooter bit is a joke, but it also illustrates a fallacy. A fallacy is an argument based on unsound reasoning. A fallacy can be intentional and employed as trickery, or a fallacy can be unintentional and based on a mistake.
The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy has been used by epidemiologists—medical professionals who study disease clusters—to show the danger of reaching a conclusion based on chance instead of cause. In lay terms, that means a disease may cluster in an area because of a cause: a local industrial plant is spewing toxins that seep into well water and make townspeople ill.
Or, a cluster results by chance: a person carrying a contagious disease eats at the local diner and shakes hands with a few people. Clusters are studied to determine if they reveal a genuine pattern or if they are random.
The Texas Sharpshooter joke is amusing because we all know cowboys are right honest fellas who never lie about their marksmanship. And what kind of psycho shoots up a perfectly good barn?
The real question of this post is, what does this have to do with plotting a mystery novel?
If you are writing a murder mystery, you need a murderer. Some writers know the identity of the Bad Guy from the start. If your candidate for murderer is Brad, you’ll create a plot that surrounds Brad with figurative bullet holes labeled motive-means-opportunity. When Brad is revealed as the Bad Guy, it is based on cause—concrete evidence—and you hit the target because you aimed at Brad all along.
If you write this way, consider yourself a Marksman. Your target was chosen. Every scene was a shot aimed toward the bullseye that is your murderer.
But what if you are one of the many authors who don’t know whodunit from the start? Is it possible to plot a murder mystery if you—the author—don’t know the identity of the murderer?
If you’re writing backwards, as it were, does that mean your reveal is a fallacy? If you don’t decide on the Bad Guy until you yourself reach the climax, does that mean you’re a Texas Sharpshooter writer? And if you are a Texas Sharpshooter kind of writer, is that a bad thing?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Texas Sharpshooting is based on randomness. If you have no clue about the murderer, but as you write you find most of the bullets start to land around Brad–bingo! You can still write a reveal based on cause. Done correctly, the plot will give Brad the required motive-means-opportunity to prove him guilty. Maybe your subconscious knew Brad was the Bad Guy and it guided you as you wrote. Good job, subconscious!
But what if you have no particular Bad Guy in mind, and when the time comes to reveal one, you don’t have enough bullet holes around any particular suspect? Does this mean your Bad Guy is relegated to plot convenience, coincidence, or the dreaded deus ex machina? Will your solution to the mystery be a fallacy?
If you close your eyes and choose a Bad Guy because someone must have done it and you have a deadline pending, your choice is random. You are plotting using unsound reasoning–creating the bullseye after shooting the gun.
But don’t burn down the barn just yet.
Can the Texas Sharpshooter method of plotting work? Of course it can–if you go a few steps back and plant the bullets in the right spots.
To remove fallacies in your plotting, go back into the manuscript and revise or double check the logical case against your Bad Guy. Does your plot reveal motive-means-opportunity? Is that shown in the action of the story? If not, make that happen, and your pot shots hit the correct target after all. The unsound reasoning in your plot disappears, and you have cause to call out the Bad Guy. If you don’t go back into the manuscript to correct your aim, you may have an ending that feels random–because it was.
Have you ever read a murder mystery where, when you reach the reveal, you think, “Really? This guy? Who knew!” Maybe the author didn’t know, either. Maybe he or she is a Texas Sharpshooter.
What kind of plotter are you?
Do you take the Marksman approach, knowing from the start who had the means-motive-opportunity, and you write to prove that out? Or are you more of a Texas Sharpshooter? Do you write until all the evidence is revealed and then you have to back up, reload, and revise to show the murderer must be, and can only be, this one Bad Guy?
In mystery writing, there’s no one way to plot. After all, when the reader gets the finished product, she has no idea if you painted the bullseye on the barn before or after you began firing. As long as the target is hit, only you know if you’re a Marksman or a Texas Sharpshooter.
But feel free to ‘fess up here about your particular brand of plotting!
For more info on writing mysteries, check out these posts:
In Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, Laurey and Curly musically list all the don’ts necessary to keep their neighbors in the wide open spaces from “suspecting things” about the cowboy and the farm girl.
“Things” means love, of course.
Being an editor is a non-stop education. With every manuscript I read, I learn as much as I correct, suggest, or guide. After years of reading mysteries—from idea to first draft to revision to published book—I’ve learned to recognize flaws that can weaken an otherwise strong or promising draft.
A murder is an unnatural event. It throws chaos into a community. The point of solving a fictional murder is the same as a real one: to find justice for the victim, and return safety and order to the story world. If you treat your characters as you would real people in a real world murder situation, you may avoid some of these habitual boo-boos:
- Forcing the mystery. This means a writer tries too hard, too soon to cry murder. Not every death is a homicide, so a conversation such as this…Joe Character: “Did you hear what happened? Walter died last night!” Jane Character: “Was he murdered?”…forces the mystery. The natural response would be “What happened?” not a giant, presumptive leap to murder.
- Forgetting the victim. Victims run the range from total innocence to deserving their fate. Nevertheless, a character who is killed off for the sake of a story was a person before he or she was a body. Every person has a mother, and probably had family, friends, and a place in the community. It makes a story stronger to show a survivor mourning for the victim, and a character is more realistic if s/he shows empathy for the life that is lost.
- Stalling. A story begins with the world in status quo, but that view should be a brief one once the inciting event happens. Background, backstory, banter are all ways authors avoid getting down to business. Get down to business.
- Not enough suspects. How many characters have the motive, means, and opportunity to commit the crime? In the end, only one person—the murderer—proves to have all three. In the manuscript, a pool of suspects is necessary so the story doesn’t solve itself too soon. Each character in the pool needs to have at least one of the three—motive, means, opportunity—to keep the investigation hopping.
- Too many suspects. Unless you are rewriting Murder on the Orient Express, not every character need be a potential hit man. Too many suspects, each with an individual reason for the murder, can over tax the reader’s brain. A few suspects with very good reasons to kill is, usually, better than lots of people with a pretty good reason to kill.
- Ignoring community. When a person dies, the death creates a hole in a town, a family a workplace, a heart. Murders also mean stories in the newspaper, a funeral to plan, police to investigate, survivors to alert or comfort, fears to be addressed. Not every element will appear in a story, but a murder doesn’t happen in a vacuum. What is the ripple effect of the victim’s death?
- Underused settings. Cops who spend all of their time in the police station, working by phone. Amateur sleuths who park in their kitchens, trying out theories on their cats and dogs. There’s a big world out there, and a puzzle is more entertainingly solved by putting characters in a variety of places, especially if those places reveal something about the history or culture of the town, real or fictional. The same old scene, same old scene gets old…quick.
- Disappearing injuries. Our hero is hit on the head in a dark alley, or gets into a fist fight at a biker bar. The next day, voila! Not a single bruise in sight. No one can miraculously recover from a knock-down, drag-out overnight.
- Super Powers. Characters who are all skills and no weaknesses. Police officers who go days and days with no sleep, food, or bathroom breaks. Sleuths who just so happen to have read the exact article about the exact poison used to kill the gardener. A mild-mannered librarian who is a Black Belt, but karate is not once mentioned until the climax, when she’s cornered by a gang of teenage vampires.
- Cops Committing Felonies. When a retired, or ex, or former, police officer makes a call or flashes his/her old badge and claims to be “with” the local department, that’s impersonating a police officer. That’s also a felony. The same applies to cops conducting searches without warrants, beating a confession out of a witness, or warning a person of interest not to leave town. Unless you’re writing a bad cop, don’t make your fictional good cop do bad deeds.
- Coincidences. Coincidences happen in real life, but fiction requires a higher standard. If you can’t figure out how to solve a plot point without using luck or happenstance, you need to build a stronger plot, not pull the proverbial plot rabbit out of a hat.
- Blow by blow fights. Action is actiony because it is quick and decisive. A fight that goes on and on, with every blow, maneuver, plan, and punch considered and decided upon before being acted out, robs the fight of its drama. In a fight, a person doesn’t think about the next move, they just make the next move. The longer a fight lasts, the more tedious it reads.
- Loose ends. Red herrings, dead leads, false tips, twists and turns all make a mystery fun to read. In the end, however, if a line of inquiry is not resolved, that’s the work of a sloppy writer.
- Sleuths with no life. Even in the midst of a crime spree in a seaside town hosting a knitters convention, an amateur sleuth had to have a raison d’etre before the body dropped–as does the cop or PI or whoever is solving the puzzle. So: Job? Family? Health? Love life? The world doesn’t stop, the bills don’t stop coming, while he or she solves a crime.
- Stupid police. If law enforcement did their jobs perfectly, every mystery would be solved by chapter 2 and there would be no books to read. There are many reasons why a murder can’t be solved pronto: no evidence, no witnesses, compromised crime scenes, conflicting reports, delays, clever criminals, corruption, single-mindedness, over burdens. The easy way out is to portray the cops as simpletons. A better story puts valid obstacles between the police and the solution.
- Edge of the cliff confessions. It’s a standard in many mysteries that the killer confesses all. This allows the reader the satisfaction of hearing the bad guy give up the ghost. That’s okay. But the good guy holding onto the bad guy’s hand at the edge of a cliff while sirens get louder and louder from the background is not a unique or believable moment for the killer to tell his life story.
- Deux ex machina. In Latin, this means “god from the machine.” In ancient plays, a god would appear on the stage to solve the plights of the characters. In modern usage, it means employing a contrived or outlandish solution to the story problem. If you’ve killed a person to create a murder mystery, you owe it to that character to provide a logical and emotionally satisfying explanation, not a magical way out.
Have you committed any of these blunders?
Need more info on writing mysteries? Look here for more on mystery writing:
Some 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. Continue reading “Why Your Mystery is Like a Lost Puppy”