How to Write a Mystery: Let Me Sum Up

Someone was trying to explain to me how complex mysteries were to write; she claimed “she wasn’t smart enough.”

I, of course, knew that she was, and that she’s be good at it…but of course couldn’t find a way to say that succinctly in person at the time.

There’s a French phrase, l’esprit d’escalier, that means “the spirit of the stairs.”  It’s when you think of the perfect thing to say…too late.

So here’s my response:  How to Write Mysteries, The Extremely Short Version.

  1. First, think crime, don’t think mystery.  Not every writer needs to be Agatha Christie.  A huge puzzle does not a mystery make.  Crime is British term that covers what in the U.S. would be crime, mystery, caper, thriller, and suspense.  You have a ton of options that don’t require intricate plots.
  2. Start with a crime OR a wrong done OR some kind of coincidence, trick, mischief or practical joke.  Something that is not quite right.
  3. Agatha Christie starts with one assumption that readers will normally make, and overturns it.  For example, “They couldn’t all have done it.” You don’t have to do it that way, but that’s how she did it.
  4. Have someone try to hide that one crime or trick, or try hide who did it.  It doesn’t have to be the same person, the hider and the do-er.
  5. Then have someone notice the incident and try to find out what happened. It can take a while for the person to notice.  Hundreds of years in some cases.  It can even take most of the story before they do.
  6. You can tell the reader more of the truth or less.  The less you tell the reader, the more it’s about the puzzle (as in a mystery).  The more you tell the reader, the more it’s about the people involved and their motivations (as in suspense).
  7. In most fiction, you don’t just tell the reader what happened, but how to think about what happened.  (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”) In a crime story, tell the reader pretty much everything as you would otherwise, but when that thing would give the solution to a puzzle away, don’t tell the reader how to interpret what you just said.  Fair clues are always in plain sight.  They just aren’t explained to the reader.

Here’s an example of a clue without context:

I went home for Christmas.  The news announcer on the radio said, “Watch out for slippery roads, and anyone out on Highway 34 near Turner’s Corner should remember not to pick up any hitchhikers!  The infamous Jodie Turner died tonight in 1995, hit by a semi driver who had drifted off to sleep, as she was trying to hitch her way home from college in Minnesota.  Five vehicles have run off the road near Turner’s Corner since…all on this night, the twenty-second!”

And here’s what is really going on:

The narrator went home for Christmas.  The radio announcer said that stuff, but the narrator wasn’t listening to it, because the narrator was hitchhiking.  And dead.  Because the twist of the story is that the narrator will turn out to be the ghost.

(I haven’t written that story or anything; it’s just a cheesy example for the sake of this post.)

And that’s pretty much it.  End with some kind of resolution to the crime or whatever it was initially that caused the events of the story.  Justice done, not done, or injustice repeated in an ongoing loop (as in “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson).  All have their place.

You can, of course, get really complicated about a mystery story (or any story in which you hold back information from the reader).  But the essence is simply that you’re being completely open with the reader…you’re just explaining what you’re being open about!

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Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 31

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Parents


Where was it said, where was it written, that one had to send one’s children away?  To schools, to colleges, to lives and jobs of their own?  It was an uncomfortable situation altogether.  Their children would insist upon making fools of themselves.  They took up basket-weaving and learning about, well, not very nice people, as if that were something that one could make a living at.  They were impressionable.  They could not think for themselves, a condition which they had demonstrated time and time again, and their parents should know; they had raised them.  Had they not taught their children to respect themselves?  They had.  So why these grand yet disgusting gestures of independence?  It was just being stubborn.  They could not stand to be proven to be wrong.

Could they not be trusted to select friends for themselves?  Could they not date someone nice?  Could they not get married, have children, buy a house within walking distance, keep up a yard?  Why were all the good things that they had been taught cast aside?

To be fair, well, there was nothing to be fair about.  They did not come home for Thanksgiving or Christmas.  Their phone calls became increasingly separated by time and distance.  One could see them, mucking about on social media, having lives that they had no business living, pretending to enjoy themselves, not listening.

They were sharp and rude and didn’t understand that their parents were only trying to help; or they were soft and gelatinous, hard to pin down; or they simply pretended to ignore half the things one said, things that had been said to them when they were younger didn’t they understand that they had to grow up? What was all this about tattoos?  Why not stop drinking expensive coffees out of those foolish porcelain travel mugs?  Why not use the machine that they had bought for them, the one that takes the little plastic coffee packets, you can make anything that way? And no one didn’t need to know about their…their significant whatevers, that filth, in our day we wouldn’t have come within fifty feet of those pieces of trash,

Baby murderers! Burn the illegals! Burn the gays! Burn them all!

And then their parents left the house, they were seen in RVs, in restaurants, in cars with someone else’s badly-raised children in the streets in front of them, a foot on the accelerator and a bump under the tires, in wheelchairs, in nursing homes, in badly-upkept or luxurious retirement apartments (depending on whether they’d lived virtuous lives earlier on; of course everyone gets what they deserve), finally having grown up enough to leave their children behind and live lives of their own.

…And that’s about as much normal as anyone should have to take.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 30

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  When company shows up


They had all gathered for an event called Friendsgiving.  A Thanksgiving without family, and almost entirely without friends; for the most part, they were friends of friends, or rather strangers, only the most tentative of connections between them:  work, church, a hobbyist group.    Bearing food, they arrived.  Cranberry sauce, scalloped potatoes, dinner rolls, stuffing, green beans, and so on.  The turkey was in the oven, provided by their host.

Surreal and tense after the first introductions, did any of them have anything in common?  They sat at the table and poured each other wine.  Those who did not drink alcohol had sparkling grape juice.  The candles were lit, the host raised his glass to toast: to absent friends, and to new ones.  The toast was repeated.

But not quite everyone who repeated it had good intentions.

One member of the party disliked another.  The second guest had no strong opinion on the first.  The first not only had reason to dislike the second, but had suffered a personal insult at the second guest’s hands.

The disliking guest had taken a glance at the invitation list, noticed the other’s name, and had delayed answering the RSVP almost until the last moment.  Come or don’t come?  Tell the host this other member of the party had done—which was, in that circle, just across the boundary of being unforgivable—and feel the satisfaction of knowing that they had exiled this other person, as it were, from the host’s pleasant society? And yet it would spoil the evening.  Or say nothing, keep the peace, and know that the pleasantry of the evening had been purchased at the price of silence, even complicity?

The first guest, who knew the host well, finally arrived at a solution.

“So I have a question for you all,” the first guest said, after the meal was well underway.  “Who is the ghost in the room?”

The ghost in the room, the ghost in the room.  A puzzled whisper went around the table.

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, it’s just a game.  One of the people in the room is a ghost; the rest of us have to figure out who it is.”

“It’s you!” said one person.

The host announced, “I’ve shaken hands with everyone in the room.”

“Everyone’s been drinking wine and eating, so it’s none of us!  Ghosts can’t eat!”

“No, no, I get it,” said the second guest, jovially, who was a teetotaler.  “The ghost will seem perfectly normal right now, but later on, we’ll look back and realize who it was.  Like ‘Afterward’ by Edith Wharton.  The main character sees a ghost but doesn’t realize that it was a ghost until much later.”

“Yes, like that,” the first person said, grateful that they hadn’t needed to mention the story themselves, but annoyed that, once again, the second guest hadn’t the slightest awareness of the first guest’s antipathy or reason for same, although it had given the first guest an ulcer and repeated nightmares.

“What are the rules?” someone else asked.

The first person said, “That’s the fun of the game, deciding what the rules actually are in the first place.”

“Does it have to be someone actually present?” said the host.  “Or could it be an invisible presence?”

That was voted down.  It had to be someone present.

“Can ghosts eat and drink?  Can they shake hands?” asked the host.  He seemed to be particularly adamant on establishing this point, which was understandable, given that he had shaken everyone’s hand.

“They seem to eat and drink, but it’s only an illusion,” said someone, which suggestion was taken up.  Later on, it was decided, the food would reappear on the ghost’s plate, the wine or juice in their glass.

“Can spirits drink spirits?” was a question received only by eyerolls and laughter.  Ghosts could drink spirits, although they would tend to avoid the appearance of doing so—joked one of the guests—because it would be cannibalism.

“What about handshakes?” the host repeated.

“You can feel a chill when ghosts are present,” said one of the guests, who had always been a bit on the superstitious side.  The motion was carried, however; a ghost might shake a hand, but a ghost’s hands would be inevitably chilled.

Everyone felt their neighbors’ hands.  The host’s hands were warm; likewise those of the guest who had wronged the other.  The superstitious guest’s hands were chilled, and so were those of the guest who had started the game in the first place, the one who had been wronged.  The others were of a moderate temperature.

“We’re down to two candidates,” declared the second guest, and gave their names.

The superstitious guest stated, “Everyone knows that I have a talent for mediumship, that is, contacting the spirits.  It’s the presence of the ghost in the room that makes my hands cold.”

That, too was accepted.

The first guest, the one who had suggested the game, was teased for finally being chosen.  “You didn’t think that we would choose you!  And it was your suggestion!”

The first guest smiled, pulled something out from under their chair, and dropped it on the table.  “Feel this!”

It was felt:  “Oh, it’s cold!” “It’s an ice pack!”  “You’re not the ghost at all! You’re only pretending to be a ghost!” “If it’s not either of you, who is it, then?”

The host and the second guest were searched for heating packs, but nothing was found.  The evening finally devolved into other pursuits. Someone took out a guitar and began singing Christmas carols.  The dishes were done.  People began to excuse themselves—“I have to get up early for Black Friday!” “That only proves you’re not a ghost. Ghosts never go shopping at five a.m.!”

Finally only the host, a clean kitchen, and a glass of wine remained.  “What was that all about, I wonder?” he asked himself.  “And planned it out, too, with the ice pack in their pocket.”

Then he distinctly remembered pouring the second guest’s glass of juice, into which he had emptied his last bottle, and which the second guest had apparently drunk to the dregs.

And yet, at the second guest’s place–the host had picked up the wine glasses from the table himself–there had been a full glass of slightly flat grape juice.

The host wasn’t the only one to have noticed. The rumors went ’round.  And the second guest was never invited to Friendsgiving again.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 29

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Pulling into the driveway after a long trip


How many times had she pulled up into the driveway after the trip, arms and legs tingling, tired, the backs of her thighs sweaty and stuck to her jeans, turned off the engine, and listened to the fan blow a few last gulpfuls of air onto the hot engine?  How many times had she offered herself up like this?

She kept the paperwork in the glovebox, in a separate envelope from her registration and insurance so she didn’t accidentally hand it to the cops if she were pulled over: the deal, the bargain, her inheritance.  It was written in words that she couldn’t read but everyone else involved took for granted, liquid words that moved on the page.  The phrase duties and obligations had swum up to her once, and a priori given in perpetuity to.

Home was a word that she had not yet begun to reclaim; according to the contract—although she couldn’t read it, everyone behaved as if this were true—the word didn’t apply to this place in front of her now, the people who lived there, the memories and attachments she had formed with them, the love.

Don’t be so melodramatic! It’s nothing like that.  What are you even talking about? We should get together more.  

None of that mattered.  All that mattered was the car, the road, the ritual, and passing the boundaries–ah yes, to the place where nobody was allowed to have any boundaries–across the dimensions to a place that didn’t really exist.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 28

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Lazy Sunday afternoons


Both chapped hands pressed up against the lazy Sunday afternoon like a kid outside a toy shop window, face pressed up against the glass, looking at a big shiny gift box labeled boredom and knowing it will always, always be out of reach.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 27

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Finding money I forgot about


She was vacuuming, and because the cat hair had built up so much around the edge of the room, she pulled out that little tool on the back of the vacuum cleaner, the wand, and stuck the edger attachment on it.  Vrrrup! went the cat hair, which was a gray haze around the edges of the room, even though the cat itself was black.

She looked at the couch and thought, I should do the couch too.

There was a fabric attachment for the vacuum wand, but she didn’t use it, it seemed like it would be breaking the spell that was allowing her to clean, suddenly she would turn into a pumpkin and go back to her normal work-from-home self, only worse, with no deadlines, no money in her savings account, and no health insurance.  Cleaning was better than worrying.  The small attachment seemed to take forever to vacuum the arms, the back, the ruffles along the bottom, the tops of the cushions.

She shoved the cushions onto the floor and flipped them over to vacuum the bottoms.  The tops were getting a bit worn; she should just put the cushions back upside-down. Then she decided to vacuum the crevices, the hidden places of the couch, which they hadn’t bothered to upholster in nice fabric, only a thin cotton sheet that sagged on the bottoms.

A coin lay there.  She picked it up, carried it over to the kitchen counter, and put it down with a clunk.  The coin was dull gray, very heavy, heavier than the genuine silver dollar she still had in her flat under-the-bed box of mementos.  It was more like putting down a paperweight than it was like putting down a coin.

The vacuum cleaner was still running.  She walked over to it, picked up the wand, and began to run the tip over the sheer under-couch fabric.

There was another coin, right where the first had been.  It must have slid down.

She picked it up, carried it over to the counter, and laid it beside the first.  Where the first should have been, that was.  There was no other coin.

Where had it gone?

She picked it up, turned it on its edge, and tapped it against the counter.  The vacuum cleaner was still running.  She looked over to the couch, still holding the coin. There was no coin on the fabric; she must be getting paranoid.

She put the coin in her pocket and picked up the wand.  She ran the tip over the fabric.  A few seconds later, a coin slid out of the crevice along the back of the couch and came to a stop where the first coin had been.

She reached into her pocket, which still felt heavy.  But the coin was gone. Aha.

The vacuum cleaner was still running.

She picked up the coin again.  It wasn’t a quarter, it wasn’t a half-dollar, it wasn’t a silver dollar.  She wasn’t even sure it was made of metal.  The flat gray surface didn’t look like, not quite like, silver or nickel or even pot metal, like the cheap dangly earrings she used to buy as a teenager.  The face on the front wasn’t recognizable.  It was a woman’s face.  The letters themselves were familiar, but the language wasn’t; she couldn’t read a word of it, front or back.  The obverse held a picture of a monument, or a temple, at which some other people came to worship.

She held the coin in her left hand while she reached for the wand with her right.  She watched the coin, not the wand.  She really kept her eye on it.  As she vacuumed, the coin turned hot in her hand, so hot that she dropped it.

Before it could hit the floor, it vanished.  And reappeared, sliding out of the back of the couch crevice, sliding neatly into place.

What if she just left it there?  The thought rankled.  She might be able to look it up and sell it on Ebay, no matter where it was from, make a few extra bucks until she got her next client.  But, on the other hand, she could just leave the coin there, turn off the vacuum, and be done with it.  She imagined herself suddenly trapped in a loop: the vacuum running continuously, the coin appearing and disappearing, and each time the woman’s expressionless face looking off to her left, as though she were watching something just around the corner, something terrible, just out of sight.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 26

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  The window seat


“Travel makes you a better person,” she would say.  Well, it was one of those things, how she was raised, she was an advocate for travel the way some people are advocates for homeopathy or wearable magnets.  Travel was improving; certainly it had improved her.  She was mad for it.  She loved the locals, she loved picking up culture, she loved being able to walk away from the insanity of the Western world and bury herself in Thailand or Japan or Nepal, she got her best work done when she was a stranger, when she lived out of a suitcase, when the monsoons cut her off from everything around her, even the sky.

She moved about once every two years, then every year.  Sometimes the restlessness struck her like a sacrament after only a day or two.  Humanity slipped around her, something glimpsed as she looked out the window seat, flickering past.  She held her seat-mate’s chicken; she comforted a small child as its mother went to the bathroom on a trans-Atlantic jet.  She went “home” to visit, but inevitably left again:  too expensive, too many friends, too many interruptions!

She had always been safe wherever she went; she liked to think of it as being due to her friendly nature and generosity.  And so it came as a shock when half a dozen wide-eyed men took her, blindfolded her, and tortured her in a house made of corrugated steel, mud, and blue plastic tarp with pieces of wire that weren’t strong enough not to bend as they jabbed them under her fingernails, into her ears.  Who are you?  Are you a demon?  Tell us the truth! Is it true that you’re making everyone sick?  They had been warned about her, it was all superstition, certainly she wasn’t a threat, and there was no mysterious wave of illness following her around the globe, the way they insisted upon accusing her.

But it turned out to be fine.  She just transferred her airline points onto their cell phones, and then they let her go.  They had a good laugh about it over bottles of kombucha, at McDonald’s.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.


Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 25

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Binge-watching Netflix


It was one of those nights where watching television had become like watching a fishing show, the kind where the angler hisses his line into the water, standing in thigh-high wading boots and wearing a vest with pockets, waits for some undefinable moment, then jerks and starts reeling in a fish that never seems satisfactory for some reason, he just throws it back into the water after a close-up shot of removing the hook from that gasping, air-drowning mouth.

A knock at the door; she hadn’t ordered delivery.

“Who is it?”

“Package.”  She heard footsteps.

Tiptoeing soundlessly to the door, she looked out the peephole and caught the edge of a cardboard box in the hallway, and the last retreating edge of a brown hiking boot.  She took a moment to listen for heavy breathing, then unchained and unbolted the door.  Nobody coming.  The enormous box on the floor was heavy, and she shoved it across the threshold and into her apartment with her feet rather than picking it up.

The box was addressed to her but when she opened it with a flimsy steak knife from the kitchen area, inside were things she hadn’t ordered, would never have ordered.  She checked her bank account and didn’t see any sign that she’d been hacked, so…what? She looked at the packing slip again. The return address was for some marketing company.

Geeky refrigerator magnets (pack of six), a disassembled music box kit, a “critter catcher” for spiders, gummy penises, a Bob Ross mug, oh God, action figures from half a dozen anime shows, a fuzzy blanket with snaps, two inflatable sex dolls that weren’t even, um, human, a bicycle pump (!), an enormous bag full of tiny, multicolored rubber bands, a knife sharpener, a suction-based blackhead remover, a blood pressure monitor, a package of twelve different holiday ribbons, a package of generic “thank you” cards that she actually liked, a sonic toothbrush, a microwave crisper, a poo emoji toilet plunger, homeopathic painkiller oil, a pancake flipper, a reflexology mat, a dash cam, a dead mouse, a furniture fixer for sagging couches and chairs, contouring underwear, teeth whiteners, stamp-on eyebrows, more.

She laughed at them as she took them out of the box—at first.  Later, she forgot how odd it would look during a hookup with her two inflatable, non-human sex dolls on either side of her on the couch, wrapped up in her blanket, sharpening her knives, saying, “I know just what we should watch, this new show about remodeling houses where something goes wrong, like bees in the wall, or black mold, or—” She would bat her eyes seductively and pat the place beside her created when Mario Ponetti had reluctantly scooted over for the evening— “human bones.”

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

How to Study Fiction, Part 14: Structure, Part 1.

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂


Now that we’ve looked at scenes, I can finally start talking about what structure is.

When you’re building a scene, how long should it be? Who should be the POV? What tense should you write in?  Should you have a separate scene for each POV? Should your chapters have one scene or multiple scenes? How much plot goes into each scene?  When I look at a story idea, how long should I make it–is it a novel or a short story? How can I even start to tell?  What do I do if I get stuck in the middle of a novel?  Should I pants or should I plot?

What is structure?  And how is that different than plot?

Structure is how a story is arranged.  There are a couple of Russian terms that apply here:  fabula and szuchet.  I may have talked about them already; I can’t remember if I have yet or not.  But they’re relevant here, so let’s look at them.

  • fabula:  the raw material of a story.
  • szuchet:  the way a story is organized.

Fabula is the story in strict linear order–backstory goes first (for example, when someone says, “Let me begin in the beginning.  First, there was light…”  Szuchet is when you rearrange things so that the reader doesn’t have to suffer too long in the boring yet still relevant parts and so that backstory is delivered when it’s actually relevant.  No story is pure fabula.  That kind of thing is purely unreadable.  Every story has a little bit of organization to it.

That organization is structure.  Every choice that an author makes that isn’t directly related to the fabula is a structural choice.

These include but are not limited to:

  • POVs/Tenses
  • Timeline told in linear order or otherwise
  • Length/pacing
  • Framing devices
  • Scene vs. summary of events

Any element of how the story is told, rather than what is told, is structure.  Some people will talk about “plot structure,” but that’s a whole different ball of wax, and, honestly, you’ve probably heard all about that stuff before.  If you’ve ever seen graphs of rising and falling tension or the Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (adapted or original), Save the Cat!, Story Engineering, or anything like that, you’re looking at plot structure, not at what we’re talking about here.  Please set aside “plot structure” as a concept for now.  “Plot structure” is a basic of fiction, and you’re working on intermediate stuff at the moment.

No, I changed my mind.  Let me talk about where you should be with plot structure as an intermediate writer:

  • You have a favorite plot structure.
  • You are able to plug ideas into the plot structure and come up with events to fit the various steps in the plot structure.
  • When you sit down to write, you may or may not use that plot structure consciously and deliberately, but you know how the basic concept of how to put events in some kind of order to make a story with a beginning, middle, and ending.

Early writers often go, “I have an idea!!!” and then get stuck almost immediately in trying to write it down.  They don’t yet see the difference between an idea and a plot.  Intermediate writers will see people like this all the time.  “I have an idea for a series; I just need someone to write them for me, and we’ll split the profits 50-50.”  If you think coming up with the idea for the story is just as much work as the process of turning that idea into a series of events (whether you’re outlining ahead of time or not), then it’s time to back up and go over the basics of plotting.

No worries; every writer has strengths and weaknesses.  If and when you identify a weakness, concentrate on the basics in that subject for a while.  You’re still an intermediate writer!  But there will be places where you have to do some remedial work.

Structure isn’t plot; plot isn’t structure; they influence each other, but for now let’s keep them separate.

Structure issues at this level:

  • Trying to turn a short story into a novel or vice versa.
  • Getting over five thousand words into a story and deciding to change the POV character(s).
  • Being unsure of who the main character is or claiming that there’s more than one (or two, in certain romance novels).
  • Flabby middles.
  • Readers feeling lost.
  • Unsure of whether to add/remove a subplot.

Structure is a very deep subject; I may be missing some significant issues.  But these are the ones that I hear from other writers most of the time.

The biggest issue with structure, however, is something that I can’t really list as an issue.  I believe that structural questions are what hold people up on their way to becoming an advanced writer.  If you don’t have a grasp of structure, you can’t write at an advanced level, where the story that you write is told through not just plot and character, but in how you tell the story.

This isn’t a matter of style but of structure.  The Princess Bride cannot be told the way that Pulp Fiction is told, and vice versa.  Part of The Princess Bride is that the frame story–the grandfather and the grandson–is essential to the overall story.  Take the frame story off, and you have a decent movie, but not a masterpiece.  Ditto with Pulp Fiction.  Put all the events in linear order, and you no longer know things that the characters don’t know yet–that is, you lose some of the suspense–and you no longer have the joy of watching it a second time and realizing the characters know things in certain scenes that you didn’t–you lose some of the foreshadowing.

In the end, I believe the gateway to advanced writing is making the structure fit the plot fit the characters fit the style fit the…and so on.

You know how I keep saying something or other is pretty straightforward or simple, when you strip it down to the basics?

Structure isn’t one of those things.

Here’s my tentative plan for covering things:*

  • POVs.
  • Tenses.
  • Unreliable narrators/tabula rasa.
  • Scene vs. Summary.
  • What order to tell things in and why.
  • How many things to shove into a scene and why.
  • Story lengths.
  • Subplots.
  • How many POVs?
  • Framing devices, two-timeline stories, reverse stories, completely-out-of-order stories.
  • Flash fiction and other illusions of proximity.
  • Breaking down structure.

Next time: Beyond the 1st/2nd/3rd/omniscient question, or, what can I get away with in my POVs?

*Note, if you haven’t read the pacing posts, I’d do that before moving forward.  I’m going to put pacing after scenes but before structure, I think.

Free book and other curiosities here.

Tales of the Normal: 31 Days of the Horrific & Mundane, Day 24

Flash fiction project: one dark story per day, all the way through October, each one based on one normal thing gone wrong. More of this year’s stories here.  You can find last year’s stories here, or at Amazon as October Nights.

Normal thing:  Having friends over


What he loved best about having friends over was getting ready for them to come over, the preparation, the anticipation—the best part of anything is in the anticipation—the work, yes, there were so many satisfying little things to be done, cleaning and food, yes, obviously, but also the preparation for the preparation, the feeling of staring at his to-do list on the computer and thinking should I order flowers? and what is the proper etiquette for inviting people who are divorced, cheating on each other, lost their jobs, desperately ill, or merely no longer speaking to each other? and should I make a permanent note on the list to set the puff pastry out to thaw, I almost always do something involving puff pastry.

When they arrived he would think to himself, how delightful everyone is, how witty, how charming, and I am so glad that I prepared everything ahead of time, yes, I believe I will add that note about the puff pastry, and, when evening began to stretch, unplanned for, into the small hours, how glad I am of my friends’ successes, how glad, how glad.

The title refers to Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway.

Dark, strange, twisted, and wonderful – #paranormal #horror and #mystery stories from Wonderland Press.

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