Category: Simple plots Page 2 of 3

Simple Horror Plots, Part 1: That One Thing We Don’t Talk About

For some reason, nailing down horror plots is harder for me than mystery plots, so this is even more tentative than usual.

  1. There is a problem.
  2. The backstory* is so epic that it dominates the present or real story.
  3. Wait wait this problem comes from the epic backstory that we never talk about and didn’t learn the real lesson from.
  5. If we talk about it, it might go okay; if not, kablooey.

This is a lot of Stephen King.  The ShiningBag of Bones, that kind of thing.  Nazareth Hill by Ramsey Campbell.  We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver.

Mysteries have frame stories, too, that center around a crime in the past that was never resolved.  I see a lot of overlapping.  But I think the main thing that makes it horror here (plotwise) is that the thing Must Not Be Spoken About, where the mystery aspect seems higher if the thing is All Full of Dead Ends.


*Which might be plural.



The Secret of Writing a Series

So let’s say you have a series of books, movies, TV episodes, TV seasons, etc.  Any given series of storytelling.  Doesn’t have to be linear in time.  Doesn’t even have to be about the same characters (a la romances about a number of sisters, etc.)  With or without an overarching plot.  Could just be “monster of the week.”

What’s the secret of having a good series?  All other things being equal?

Having the setting be the same but different.

Let’s look at Harry Potter as one example:

  • Book 1, Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone: Explore Hogwarts.
  • Book 2, Chamber of Secrets: Explore the dark/forbidden side of Hogwarts.
  • Book 3, Prisoner of Azkaban: How the wizarding world interacts with muggles.
  • Book 4, Goblet of Fire: The wizarding world is truly a world now, although it mostly just comes to visit.
  • Book 5, Order of the Phoenix:  That strange country, the past, which would like to repeat itself.
  • Book 6, Half-Blood Prince: How the bad guys see all of this.
  • Book 7, Deathly Hallows: Isolated from the castle/Final battle at the castle.

All of the books except the first half of Book 7 center around Hogwarts and its environs; none of the books are about the same parts/aspects/perspectives on Hogwarts.  And each of the plots influences/is influenced by the aspect of the Hogwarts setting that is invoked.

Take a look at other series that you like.  Not only are the settings probably not exactly the same, but the plots also vary a bit based on that aspect of the setting.

Simple Mystery Plots, Part 7: The Frame

Okay, the frame as a narrative device.  Most writers have at least heard of it.  There’s a story within a story.  But let’s look at this from a mystery perspective:

  • A crime happens or is discovered (in the case of a long-past crime).
  • The main action of illustrating the crime happens on another level, for example, the past or a fictional story (even if the crime happens in the “present” frame of the overall story).
  • The crime is not resolved in the other level of the story, regardless of where it occurs.
  • An action must be taken in the “present” for the crime to be resolved–the truth brought to light, the crime solved/resolved, or even hiding the crime entirely.

This is stuff like PossessionThe Arabian Nights (a crime story rather than a mystery per se, really), Heart of Darkness, Wuthering Heights (there’s a lot of “he stopped loving her today” sensationalist fiction in this vein, of course), BaudolinoA Study in Scarlet, A Devil in Velvet, and Shutter Island.  I would say that A Daughter of Time doesn’t fit this, because the sections of the past never really take over the narrative.


Simple Mystery Plots Part 6: The Grid

I was reading a P.D. James novel and realized I hadn’t added this most basic plot of all.  It honestly feels more like a technique than a plot.

  1. A crime happens.
  2. The solver either mentally or literally lists the suspects, their motives, their methods, and their opportunities to commit the crime, as if on one of those teeny checklists from the Clue game.
  3. When only one possible suspect remains, the crime is solved!
  4. The solver laboriously explains their methods in case the reader missed a clue.

A lot of mysteries tap into this, but don’t rely solely on it.  A note: some of the better mystery-writers will add a technique of corroboration.  If multiple people don’t confirm an alibi, then it can almost be assumed to be a lie.


Simple Mystery Plots, Part 5: The Real Story

I found another one!  (Two, actually; another one tomorrow.)

The mystery revolves around the fact that there are multiple versions of the truth (or conjectures of the truth), which are structured as separate chapters/sections of the book.

  1. A crime occurs.
  2. Various people try to solve the crime, or are called upon to give their version of the crime.
  3. The ending may not see any resolution into the crime, but into the nature of truth itself.  (But often the crime is solved.)
  4. Often the verrrry ending wraps up with an open-ended question of some sort, even if the crime is resolved.

This would be things like RashomonThe Poisoned Chocolates Case, Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter, or even things where things are pretty straightforward but multiple POVs chime in to move the story forward, a la The Woman in White or Laura by Vera Caspary.

Simple Mystery Plots, Part 4: The Big Twist

I’m not sure I’m going to do this one justice, so I saved it for last (so far).  I’m calling it The Big Twist.

  1. A crime occurs.
  2. By design or accident, the crime is completely misinterpreted.
  3. The solver(s) proceeds forward in good faith, as if it were one of the other types of simple mysteries or whatever.
  4. Discrepancies build up.
  5. The crime is revealed to be not what it was supposed to be.
  6. Wrap-up, the end.

A note, the solvers are often in some kind of danger.  This is stuff like Shutter Island, Gone Girl, and And Then There Were None.


Simple Mystery Plots, Part 3: The Two Cases

Another mystery plot.  This one I like to call The Two Cases.

  1. Crime #1 occurs.
  2. Crime #2, a minor/funny crime, occurs.
  3. The solver tries to track down one of the two crimes, but it’s no good.
  4. They run into something from the one crime that reminds them of the other crime.
  5. Wait wait both these crimes are related.
  6. Switching from one crime to the other reveals both.  Wrapup, the end.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Inspector Montalbano mysteries lately.  Like that.  This seems like a good Police Procedural template, because it’s easy to believe they’re juggling multiple things at once.  They aren’t as limited by location as a cozy, but they do have to center around one location (their district), so this is a good way to jerk the reader around realistically by overwhelming them with two sets of clues.

Simple Mystery Plots, Part 2: The Lead

Another simple mystery plot.  This one I’ve got mentally labeled The Lead.

  1. A crime occurs.
  2. The solver follows leads as though they were a labyrinth.
  3. Some of the leads are dead ends.
  4. Some of the leads are live ends.
  5. One of the leads that looks like a dead end is a live end.
  6. The solver keeps an eye on the dead-alive end, while appearing to follow the other leads exclusively.
  7. The solver pounces on the criminal out of the blue.
  8. Climactic struggle, wrapup, the end.

I’m working on this plot right now for an upcoming series.  More on that later.  Variations on this one show up a lot in detective-type novels.

Simple Mystery Plots, Part 1: The Mistake

I’m slowly getting a grasp on (some) types of mystery plots.  Here’s my first one, which I’m going to call The Mistake.

  1. A crime occurs.
  2. There are three suspects.
  3. The criminal is not one of those three suspects.
  4. The solver rotates through investigating the three suspects, and may even form a valid-sounding theory about one of the three suspects as the criminal.
  5. Then something knocks everything over for the solver and they realized they were wrong all along, and the criminal was this other person.
  6. Big reveal, wrapup, the end.

I’ve been doing this one mostly in ghostwritten cozies, so I can’t direct you toward any that I’ve written.  Yet.  You’ll see this one mostly in cozies (although it certainly isn’t the only possible cozy plot!); it’s good for distracting the reader without leaving an area.  Agatha Christie likes to make the criminal one of the initial suspects, “prove” that they couldn’t have done it somehow, then actually prove later that they did.

Breaking the System: When Your Series Sneaks Up on You

So I’m working on a series, A Fairy’s Tale, which so far is made up of a bunch of loosely related twists on ’80s-style horror novels/movies.

Books have rules, right?  Things like, “The magic system, if any, is X” or “The main character gets the most POV chapters” or “The writing style in this book has a 1920s flavor to it, see?”  What the rules are doesn’t matter–as long as they’re appropriate for that book.

I knew that series would have rules, too, but I had no idea how deep that would go.

  • All plots based on ’80s-style horror.
  • The main character is a woman with agency, not just a screaming victim.
  • The “magic” is some kind of weird extra-dimensional science.
  • There are extra dimensions that interact with our own.
  • The “fae” are extra-dimensional beings.
  • The stories center around an unnamed Midwestern college town in the middle of nowhere.
  • It’s easy to cross from the fae dimension to this one in certain areas, of which the town is one.
  • The fae have been trying to hack human genetics so they can long-term make the jump out of their own universe before it gets destroyed.
  • The fae can only stay in our universe so long before they start to fail.  Like days at most.
  • The fae have “powers” that allow them to manipulate non-animate object to make them animate.  The more I find out about the universe, the more I realize this is because the fae, for all that they are afraid of the “Others” destroying their own universe, are using the Others’ techniques–because the imps are definitely something that only the Others should be able to do.
  • The Others want to destroy existence, Cthulhu-style.

TL:DR – Worldbuilding stuff about the rules of the world.

What I didn’t realized was that the series is also built so:

  • There are certain locations in town that have to be mentioned in any modern story, like Betty’s diner and The Page Turner bookstore.
  • If I don’t, the plot gets stuck.

I’ll probably find more things like that.  The subconscious.  It has plans that I know nothing about.  You can find the first novel, One Dark Summer Night, the you-done-meddled-where-you-shouldn’t novel, here.  I’m currently working on Under Twilight’s Spreading Blight, which is the on-a-dare-let’s-go-to-the-haunted-house-for-a-sleepover-what-could-possibly-go-wrong novel.

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