Invitation to the Game

This question popped up on a discussion group recently and it’s one I’ve pondering of late.

Here was the abbreviated question, posted by Shalanna Collins:

“I'm wondering how you feel about the ‘invitation to the game’ that constitutes the mystery opening trope. What I mean is . . . when you pick up a mystery, do you expect the normal trope of (1) the sleuth's normal life, some intriguing thing happening, and then (2) the call to action signaled by her/his finding a body or witnessing a death that is suspicious? … I don't read only for the mystery plot and only for action. I've been dinged for including deeper stuff in my books. What say you?”

What I say is this:

I am starting to like books that set their own rules.

I think, within the first few pages of a novel, we can tell if the writer has one eye on a paint-by-numbers formula.

I think we’re all eager for a strong book that wrecks the formula—and has a good time doing so.

Ordinary GraceI give you William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. There’s nothing formulaic about it. Murder mystery? Coming of age novel? Literature? Forty years after a series of powerful deaths in a small town in Minnesota, a grown man named Frank Drum remembers the series of events, all intertwined with memories of his religious father and agnostic mother. The book just flows, suspense mounts, and there’s no sign of paint or numbers.

UntouchableI give you Untouchable by Scott O’Connor, published a few years ago and widely praised. I was shocked—shocked—to discover it had been reviewed as crime fiction in the New York Times. The book is about a man named David Darby who cleans up messes after, well, death takes its toll. It’s also about the man’s mute-by-choice son Whitley, who fears that he’s responsible for his mother’s death. These are two of the strongest character portraits I’ve read in a long time—even though O’Connor uses a ton of adverbs (not my favorite) and relies on the passive tense. I didn’t give a lick. I was completely sucked in by the story and a thin “plot” (and I use that term loosely). Near the end is one of the saddest chapters I’ve read in a long time and it introduces us to a new point of view on page 362.

I didn’t care.

The Mercy of the NightI give you David Corbett’s Mercy of the Night, another character-centric novel that might look a bit like a crime or mystery on the surface but is one of the most deeply felt and human books you’ll ever read.  (I reviewed it in depth here). There’s a prostitute, a counselor and a former litigator, Phelan Tiernay. Again, vivid and human portraits against the backdrop of crime.  Formulas nowhere in sight.

So I think the recipes are a rough guide.

I think some stories need more air underneath them—more contemplation.

Not every book is skipping-stone compilation of plot points.

More and more I find myself more drawn to character studies.  It’s the people I remember, not always the clue-finding and the guns-drawn face-offs.

Some weeks, you want the comfort and ease of that formula.

At other times, you find yourself more open to more variety in voice, tone, style and pace of the plot and action.

To me, the invitation to the game starts with cracking open a new book and being welcomed to a new story, a new point of view.

I want to see the plot points disappear.

I want to get to know new people so well I can imagine what they’re thinking and understand how they act.

And why.

Engineering a Mystery

By Beth Groundwater

Beth GroundwaterI've taught a number of workshops at many different writing conference, library programs, and to writing groups, and one of my favorites is "Engineering a Mystery." I apply my engineering background from my first career to help fledgling mystery writers build some scaffolding for their projects, or formulate recipes for their mystery novels.

The first essential ingredient in a mystery is the sleuth, who investigates the murder(s) and tries to deduce who the killer is. In my case, with two mystery series in the works, my sleuths are well-defined: whitewater river ranger and rafting guide Mandy Tanner for the RM Outdoor Adventures series or gift basket designer Claire Hanover. Both of these characters are old friends, but when I switch from one to the other, I usually need to go back and read at least the last few chapters of the last book starring that character, so I remember what emotional and physical state I left her in and move on from there.

The next essential ingredient in the recipe for a murder mystery is the victim. The dead body that falls on the floor in Act One. There may even be more than one victim to keep things interesting if the plot starts to drag in the middle. Without a victim, we wouldn’t have a mystery to solve and we could all go home! Along with defining a victim, I try to give him or her a family and/or friends who will sorely miss them, because we should never forget how truly horrible murder is.

Usually the victim is not well-liked, so there are many people who’d like to see him or her dead. And, I, like most mystery writers, try to use my creativity to find an interesting way for the victim to die—a mysterious poison, a unique weapon, something that might be construed as an accident or suicide and so on.

Groundwater_Basket of TroubleThe third essential ingredient is suspects, those people who may have killed the victim(s). There are usually between 3 and 7 suspects in a murder mystery. Detectives or amateur sleuths look for means, motive, and opportunity for suspects. All three are needed to identify the killer. Means is the ability to commit the murder, such as access to the murder weapon. Motive is the reason why the suspect wanted the victim dead. Opportunity is the potential for the suspect to be at the right place at the right time to kill the victim. And an alibi is a story for why a suspect didn’t have the opportunity. That story can be true or false.

I try to make sure that all of my suspects have at least two if not all three of means, motive, and opportunity. And bringing in suspects often drives the addition of subplots (activities the victim was engaged in that may have led to his murder) and the addition of research topics I need to study.

The fourth essential ingredient in a murder mystery is clues, pieces of evidence that help the sleuth solve the crime. A good principle that detectives use is that the killer usually leaves something at the crime scene and takes something away. What the killer leaves may be fingerprints, shoe prints, a lipstick stain on a glass, or the murder weapon, say if the knife is stuck in the body. What the killer takes away may be hairs, carpet fibers or bloodstains, money or jewelry, or a special memento of the crime. I try to sprinkle the discovery of clues throughout the manuscript, as well as conversations with the suspects, to keep the reader stimulated with more information that she or he can use to try to solve the puzzle.

The last ingredient that spices up the recipe is red herrings. These are false clues that point to the wrong suspect, such as the gun in my first mystery, A REAL BASKET CASE, that incriminated Claire’s husband. The term comes from a fish that’s been cured in brine and smoked, which turns it red and makes it very smelly. The smelly herring then is dragged across a trail to try to distract hunting dogs from their prey. A good hunting dog—or sleuth—is trained to not be distracted by the strong false scent but to stay on the trail of its prey. What makes things interesting in a murder mystery is when a piece of evidence points to more than one suspect, so it’s both a red herring for the innocent suspect and a clue for the killer.

I like to have at least half a dozen clues and red herrings, if not more. Once all the essential elements are defined, I work on putting scenes in order in an outline, figuring out what happens when and what gets discovered when. During this process, I shuffle scenes around until I come up with a flow of events that I think will most interest the reader. And, of course, there have got to be some surprises!

It's a complex process, and one that I always find daunting in the beginning, wondering how I'll ever come up with the final product--a scene by scene outline, a set of detailed character profiles, and thorough research notes from which I can start writing. But, I have to trust in the process and my abilities. I keep telling myself that I've done it many times before, so I should be able to do it again.

This post previously appeared on Inkspot, the blog for Midnight Ink authors, on February 11th, 2013.


Bestselling mystery author Beth Groundwater writes the Claire Hanover gift basket designer series (A Real Basket Case, a Best First Novel Agatha Award finalist, To Hell in a Handbasket, and in November, 2013, A Basket of Trouble) and the Rocky Mountain Outdoor Adventures series starring whitewater river ranger Mandy Tanner (Deadly Currents, an Amazon #3 overall bestseller, Wicked Eddies, finalist for the Rocky Award, and Fatal Descent). Beth enjoys Colorado's many outdoor activities, including skiing and whitewater rafting, and loves talking to book clubs.

For more information about Beth and her books, please visit her at her website and blog. She can also be found on Facebook and Goodreads.