29 March 2021

Where Did THAT Come From?

The debate between plotters and pantsers is as old as writing itself, especially in the mystery field. I used to list all my novels' scenes and changed the order as I figured out where I was going, usually creating a dozen chronologies to get the cause and effect right. I seldom outline short stories because they don't have subplots and are short enough so I can keep track of everything. I revise as I go along and, once I have a complete draft, I go back and fix the discrepancies.

But whether it's a short story or a novel, I have one constant problem.

I've written a few stories where the sleuth solves a mystery with deduction and detection (Both Black Orchind Novella Award winners had to pay homage to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe tales), but they're hard for me because I have trouble plotting.

I generally start with an idea of who the bad guy is, especially when he or she is also the protagonist. I write many stories from the bad guy's POV, and many stories where someone gets away with a crime in the name of chthonic revenge rather than legal justice. Those stories are me compensating for my big weakness. It's why I don't write many traditional "Whodunnits."

Even if I know who the bad guy is and how he did it, I almost never know how the sleuth will figure it out.

I've been known to reach page 275 of a 300-page manuscript without knowing how I'll cross that last bridge. When I figure it out, I have to go back and add or change something earlier in the book, sometimes almost at the very beginning. It might be a descriptive detail, a bit of dialogue, or a scene. Maybe someone's story changes a little. Once, I had the clue in there and hadn't spotted it myself.

"Stranglehold," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award in 2009, was like that. I had a short story that wasn't selling, and I realized it was too rushed and had too many characters. When I expanded it into a novella, I added more character background and discovered that I had everthing I needed. I just had to have a character reinterpret something. When I did that, the story became very "Golden-Age" mystery.

"Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma" was different. I'd struggled with a novel off and on for months, but the subplots got in each other's way and the characters wouldn't work together. I abandoned the project twice and wrote other stories, but kept coming back to that one because I wanted to write a sequel to "Stranglehold." When I realized that it should be another novella, I dumped the contradictory subplots and saw a possible solution right away. I know several musicians who also record their own work and know the technology well. I asked on of them a few questions, and as soon as he told me the shortcomings of recording technology circa 2009, I wrote a complete draft in a few days.

One of my few other puzzlers, "Death and the Dancing Bears" actually got its solution from the theme an anthology was looking for. I knew the solution before I even started writing. The anthology didn't take the story, but it fit the guidelines for another market.

I knew my solution for "Afternoon Delight," too, a story I conceived while sweating on an elliptical trainer at my health club. When I was leaving for the day, I asked the guy at the reception desk a few questions about how their server worked, and he gave me the answers I needed. Voila. 

Those two stories are the only ones where I knew the solution to the mystery, so I remember them well.

The Whammer Jammers had a clear ending until I was about 80% through the first draft and decided that ending was too obvious. But all I had to do was add one more scene at the end and about a hundred words of dialogue in an earlier scene to take the book in a completely different direction. Even better, that change made it possible to write a sequel, Hit Somebody, with most of the same cast of roller girls I'd grown to love. 

Right now, I have fifteen stories submitted to various markets, and only two of them involve a puzzle the sleuth has to unravel. The clue/solution was even my inspiration for writing one of them.

I was about two-thirds through the first draft of the other day when I saw what I needed. I went back and repeated a detail from the beginning and it all worked out.

Well, maybe it worked out. That story still hasn't sold…

What gives you the most trouble?


  1. Interesting, Steve! I always enjoy hearing about a writer's process. I'm pretty strange, probably, in that I'm a plotter and planner (with at least a mental outline) and not a pantser, but once I start writing I often find myself changing things up a bit. The easiest things for me are the mechanics of the plot and the writing of dialogue, probably because they're the most fun for me, and the hardest thing is always the writing of description and exposition, because it's the least fun for me.

    Hey, it doesn't even matter what's easy or hard, as long as it works, right?

  2. Plots. I too can know what happened and whodunnit, and I can get from A to B, but getting from B to C is often a long, hard haul.

  3. Steve, it was a relief to hear that I'm not the only one who struggles with clues. By the time I start a story I usually know who did it and why, but I agonize over how the sleuth is going to figure it out. The problem I have is that it seems like everything I think of has been done five thousand times. Like you, I have to go back when I do figure something out and plant the seeds for the reveal.

  4. "Once, I had the clue in there and hadn't spotted it myself." I love that.

    My piece this coming Wednesday includes the phrase "I hate clues," but I'm writing about a rare time when clues were not the problem.

  5. Well done on the novellas, Steve.

    I generally stew and moan about the plot before I begin. Then it becomes a matter of shoehorning it into a given word count.

    Soemtimes I wonder about television series. Clearly the writers of Alias had the ending in mind from the beginning. Actually the 50 middle episodes could have been skipped without losing anything. But as much as I admire Twin Peaks, I'm convinced they didn't expect a second season. When the series was renewed, the writers must have panicked finding a way to tie the crazy threads together, falling back on deux ex machina, and leaving very unhappy fans.

    Fortunately, we don't have to write a series in real time!

  6. Interesting stuff, Steve!

    I think the hardest part for me has nothing to do with the actual writing. I work a full-time job. I have a family. I love to travel (or did, pre-COVID). I kayak and ride a bike. I read a lot.

    So the hardest part for me is motivation. It's hard for me to push all that other stuff off to the side and sit down and actually start writing. Once I start, the rest — fortunately — is for me pretty smooth sailing....


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