Monday, January 19, 2015

Analyzing Mysteries: Clues and Leads

Lately, clue pacing has been bugging me. If you are writing a mystery (like I am), how to you place clues? How do you decide when the detective finds the clues, and which clues she finds? How does this affect pacing?

I still haven't answered those questions, but as I was pondering this, I pulled out some outlines I'd made for two television show mysteries: an episode of Inspector Lewis ("Falling Darkness"--one of the most creepy and complicated episodes of Inspector Lewis ever) and an episode of Elementary ("The Leviathan"--not very creepy, but complicated). I compared them to see how the flow of clues/leads/suspects lead the detectives from the beginning to the end. And I made some interesting discoveries. In Inspector Lewis, there are several plot threads going at once. Lewis follows several leads at once, and the only connection the leads have is that they all involve the murdered woman. To contrast, in Elementary, only one lead is followed at a time, and one lead leads to the next.

I'll talk about Inspector Lewis first. First, I suggest you read this short synopsis (spoilers and all) of the episode (you'll have to scroll down to the bottom and push the "Read full synopsis" button). What I have to say will make more sense if you can compare it to the synopsis.

In this episode, the first half or more of the story is spent following several different leads--all of which are mostly wrong or red herrings. But the way in which the clues are found and leads are followed is a little bit scattered, as multiple leads are being followed at once. Here's a timeline of the leads (note: I made this out of the detailed outline I made for this episode, so it covers more clues than the synopsis. Don't worry if you don't know what clues it refers to, the point of this is to see the "pattern" in which the clues were followed and the fact that they investigate more than one lead until Mary Gwilliam's body is found.)

Laura’s friend, Ligeia, is murdered on Halloween night.
Vampire leads (garlic in the mouth and stake through the heart of body—dead ends, never brought up again.)
Stem cells.
Fridge letters.
Stem cells.
Ligeia’s ex and daughter (also dead end that never goes anywhere).
Ligeia’s boyfriend (he proposed, she ended the relationship=motive for him.)
More fridge letters (including "find Mary Gwilliam") and new murder.
Backstory connection to Laura, Ligeia, and house where second murder happened.
Charlotte gets questioned because she lives nearby.
Laura’s past.
Learn more about students at second murder house.
Consider Laura as a suspect.
Students’ suspicions and alibies (or lack thereof.)  
Boyfriend and stem cells--> reveal Ligeia’s boss’s motive (never brought up again.).
Gwilliam’s body found (tie in with fridge letters.)
Gwilliam backstory and clues.
More about students (two of them used to date each other—dead end).
Gwilliam connection to Laura.
Laura’s past.
Gwilliam and hospital.
Gwilliam’s past.
Laura’s past.
Gwilliam's past.
Connection: Laura’s past to hospital where Gwillam worked.
Laura’s past.
Laura’s past.
Charlotte identifies one of the students as the guy who got home late the night of Ligeia’s murder.
Connection: the psychic was having an affair with said student, which is why he got home late (dead end).
Connect Laura to hospital-->learn about twins.
Figure out who twins are.
Twins are mentally ill-->tie in to their father.
Lewis gives explanation and conclusion. 

In this episode, anything that isn't Laura's past or related to Mary Gwilliam is a red herring. The stem cell research, the break up with the boyfriend, the psychic, etc. are all red herrings. Until Mary Gwilliam's body is found, Lewis follows several leads that are mostly red herrings. After her body is found, things start to come together.

In Elementary, only one lead is followed at a time. Sherlock finds one lead, asks questions about it, which leads him to the next lead, which leads him to the next lead, and so on. It's far more linear than Inspector Lewis. I'm going to do another timeline like I did for Inspector Lewis, so here's the synopsis for "The Leviathan". (Here's a more in-depth one, but that website has incredibly inappropriate links and pictures in the side bar.) A timeline of leads looks like this:

Crime is committed.
We get backstory on the previous robbery. 
Meet Mr. Green Stick
Sherlock examines crime scene and suggests it wasn't an inside job
Sherlock wants to find who did it in order to find out how they did it.
Sherlock visits old thief in prison-->thief says a dead thief sold info to a master thief.
Sherlock researches master thief, figures out who it is.
Sherlock goes to visit the master thief and spots a clue that proves they have the right guy, but said thief had a stroke two years ago and can’t walk, so it can’t be him.
Back to the original thieves-->only one thief went to trial, the rest took plea bargains.
Sherlock realizes that four jurors from the original robbery had the same skills as the thieves, and one is related to Mr. Green Stick
Theory: jurors copied original thieves.
One juror is murdered-->the stolen diamonds were at his house-->Sherlock's theory was right.
Theory: one of the other jurors killed him for the diamonds but couldn’t find them.
Another juror dies.
Collect DNA evidence on all previous jurors.
DNA doesn’t match jurors, but matches someone else-->she donated bone marrow to one of the jurors, so the DNA sample the cops used (saliva rather than blood) wouldn’t match (this is a factor of bone marrow transplants, don't try to figure it out, it's irrelevant to this exercise).
The jurors did it, crime solved. 

See how this was far more linear than Lewis? Sherlock started out with only one lead: the original robbery gang. From there, one clue lead to the next and there weren't very many red herrings (there were also a lot fewer plot threads). However, like in Lewis, they didn't start to really nail down who it could have been until about half way through the episode.

Some other differences between Inspector Lewis and Elementary:
  • Lewis is a bit more omniscient than Elementary. We see things going on with the suspects that Lewis doesn't see. In Elementary, we only see what Sherlock or Watson sees. 
  • Lewis puts more effort into developing the suspects and their secrets than Elementary does. This is the reason why there are more leads and plot threads. We get a much closer look at the suspects' lives in Lewis than in Elementary. 
  • While this particular Inspector Lewis did involve a recurring character's past, it didn't have much to do with her overarching character arc. In Elementary, there is a side plot involving Watson's mother, which does add to the overarching relationship between Watson and Sherlock. 
So, what's the takeaway of this post? There are multiple ways to structure and balance clues and subplots and leads. How do you figure out how you should structure your mystery's clues? I haven't figured that out yet. What I did learn from this, however, was that I have the pacing of the mystery in my WIP wrong. At the beginning, when my detective finds out the suspect she was investigating didn't do it, it bumps her back to square one. This happens multiple times. I don't like that. It slows things down, and means that she rarely gets to deal with new information. In both Elementary and Inspector Lewis, when a clue leads to a dead end, there are other leads for the detectives to follow that are built on investigation they've done already. I need to figure out how to do that.  I plan on outlining some more mysteries (episodes of Poirot, Castle, and Psych, and the book I'm reading right now--The Season by Sarah MacLean), so hopefully I'll learn more.

What do you, fair reader, think of this? Have anything to add?

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Plot Holes that Are Really Clues and Clue Timing

Lately I've been doing a lot of work on revisions, and I came across this one plot hole. Essentially, the insolvent estate my MC inherits shouldn't be in such dire straights.

At least, that's what my MC thinks.

In reality, when you look at the story more broadly, there are very good reasons for the estate's financial trouble.

So, what I thought was a plot hole is actually a clue that something is amiss and my MC is being lied to. This is a good thing. I'm writing a mystery; there need to be clues. This revelation got me to thinking. Sometimes it's okay if part of a plot thread doesn't make sense to the MC (or to the reader, for that matter). It's okay if the MC and her friends don't have an instant answer for everything. Because, if they're asking a question they don't have an answer for, they (and hopefully the reader) will be intrigued. Their curiosity will be piqued. And curiosity will pull a reader through the story (I read a blog post on this recently, which of course now I'm having trouble finding. Should I spot it again, I shall provide linkage.)

Now, that said, it is bad if I don't have an explanation. That is a plot hole.

The next thing I got thinking about was that now I knew that this thing was a clue and not a plot hole, would it give away who my villain is too soon? Only if I let it. I've got two options for dealing with this:
1. Let the villain lie and give a false explanation for the lack of funds that placates my MC for a short while, until she figures out the villain is lying. This explanation could also be unsatisfactory or throw suspicion on another character.
2. Put off the realization that there should be more money in the estate. She's busy, and maybe she thought she had an explanation for the lack of funds, then she realizes that no, her explanation doesn't work after all.
Bonus option: Do both. She doesn't realize there's an issue until I need her to (assuming I can pull that off without it seeming contrived) and once she does she asks about it and gets lied to.

I'm thinking I'm going to do both, then turn the story over to alpha readers and see what they think.

So, to summarize this post:
  • It's okay if not everything has a nice, pretty little bow of explanation. In the middle of a story things that are all tied up and pretty can be boring. Unanswered questions things that don't make sense are more interesting.
  • There are a couple ways clues can be timed to have the desired impact. 
What do you think of these ideas? Have anything to add? Tell me in a comment!

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A Short Story to Ring in the New Year

Happy 2015, everyone!

As you may recall, in my last post I talked about a short story challenge. So, late last night, I wrote a short story. It took me just under three hours, starting at 10:42 and finishing at 1:29. The final word count was 2662.

It was rather fun.

And now, as per the rules of the challenge, I present it to you for your reading pleasure!


Attack on Trowbridge

“Trowbridge Institute is under lockdown.”
Georgie jerked her head toward the intercom speaker. A slice of fear went through her stomach. “All employees and interns please secure nearest patients. This is not a drill.”
This is not a drill.
Georgie’s chest tightened, her breathing got shallower, and her hands started shaking. Lockdown. Lockdown meant a renegade patient or intruders.
This is not a drill.
She took a deep breath. Calm down. She had to calm down. Needed to secure nearest patients.
She ran to the nearest map of the institution. She was in the North Wing which meant… which meant the nearest patients were the new batch. The weird ones. “Incurables,” according to staff gossip.
The slice of fear cut deeper, but she had to do it. She just had to hope someone else was there to secure them too.
She took off at a run down the hall, passing the janitorial closets and laundry rooms. A two minutes and a leg cramp later, she was in front of the doors. The doors to the Solitary wing. No one else was there. Why wasn’t anyone else there? Surely someone else would have been close by…
Apparently not.
Georgie took the key ring off her belt and forced the right key into the lock, her sweaty hands slipping on the doorknob.
The door swung open to reveal a short hallway with seven doors. One of them opened. A patient’s door. Georgie swallowed. The patients’ doors should have been locked.
A teenaged girl stuck her head out, one hand tangled in her red hair. She shook, eyes wide. “Someone’s coming,” she said. A tear slipped down her face and she tugged at her hair. “Someone’s coming. Help us.”
Georgie’s instincts kicked in. “Don’t worry, I’ll help. Just calm down.” She took the file out of the pocket next to the door. Darcy Moorland, 16. Debilitating anxiety.
Only anxiety. Okay.
“Don’t worry, Darcy, I’m here to help. You go back in your room, and I’ll make sure everything is safe out here.”
Darcy shook her head, breath coming in sharp gasps. “No, someone is coming, you have to help us!”
Oh, why wasn’t there anyone else to help out? “Don’t worry, I’ll help. Take a deep breath, that’s right. No one is going to hurt you. Go back in your room and you’ll be just fine.”
She shook her head, fast and jerky. “No, I won’t be. Someone is coming.” She tugged at her hair again, pulling out a handful.
Georgie changed tactics. “I have to check on the other patients. Can you stay in your room until I’m done? It’ll only be a couple minutes.”
“Can’t I come with you?”
Strictly against protocol, especially considering this girl was one of the “incurables” and had somehow opened her door. But she would tear herself apart if Georgie left her alone. “Okay, but you have to calm down and stay quiet, all right?”
Darcy nodded. The two of them moved to the next door, Darcy sticking to Georgie’s side like a shadow. Georgie grabbed the file first. Harriot Fairfax, 31. Schizophrenic—talks to people who aren’t there.
Georgie peeked in the window. There was another pair of eyes staring back at her. They blinked. “Max says something’s going on,” Harriot said. “What’s going on?”
“Someone’s coming,” Darcy said.
Georgie cursed in her head. But instead of freaking out, Harriot just nodded. She looked off to the side. “Go find out who.” When she looked back at Georgie she said, “I’ve sent Max to investigate.” She smiled.
At least she wasn’t throwing a fit. “Good,” Georgie said. “There’s no need to worry.”
Harriot nodded and turned away from the door.
Georgie turned to Darcy. “I need you to be quiet, okay?”
Darcy nodded. “Sorry…”
The moved to the next door. Ed Bennett, 13. Schizophrenia—hears voices. And his sister, Elle Bennett, 13. Debilitating social anxiety.
Twins. So young. Georgie peeked through the window. The twins were facing each other.
“Fear,” Elle said. “Lots of fear. Confusion.” She put her head between her knees.
“More voices,” Ed said. “Two more.” He looked at the door, at Georgie. Then he put his head in his hands. “Too many voices.”
Elle started humming. After a second Ed joined in. That seemed to calm them down. Georgie didn’t recognize the tune.
Well, at least they weren’t hurting themselves or each other.
Georgie and Darcy moved to the last door. Lydia Woodhouse, 26. Delusional—believes she can fly. Potentially suicidal.
Great. Georgie peeked in the window—
“You need to get to the hallway,” Darcy said. She stared at the floor and bit her lip. “Someone’s going to say something. You need to be in the hallway to hear it.”
“What?” Georgie looked in Lydia’s room. She had an art kit, and was drawing with pastels. The walls were covered in sketches. Birds, dragons, butterflies, bats, griffins—all things with wings. There were little sketches of things with wings on her hands and arms.
Darcy tugged at Georgie’s arm. “You have to be in the hallway! Go!”
Georgie went. Everyone but Darcy seemed well enough. She closed the door to the North Wing and put her forehead against it. Everyone was secure, but she needed to do something about Darcy. Maybe—
“Is this thing working?”
Georgie jumped and looked at the intercom speaker. She didn’t know that voice. It was some man, but she didn’t know that voice.
“It is working! Sweet. Okay, friends, here’s the deal. We don’t want to hurt anyone, we just need some patients. Some special patients, brought here under mysterious circumstances during a full moon…” 
“Really? Do you have to be so dramatic?” said another, fainter, female voice. “This was a terrible idea. We’re so getting fired.”
“Shush! I’m making our demands!”
“You’re pretending to be a super villain.”
“Am not! Just let me do my thing.” He cleared his throat. “We will not leave until we have: Ed and Elle Bennett, Harriot Fairfax, Darcy Moorland, and Lydia Woodhouse.”
The patients she’d just visited.
“We are armed. We have rooty-tooty-point-and-shooties.”
“All we want is the patients. We won’t harm them. This doesn’t have to be hard.”
A loud shriek pierced Georgie’s ears, as if someone were speaking too close to the microphone.
“Ow!” said the man.
“You’re wasting our time! Come on let’s just go find them.”
Grumbling, then silence.
Georgie cursed in her head again. What was she supposed to do now?
This wasn’t covered in the orientation seminar.
Someone knocked on the door from the inside. Georgie cracked it. Darcy. “They’re coming.”
“I know.” Wait…how had Darcy known? Before she said someone was coming. How had she known?
“Harriot says Max can help. Come on.”
Georgie looked around. Maybe now that the names of the targeted patients were known, backup would come.
“Come on!” Darcy said, tugging at Georgie’s sleeve. Georgie let herself be pulled to Harriot’s door.
Who cared about protocol anymore?
Harriot was waiting at the window again. “Max says that out that door,”—she pointed to the door that lead to the patio where the patients could get some sunshine—“and across the yard there’s an old outbuilding with an old storm cellar that’s big enough for the six of us. We should be safe there. They won’t be able to find us.”
Georgie blinked. “How did you know about the storm cellar…?”
“Max told me. He built the outbuilding before he died.”
Darcy nodded. “Let’s go.” She tugged at the key ring on Georgie’s belt.
“Hey!” Georgie snapped, jerking away. Darcy shrank back, and tangled her hand in her hair again.
Georgie closed her eyes. She had a bunch of patients who were being targeted by intruders for goodness knew what reason.
There was no protocol for this.
Her duty was to the patients. She had to keep them safe. And the storm cellar was a good idea… if she could get them there without losing them.
“How do I know you won’t run away once we get outside?”
“Where would we go? Max says there are fences everywhere that look pretty but aren’t if you touch them.”
She had a point there.
If the intruders were in the office with the intercom, then they had access to the records, which meant they could easily find out where these patients were. They didn’t have more time to think.
“Okay, let’s go, but you have to promise to stay close and not wander off. Hold hands, preferably.”
Darcy and Harriot nodded. Georgie unlocked Harriot’s door. Harriot swished out and immediately linked arms with Darcy. She was wearing what looked to be very cheap Great Gatsby cosplay: a drop waist dress, and a pair of kitten heels. Georgie just shook her head and moved to the next door.
The twins. As she opened the door, Darcy said “More voices are coming…um, boy. Prepare.”
The twins faced them. Ed’s eyes locked on Georgie. He cocked his head. “We’re going somewhere. Somewhere to be safe from…”
“From whatever is causing the fear and confusion,” Elle said.
How did they know? “Yes, we are. You—”
“We won’t run,” Ed said. “And we’ll do as you say.”
Georgie blinked. “Good. Come with us.”
The twins winced as they joined the others. “Too much,” Ed said.
Elle nodded. “Too much.” They started humming again.
Georgie ignored it. She didn’t know what “too much” meant and she had to get them all to safety. She let Lydia out and the six of them headed for the door to the outside.
As the last person got through, Darcy said “They’re here.”
A second later, someone started pounding on the door to the North Wing.
She didn’t need to tell them twice. They bolted across the patio, Georgie and Harriot in the lead. But as they reached a set of stairs, Lydia whooped and ran ahead. Full speed. Toward the edge.
“Lydia, no!” Georgie screamed. But it was too late.
She expected blood and gore and shrieking…
Instead, wings sprouted from Lydia’s back and soared upward, whooping again.
Georgie’s heart dropped to her stomach. “Did-did she just…?”
“Yes,” said Harriot, taking Georgie’s arm. “Now run.”
“I’m not hallucinating?”
“No, now run!”
They ran.
Wings? Wings? How was that possible? What if… What if Georgie wasn’t really an employee? What if she was a patient who thought she was an employee? That would explain the wings. She was delusional.
But that didn’t explain the keys on her belt.
They reached the outbuilding with the storm cellar, Lydia coming down in a less-than-graceful landing.
Just get the door open, Georgie told herself. She’d worry about the delusions later. Unless this was just a dream. Yes, this had to be a dream, because wings? Really?
But if it was a dream, she didn’t want it to be a nightmare, so she went to pull open the storm cellar.
It was locked. With a big padlock. That she didn’t have the keys for.
This was officially a nightmare.
She tugged at the doors, as if that would make them open faster.
“They’re coming!” Darcy said, wrapping her hands in her hair. Her face scrunched up and turned red. “They’re coming…and, and…” She paused, opening her eyes. She relaxed. “And that’s good.”
Everyone turned to look at her. The twins stopped humming.
“Confusion,” Elle said. She had been curled up in a ball on the ground. Now she slowly unfolded. “Relief.”
Harriot turned to someone invisible next to her. “Max says these people have guns. How is that good?” She toyed with some of the fringe on her dress.
“They won’t use them on us,” Darcy said. Her brow furrowed, but as if she were solving a puzzle, not confused.
“Found ‘em!” said a voice from the other side of the outbuilding. The man from the intercom. He came around the corner. There were weapons at his sides, but he didn’t draw them. He grinned at them. “Hello. You didn’t have to run, you know.”
Georgie stood. “You don’t know these are the patients you’re looking for.”
The man pointed at Lydia. “The wings kind of give it away.”
Georgie shook her head. “I won’t let you take them. You won’t get away with kidnapping them.”
The man smiled again. “This isn’t a kidnapping. This is a rescue mission.”
“He’s telling the truth,” Ed said. He narrowed his eyes at the man, and his shoulders relaxed. “He’s telling the truth. He wants to help us. He… he thinks we aren’t crazy. Elle?”
Elle nodded, unfurling further. “He’s sincere.”
Harriot huffed. “I have a very long list of doctors who will disagree with that.”
“He thinks we have super powers.”
Georgie stared.
“I could have told you that,” Lydia said, ruffling her wings.
The man grinned. “You can come out now, Kat. They aren’t going anywhere.”
A woman emerged from a bush behind him. She lowered a gun—a tranquilizer gun, not one with bullets.
“Who are you?” Georgie asked, looking back and forth between the man and the woman.
“My name is Kat, and this is Will. We work for an organization called S.H.E.I.L.D,” the woman—Kat—said. “We find and help people like you.”
“Let me take a guess,” Will said. “Judging from what I’ve read and what I’ve now seen. Lydia, you can fly, obviously. Harriot can see ghosts and communicate with them. Ed and Elle have some sort of mind reading ability.”
“Emotions,” Elle said. “I see emotions. He sees thoughts.”
Will nodded, smiling a lopsided smile. “Nice. And Darcy…I’m not sure. What’s your super power?”
Darcy stared at him for a moment. Georgie thought she wasn’t going to answer, and then she said, “I sense things before they happen.”
Will gave her a thumbs up. “Cool.”
“So, we’re not crazy?” Darcy said.
“Nope,” Kat said. “You need help, but you’re not crazy.” She looked at Will. “This is the part where he makes you an offer.”  
Will glared at her. “I was just about to say ‘this is the part where I make you an offer.’”
Kat smiled. “I know.”
“If you want to come with us,” Will said, turning back to the patients, “we have a facility waiting for you where you’ll get all the help you need, and we’ll teach you how to control your powers. You won’t feel crazy anymore.”
Ed and Elle looked at each other. “I won’t hear voices anymore?” Ed asked.
“Only the ones you want to hear,” Kat said, “and only when you want to hear them. Trust me, I was rescued just like we’re rescuing you now. I can read minds too.” She smiled at Ed.
“I’m in,” Lydia said.
The others nodded.
“Fantastic,” Will said. He tapped something in his ear. “Mina, you ready with the getaway car? We’ve got five more passengers coming.
“Now you,” Will said, looking at Georgie, “Have a choice. You can stay here at your job and forget the last hour happened, or you can come with us. Which would you prefer? It doesn’t make a difference to us either way.”
Georgie looked around at everyone staring at her. “What would I do at this…facility?”
“We can always use an extra hand,” Kat said, “These folks may have super powers, but they also need help. We need people who can give that help.”
“Fair warning,” Will said, “it gets messy, and sometimes organizations like ours don’t mix well with private lives…”
“Often, actually,” Kat said.
“But the choice is yours. Endless wonder working for an organization that trains superheroes, or...” he turned around and looked at Trowbridge. “Whatever it is you get working there.”
“He’s clearly not biased,” Kat said.
Georgie thought for a moment. Her decision came down to one truth: she never wanted to live through another day like this again. “I think I’ll take the forgetting option.”
Will looked surprised, but he shrugged. “Whatever you say.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a flask. “Drink this.” Georgie did. It tasted like bananas and ginger and…
When she woke up, she had no idea how she’d gotten from inventory to the yard.


This was a fun story to write. I may have to write more about these people sometime.

Happy New Year, my friends! Let's make 2015 a good one.