The key to writing a solid murder mystery outline

canstockphoto5370784Writing a mystery is fun, but tricky. It takes some planning. Think about it. When a real criminal rushes into murder, he ends up getting caught. A mystery novel’s equivalent to getting is caught is the reader figuring out whodunit before the sleuth. And when that happens, it’s not just the victim that winds up dead – so does your book.

So how do you keep your book out of the morgue? It takes thorough planning. (a.k.a. The Outline)

I don’t know how some authors “wing it” and I don’t know any successful mystery author who ties all the ends together without first outlining the plot.  My murder mysteries follow a six part outline that begins with the murder. Even if the death takes place outside the story itself, it’s still the act that sets the story in motion.

The outline doesn’t have to delve deep into all the little details. Those can be worked out later. It does, though, include the suspects and motivations. It lays out every major scene and the genuine, fake and pivotal clues. Without this direction, I’ll get lost when I begin writing and go off on tangents and into dead ends.

However, you know that in any good murder mystery, nothing is as it appears.

So, here’s the key: There’s another, deeper outline that plots the off-the-page action. It’s the real story beneath the surface. It describes what the murderer is doing to cover-up his crime, misdirect the sleuth and every little deceptive lie. This deeper outline will help line-up clue placement within the story so they aren’t just dropped into the story but methodically placed.

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Shhhhh… There’s a formula to writing a murder mystery

canstockphoto18465293Have you ever read one of those novels that just keeps going on and on? Have you ever stopped reading at Chapter 7 and asked, “What’s the point here?” Or when writing, have you ever felt lost? Not sure what should happen next? Well, using a formula helps keep mysteries on track.

Formula might sound like “cookie cutter writing” but it’s not. It’s about meeting reader expectations of the genre. If you’re reading a romance, you expect the boy to meet the girl, the boy to lose the girl, then the boy gets the girl back. In mystery-suspense, readers expect the sleuth to investigate the murder, the sleuth hits a wall, then the sleuth overcomes and solves the murder. The formula simply charts the emotional high points to keep the story moving forward within the genre’s expectations.

The basic mystery formula is:

  1. canstockphoto3001696 A murder is committed and a body is found

There simply must be a corpse in a murder mystery. Whether you’re writing a cozy or gritty noir, no lesser crime than murder will do. In my world, the story generally starts with the victim meeting his fate. But it doesn’t have to. The murder can already have occurred before page one, and the story starts with the discovery and investigation.

 I believe this to be the most important part of the story. The murder and discovery must be engaging enough to get the reader to turn the page. If the reader doesn’t care, it really doesn’t matter how impressive the investigation is or how dramatic the Big Reveal turns out to be.

 

  1. canstockphoto0890392Suspects are identified

Personally I like to have four suspects — one has a motive, the second has the means, and the third had the opportunity to commit the murder on that fateful night. Of course, the fourth — the actual murderer — had motive, means and opportunity.

To me, creating Suspects One, Two and Three is the fun part. I love developing odd characters that inhabited the victim’s life. They have their own secrets to hide. They may lie to the sleuth and mislead the reader. But don’t take offense; that’s their job.

  1. canstockphoto0602994Clues are found

To play fair, consider planting at least three genuine clues within the narrative that point to the true murderer. The sleuth may not recognize them or understand their relevance until later. The reader may never notice them until the end. They can be subtle. And, obviously, you want several red herrings (or fake clues) that point fingers at Suspects One, Two and Three.

  1. The Sleuth identifies one of the suspects as the killer

canstockphoto0602986At first, Suspect One, Two or Three appears very, very guilty. The Sleuth knows it. The reader feels it. Now at this point, the sleuth is trying to prove how and why. The case is all but wrapped up, except that…

  1.  The Sleuth discovers that everything she thought is wrong

The Killer is not who she first suspected. And she finds that she was blindsided by a red herring. The blindside can be almost anything, for example the true motive for murder. Maybe the sleuth has focused on financial gain (the canstockphoto0357403life insurance policy) but the real motive is revenge (the victim cheated on a third grade spelling bee). Or a crime of passion.  Or self defense. Or an act of jealousy.

  1. Everything seems lost. The Sleuth is discredited. The Killer is going to get away with murder

Everything is progressing just as the murderer planned. (Wha ha ha!) Whether professional or amateur, every sleuth must hit rock bottom. Bring your sleuth to the breaking point, about to lose everything, and then push her down a deep, black hole that, to your reader, appears there is no canstockphoto0357545way out.

  1. A breakthrough arrives just before all is lost

But the sleuth does make her way out of that hole, and she is stronger and more motivated than ever before. The solution doesn’t come easy, but there is a breakthrough. Maybe she missed something before. Maybe she looks at the clues differently. Maybe a lie is revealed. Maybe someone turns up who sends the story in a completely new direction. Somehow, the pieces add up, which leads to:

  1. canstockphoto11032822The Murderer is revealed.

This is the BIG REVEAL SCENE, in which the sleuth unmasks the murderer and explains his motive, means, and opportunity. The reveal is the second most important scene in a mystery novel and it has dual goals. The first is to explain every genuine clue and to expose the murderer’s identity. The second is more important: it must be climatic, dramatic and satisfying. Your ending must be memorable. This is why your reader stuck with you for all those pages. Don’t strike out here. It can taint the reader’s feelings of the entire story.

So don’t look at a formula as “writing by the numbers.” It more like a jello mold, waiting for your to pour all your creative juices into and create something exciting, fun and entertaining — while still reading and feeling like a murder mystery.

Images used with permission per the licensing agreement with CanStockPhoto.com. CSP3001696, CSP0890392, CSP0602994, CSP0602986, CSP0357590, CSP0357545, CSP0357403, CSP11032822

Violence escalates between debating writer factions

Stillwater, Florida (AP) – The murder of Janice DeStoppalace put police detectives on high alert last week. Discovery of her body was worse than anyone expected, especially since the victim led such a quiet life. She was a receptionist at a downtown insurance agency. She was a loving mother and wife who wrote amateur detective novels in her spare time. Now she’s the face of a hate crime that is growing in intensity.

The fervor is raging across the country: at writer’s conferences, book fairs, local critique groups, even between couples who are both writers.
outline
Friends and family are saying that Janice DeStoppalace, 34, lived openly about her beliefs.

“I like to pick out the villain when I get to the end of writing my mystery novels,” said DeStoppalace at an Amateur Mystery Writer’s Meet-Up Group she attended on the night of her murder. “I let the characters decide who did the dastardly dead and why.” Those were her last words. She was murdered in her home by a gang of Outliners who held a rally in a neighboring residence on the same evening.

“I’m not saying that the murder of Janice DeStoppalace was right,” said Andrea Ferngroves, 61, a representative of the D.O.R.I. organization (Detailed Outlines ‘R’ Imperative).  “But I find it a little disturbing that people like her can just start writing a story without any clear direction where it’s headed. You must first outline, then start the initial draft. That’s just the way it’s done in a civilized society.”
old couple
News of DeStoppalace’s murder has had a profound impact on her friends and neighbors.

“This is definitely a problem that we’re struggling to get past,” said Angela Whiddle, 42, a wife and mother. “I’m just like that poor, innocent woman. I’m a wife, a mother and write in my spare time. And I too just start writing on the first page and let the story flow where it wants.”

“But it’s put a strain on our marriage,” said her husband, Barry Whiddle, 44, a novelist who is adamant that an outline must be written first. “How does your story have direction? How do you keep the characters from running off on tangents without an outline to follow?”

A fellow writer who knew DeStoppalace and frequently attended the same Amateur Mystery Writing group attempted to explain. “I find an outline too restrictive. It limits my creative muse.”

However, there are many who oppose that viewpoint.

“You know that big reveal at the end of my mystery novels? I planned that out 300 pages earlier,” said Barry Whiddle. “It’s hard to imagine all that falling in place on its own or developing within the natural flow of the story.”

“We will never agree on outlines, but we don’t want to end-up in a situation like that poor woman who was murdered,” his wife Angela added. “A mixed marriage is tough. I’m not saying it isn’t. So, we’re currently working through our issues with professional help.”
Married Couple
DeStoppalace’s mother, Alice, spoke publicly for the first time after her daughter’s tragic death.

“I’ve always heard that there are two kinds of novelists: those who free-flow and those who outline,” she said in a statement released through the family attorney.

According to the attorney, “Free-Flowing” is a street term that describes a process where writers begin a story without any type of prepared outline. The story reveals itself as it’s being written. “Outliners” determine the major plot points, the narrative structure, and the ending before they begin writing.

“Isn’t this world big enough for both free-flowing and outlines?” Alice DeStoppalace pleaded in her public statement. “Obviously, there is no right or wrong way to write. And, I’m going to guess that a lot of people fall somewhere in the middle; they start with an outline but tend to veer off it once they delve into the writing process.”

Memorial services are currently scheduled for Janice DeStoppalace, but per her final wishes, no initial preparation has been made.

Couple in bed
All names are fictitious and no resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is intended. Photos are from canstockphoto.com and used with permission per the licensing agreement. Hopefully the members of my writers group don’t kill me for making fun of this week’s (and previous week’s) discussion.

Zealous Zodiac Characteristics: Basic Character Templates

canstockphoto11107671Sometimes when creating characters, it helps to begin with a character template. There’s a great set of character traits described in the Zodiac. Each sign has specific personality traits that describe who a person is and the type of emotions they are likely to display.

Capricorn

A Capricorn is hardworking, responsible, reliable, loyal, sincere and has a strong will power. They also tend to be introverted, slightly obstinate, short tempered and have difficulty accepting authority. Capricorns are very calm individuals. They do not become agitated easily. Capricorns like being leaders in the workplace and they do not take orders from others well at all. You may find a Capricorn unleashing a sharp tongue lashing if you try to take control of a project. In matters of the heart, Capricorns are very romantic. Dinners by candlelight and flowers for no reason are qualities you can expect from a Capricorn. Capricorns like to be wanted and needed.

Aquarius

Aquarius is friendly, affable, intelligent, kind, compassionate and practical. Weaknesses of the Aquarius are being unpredictable, adamant, dislike towards making commitments and hating adhering to conventions. Aquarius are generally soft spoken but can demonstrate the ability to change up now and again. They love things that are new and enjoy experimenting with new ideas and concepts. Creativity flows through their veins. Aquarius tend to have a large number of friends though normally not many close or best buddies. They are friendly and nice and enjoy being around other people. Their flighty and ever-changing personality make getting close with an Aquarius next to impossible. One minute you may be an Aquarius’ best friend and the next just someone who is in the way.

Pisces

Strengths of the Pisces include being intuitive, empathetic, uninterested in material things and having a sharp memory. Weaknesses of the Pisces include being emotional or sensitive, and prone to wistfulness, mood swings and inflexibility. Greed in not a quality Pisces possess. They are not materialistic people. Pisces are well aware of how the world works but they also know their place. Pisces either run with the flow of the people around them or they run against it. They are either one extreme or the other there is no in between. Pisces are calm and cool and rarely lose their tempers. Pisces can charm your socks off without blinking an eye. In the event of troubling situations, Pisces have the ability to remain calm and rational. They think through situations rather than through reacting impulsively. Pisces are great lovers of music and art. You may find a Pisces in an orchestra or crafting a new picture for an art gallery. Pisces try to help everyone around them. They dislike their friends being unhappy and they will bend over backwards to be helpful.

Aries

Adventurous, energetic, courageous, and confident are the strengths of Aries. Weaknesses include being self-centered, short-tempered, impulsive, and impatient. Aries are known to be friendly and outgoing people. You would notice an Aries in a room full of people since they would be the ones talking and introducing themselves. Aries stand up for what they believe in. You will find them rooting for the underdog or defending and assisting those with weaker personality traits. Aries only are aware of their wants and needs. They are not selfish they just don’t always realize they are putting someone else out.Though an Aries can be pushed to have a temper, it normally won’t last long. Seldom will you come across an Aries that holds a grudge. Forgive and forget is a motto most Aries live by.

Taurus

The Bull symbolizes strong and silent, and this is exactly how a Taurus is said to be. Until you really get to know a Taurus you will probably not see his or her true self. Strengths of Taurus include being compassionate, dependable, loyal, reliable, and also being strong both physically and emotionally. Stubbornness, aggressiveness, sensitivity and a dislike when faced with change are all weaknesses associated with a Taurus. Taurus are very stubborn individuals and once their minds are made up, swaying them even a little is next to impossible. If you do not try to push, Taurus folks will come across as being laid back and reserved. Take heed though because if you anger a Taurus, it is likely that you might find a violent temper. However, Taurus tempers generally will not flare until they are pushed. Taurus make wonderful friends, and whenever you need them they will certainly be some of the first ones there. Taurus know exactly how to brighten the day of friends in need. Don’t count on a Taurus ever calling on you to return the favor. They are very in tune with their emotions and rarely display them. Taurus are loyal and will stand beside a friend until the bitter end.

Gemini

Jovial, good communication skills, inquisitiveness and flexibility are all strengths of the Gemini. Weaknesses of the Gemini include selfishness, restlessness, confusing personalities and difficulty being on time. Gemini change their minds as often as they change their underwear. Boredom quickly makes a Gemini turn and look for other avenues of excitement and entertainment. Gemini have little to no patience. Ironically, they do not flourish in environments where indecisive people are present. Gemini can talk themselves in and out of a situation all in the same breath. They do not stay in one place too long. In most disagreements, Gemini will come out the victor with an extraordinary ability to use words in their favor. Falling in love with a Gemini can be exciting and dangerous. With their dual personalities Gemini keep their love life spicy. In matters of the heart, hang on tight because you are in for an ever-changing ride. Don’t hold them to a time schedule as something can catch their eye and cause them to be late in a heartbeat.

Cancer

Cancer strengths are adaptability, loyalty, genuine attachment to a family, and empathy. Weaknesses of Cancer include moodiness, sensitivity, and emotional outbursts and indecisiveness. People assigned the sign of Cancer are genuinely moody and have ever changing emotions. One minute they may be laughing and having a good time and the next minute you may find them mad at the world. No one single emotion or personality can label a Cancer. Cancer will often masquerade their emotions with humor. Laughing is a common disguise used by Cancer to hide signs of depression. Cancer will set their aspirations high. Constant struggles for success and achievement lay beneath the exterior shell of Cancer.

Leo

Strengths of a Leo include kindness, big-heartedness, an energetic nature, optimism, honesty and loyalty. The weaknesses of a Leo are prone to jealousy, possessiveness, egotism or a more dominating personality. Leos dislike being bored and enjoy being around many people as they are at home playing the role of a leader. When Leos love, they love with all their hearts, and they take what they believe is theirs. They enjoy dishing out tons of advice and they expect that you should heed their advice as truth. The best way to tame the proud lion is to feed into their opinion of themselves. You can easily have the roaring lion eating out of the palm of your hand with kind words and praise. A Leo will tell it like it is – always. They have difficulty holding their tongues whether they are right or not. Leos will mean what they say and say what they mean. They speak their opinion whether you want to hear it or not so be prepared. Leo prospers most when in a loving relationship. You will rarely find a Leo alone. Leos automatically take on the leading role in a relationship even though they may complain now and again about having too much responsibility. They really do not feel that way they just growl now and again.

Virgo

Strengths of Virgo are perfectionist, realistic, practical, dependable, sincere and patient. Weaknesses of Virgo include being way too critical, restless, and they lack demonstrativeness and tend to push themselves too much. Virgo also tend to be quiet and family oriented people. Though you may notice a Virgo quietly off to the side, you can bet that he or she is simply taking in the details of every little thing. Virgos do not often put themselves in crowded situations, as they prefer to socialize one on one. Virgos are perfectionists meaning everything has its place. Virgos live in reality and seldom daydream. They take life for what it is and don’t set themselves up for disappointment. Virgos are workaholics and even in their work they expect and demand perfection from themselves. From their clothes to their homes, everything must be perfect. Much time is spent worrying about whether things are correct. Virgos are tidy and neat freaks. Dirt and sloppiness can cause a Virgo to offer a harsh tongue-lashing. A Virgo can also be a wonderful friend. Knowing what to say and when to say it is a trait most Virgos possess.

Libra

The strengths of a Libra are patience, balance, gregarious, loving, affectionate, cheerful, energetic and a social nature. Weaknesses of the Libra include indecisiveness, carelessness, prone to indulgence, and being overly emotional and sensitive. You will find a Libra to be extremely nice and polite. Libras love being around people and often serve as mediators between quarreling parties. A Libra will most always appear cheerful. Libras are very independent individuals and do not take orders well. Libras are intelligent and excellent listeners. They can also be naive and restless. Libras are often as confused as the people surrounding them by their wishy-washy traits. A Libra can bring laughter to the dreariest of circumstances. They are happiest when the people surrounding them are happy as well. They do not like for friends to be sad or upset. Libras take their time weighing pros and cons of a decision before committing one way or the other.

Scorpio

Strengths of the Scorpio include loyalty, trustworthiness, passionate, charismatic, mystifying, caring and patience. Weaknesses of Scorpio are stubbornness, becoming jealous easily, and being overly sensitive and egotistical. Scorpios have the ability to appear as though they are staring through people. Their gaze seems to penetrate the outer body and see directly into the soul. Scorpios have large egos and can stand on their own. Once they get something in their heads they can’t rest until they finish the task. Scorpios rarely let their emotions surface. They possess a sense of knowing when they are right and when they are wrong. Rarely will you notice a Scorpio playing bashful or shy. If you want an honest opinion about anything ask a Scorpio. Brutal honesty is a feature they cannot help but offer.Scorpios love with their complete hearts, but they have no tolerance for unfaithfulness. Questioning their own worth causes Scorpios to be very jealous and overly possessive especially in matters of the heart. They will stand beside the ones they love come what may, through thick and thin. You could not ask for a more loyal friend.

Sagittarius

Strengths of the Sagittarius include honesty, forthrightness, lightheartedness, intellectualism, and possession of excellent communication skills. Weaknesses of the Sagittarius are sharp tongue, prone to change, restlessness and a flirtatious nature. Sagittarius have a way with words like no other. They try to come across nice and friendly but normally end up hurting the feelings of others or just downright annoying others. They are not at all gifted with a talent for dishing out compliments. Most often compliments will come out more like insults and any attempts to correct misunderstandings are futile. Sagittarius are animal lovers and are most always the ones apt to take in homeless and stray animals that no one else would think about touching. They will nurture these outcasts back to health and prove they can be wonderful pets. Decisions of the heart take Sagittarius some time to make. They fall in love easily, but do not love lightly. A long internal struggle goes on inside the head of a Sagittarius before a decision related to commitment can be arrived at.

 

 

X Factor – The Unexpected Twist

canstockphoto2447238Every murder mystery must include an X Factor — the twist that heightens the suspense in the story and keeps it as unpredictable as possible.

Story twists should always come when the reader least expects them. Twists or surprises can be obstacles for the protagonists to overcome or temporary setbacks just as it looks like everything is going well.

Here are a few twists, surprises and curves I’ve come across over the years that could make great X Factors.

  • An unexpected discovery is made
  • Someone gets or delivers the wrong message
  • An urgent call is made, but the person who was to receive the call isn’t there
  • An inheritance comes unexpectedly
  • Help is refused sight, hearing or motion
  • Something of value had disappeared
  • A suspected enemy turns out to be a friend
  • The main suspect was being framed
  • The bluff is called
  • Parents interfere
  • A person thought to be dead is found to be alive
  • The suspected motive is shown to be false
  • An unexpected corpse shows up
  • There is no money in the account
  • An old wound is opened
  • The enemy discovers the plan
  • A man turns out to be a woman, or vice versa
  • Help that is expected and urgently needed doesn’t arrive
  • A traitor is present
  • Secret information is revealed
  • A letter arrives or is discovered that changes the course of events
  • The child is not waiting at the school
  • A trusted friend, lover, or coworker is not what he appeared to be
  • An unexpected invitation shows up
  • A witness comes forth
  • The car is stopped, but the wrong driver is behind the wheel
  • A suspect’s alibi turns out to be false
  • The wrong person shows up
  • A trusted character had lost a previous spouse under mysterious circumstances
  • Expected information doesn’t arrive or isn’t what was expected
  • A character suddenly loses
  • A character reveals that she is dying

Writer’s Block: Stuck on What’s Supposed to Happen Next

canstockphoto12444307For me, writer’s block hits for one real reason: I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen next. I generally have a clear outline, and I know I want to take the murder mystery from point “A” to point “C.” It’s “B” — or the murky middle — that either veers off path or writes itself into a corner. When this happens, I have to go back to that outline and take some time to plan.

One surefire tip I use to get back on path is to give the Protagonist a backseat and focus on another character. Returning to the outline, I pick a supporting character (often one of the key suspects) and plot out his story. What was he doing when the murder occurred? Where was he when the sleuth began the murder investigation? I take it scene by scene and explore what this character was doing. This will often reveal bridges from points where the narrative veers off path to the critical scenes that lead to the climax.

Plotting a supporting character’s story arc will hopefully develop into an exciting sub plot, one that leads the sleuth and the reader on a wild and bumpy ride away from the true murderer. However, if the supporting character’s story turns out to be just outline material, where very little of it is actually fleshed out and written into the story, that’s okay. It will still help strengthen the continuity of the mystery as a whole.

So, if like me you find yourself reluctant to to even think about your mystery novel, it could be you’re not thinking about it enough. Instead of forcing yourself to write the next scene, let the keyboard sit idle and invest thinking time in plotting a supporting character’s story. You may be surprised where it takes you.

The Ticking Clock: 25 Ideas to add Suspense to your Mystery

canstockphoto16299362Want to heighten the drama and suspense in your thriller? Then your story better have a ticking clock.

This element is used to increase the intensity of a situation that must be resolved within a given time.Time limits combined with various obstacles put additional pressure on the protagonist. If the goal is not accomplished within the time set by the clock, all will be lost. And it keeps the reader on the edge of her seat.

The following lists some ideas to add a ticking clock device to your story.

  1. The protagonist will lose a lover or loved one
  2. The patient will die
  3. A bomb will detonate
  4. A storm will arrive
  5. A collision will occur
  6. A person will commit suicide
  7. A terrible, irreversible mistake will take place
  8. A secret will be revealed
  9. A marriage will be torn asunder
  10. Oxygen will run out within an enclosed space
  11. Something important will be destroyed
  12. The only path home will be blocked
  13. An identity will be revealed
  14. A witness will be silenced
  15. A pet will be put down
  16. The wrong person will die or suffer a terrible fate
  17. A donor will not be found
  18. An innocent man will be put to death
  19. Someone will drown
  20. The bank will foreclose
  21. The plane, train or ship will depart
  22. A warning will not be received in time
  23. A fortune will be lost
  24. The enemy will attack
  25. The environment will be affected

 

Romantic Subplots: 20 ideas beyond Romeo & Juliet

canstockphoto4542744Granted, the focus of the mystery is, well, solving the murder. However, a romantic subplot can enrich your story, adding humor, tension, suspense and character development. In interwoven subplots, the outcome of the main story will in some way depend on the outcome of the subplot.

The following is a list of premises that can be interwoven into the main plot. When the idea is added to the basic formula “Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy gets Girl,” you can start to see how the plot would develop. There are endless variations on this theme and it’s as trite and mundane as your characters, plot, and resolution.

  1. An individual is in love with someone who doesn’t know the individual even exists
  2. Lovers are kept apart by external forces, such as disaster, family feud, misfortune, or war,
  3. Lovers are forced apart by a misunderstanding
  4. Lovers are separated because of another person’s deceit
  5. Two people with a similar weakness, addiction, losses find strength and love in one another
  6. Two people from different worlds, cultures, classes, positions, politics, religions, or nationalities find themselves attracted to each other
  7. A person falls in love with someone who is secretly terminally ill
  8. An individual is forced to marry someone he doesn’t love to protect the person he does love
  9. Two people, each engaged/married to another person, fall in love
  10. Two competitors who initially dislike one another grow to harbor deep feelings for each other
  11. A couple who never considered themselves more than good friends discover their feelings run much deeper
  12. Two childhood sweethearts rediscover each other and rekindle that old spark
  13. An individual falls in love with someone who won’t commit because of having to hide a secret
  14. An employee falls in love with the boss, or vice versa
  15. A trusted friend, associate or investigator falls in love with the person he or she was hired to watch
  16. A divorced or separated couple discovers how much they really need or care for one another
  17. An individual falls in love with a photograph of another and seeks to find that person
  18. A young person falls in love with an older person, or vice versa
  19. A brief encounter occurs between two people who know their love can never be
  20. A loner is in love with his best friend’s girl

Obstacles: Road Blocks in your Hero’s Journey

canstockphoto1945689So your sleuth has a murder to solve. Unless you have a really boring story, the road to achieving that challenge will be blocked at every turn with danger, hardships, and difficulty. Those obstacles though are often what makes the story memorable — Indiana Jones running from a giant boulder comes to mind.

Obstacles aren’t always physical. Sometimes emotional and psychological obstacles make an effective barricade. Some stories offer a combination of those obstacles. Whatever the case, a strong plot gets the hero up the tree, throws rocks at him, then gets him back down again.

Here a few different types of obstacles and a few examples to get the creative juices flowing:

Obstacles caused when the Protagonist

  • has a fear to overcome
  • promises not to do or say something
  • makes a mistake
  • becomes a suspect
  • is pinned down by enemy fire

Obstacles caused when the Antagonist

  • starts a fire to inhibit progress
  • causes an explosion
  • takes a hostage

Obstacles caused when a secondary character

  • is unable to tell the truth
  • is unable to reveal critical information
  • makes a mistake
  • accidentally gets in the way
  • comes between the sleuth and something or someone
  • is a returning old lover
  • is a witness who disappears or is murdered

Obstacles caused by external influences

  • Bad weather hinders a search
  • Bad weather prevents an escape
  • Bad weather prevents the execution of a plan
  • An earthquake occurs
  • A vehicle breaks down
  • A vehicle runs out of gas
  • Innocent people are in the way
  • Transportation is unavailable
  • Evidence is destroyed or disappears
  • A weapon cannot be used
  • Ammunition has run out
  • Supplies have run out
  • A bridge is washed out
  • The road is out

 

Great Escape: Getting your Sleuth safely out of the frying pan

canstockphoto8952588A suspenseful, page-turner guarantees that, at some point, the sleuth is going to land in a precarious situation, where there’s seemingly no way out, failure is imminent, and the bad guy has won. It’s a crucial plot beat, and one that has a structure just like the larger plot as a whole.

The sleuth’s peril and great escape generally has three parts.

  1. The first phase is set-up: the information, experience or resources that will be used later for The Great Escape is planted into the story. The Sleuth (or additional character caught-up in the trap) is given the keys, was a chemist major, had a father who taught her how to fly a plane, was a great white shark tamer in a previous life, whatever. The set-up must be a natural part of the plot or characteristic so it doesn’t raise suspicion with the reader.
  2. In the second phase, the sleuth is generally tricked or falls into a trap, and is confined against her will. Here, the sleuth is the victim, and the consequences of the imprisonment are realized by the sleuth and the reader alike: there is a danger of injury or death, a goal will fail, a possession will be lost. something won’t be delivered in time, etc.
  3. The third phase provides the great escape. The sleuth relies on the information, experience, or resources planted into the story earlier provide the solution to freedom.