Plotting a Murder Mystery

April 7, 2012

My husband is a contemporary American screenwriter whose work hinges on plot, inciting incidents, act 1 and act 2 (sometimes an act 3 or 4), character arc, dialogue, setting and, most importantly, budget. I have written two screen treatments with him based on the real-life stories of women I interviewed for magazines. Not understanding whatsoever how to make a play, much less a screenplay, I took a one-day immersion course with Robert McKee, a Hollywood type, who has—in true Hollywood fashion—become a celebrity. The wannabe screenwriters—which included a handful of actor/celebrities—sat in the audience and listened to McKee pontificate about how a screen play is made. If someone dared to raise their hand with a question, he abused them verbally. How stupid can you/we be? I suppose this made him feel much better about his own wannabe screenwriting career though, by then, he’d made a sweet fortune on his workshops. I almost left mid-way through the day except that I had heard that the best part of the class was the parsing of “Casablanca”—the entire film—at the end of the day and I couldn’t miss that. Such a gem of a film.

Thus immersed in the art and craft of screenwriting, I set to work with Jim, my contemporary American screenwriter husband, whose visual screenwriter sense is so acute that he never forgets a face or what he has read, paragraph by paragraph, or what a room looked like before a renovation.

Our task was to adapt the articles for made-for-TV movies in the form of screen treatments written in the third person present tense. It’s an odd form and I didn’t like it. So I sent my ideas via email in whatever person and tense I chose leaving Jim to craft the treatment. We didn’t have to worry about plot or character because those were ready-made in the articles I had written. The treatments all made sense, we thought, and were submitted and optioned, but never produced. Such is the writing life of the contemporary American screenwriter.

Fast forward to my first murder mystery, “Say Nothing,” based on a real life story that came to me by chance one summer day. A young man had disappeared. I knew his mother and her suffering was indescribable, intensified when her son’s body washed up on the shores of the Hudson. I thought, at first, that I’d write an article about a parent whose child has disappeared, but the accidental death or the killing—it has never been determined—remains unsolved, even more difficult for the grieving parents, and though I didn’t want to intrude in any way, it had given me an idea for a fictional story based on these events. The writing seemed to be the only way I could process this woman’s suffering, which had touched me deeply. And so I wrote my first murder mystery.

Once again, I didn’t have to worry too much about plot because I had a beginning and a scaffold of sorts. The rest was pure imagination, a challenge to write, but pleasurable also. My agent didn’t think it was ready for submission, and it wasn’t, but I wanted to go to print so my extremely elderly mother could see it, and self-published it. My agent then suggested I make certain changes, re-work it, refine it, re-title it, change the protagonist/detective, and so on, which I duly did. (When an agent suggests, the writer complies.) She then submitted the brand new version which has received plaudits from a host of editors with one serious caveat: the book is plot challenged. That was surprising given the scaffold I had started with but, then again, it had become a work of the imagination.

Oh dear, what to do? How about starting a new book, my agent suggested. The editors love the way you write, the characters are well drawn, so is the setting, but you need to figure out the plot before you begin to write. They want to see something else, she continued. If they like this second one, they may publish the first one.

So I looked through my journals and came up with an idea for a second murder mystery. And, typically, I ignored my agent’s advice and my husband’s advice, and started writing before I had figured out what happens in the story. I had no outline, no anything, just a character and an inciting incident. Isn’t this the way I write literary fiction? Isn’t this the way I report when I am “doing” journalism? Well, yes. But it doesn’t work for a murder mystery which, it turns out, is more akin to writing a screen treatment. And so, before long, I was caught in a maze, dead-ended like the Minotaur in Crete, and so confused and distraught that I had to take a nap one day and walk for hours and hours in the park when I woke up.

My husband said, “Let me help you develop a plot.”

So, the other night, we went out to dinner with pad and pen and sat for three hours talking plot. I have to say he was brilliant. I felt the gates open and the story loosen. I was on my way again.

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