Building a Mystery

Power of Words

The Power of Words by Antonio Litterio

Recently I was asked about my drafting process, so I thought I’d share a bit about it here on my blog.

My drafting strategy has changed over time, and I won’t be surprised if it continues to evolve as I write more books in the future. When I first started writing novels, I was a complete panster. In other words, I’d start writing without doing any plotting or planning beforehand. That didn’t work out so well for me though. I’d end up with a weak plot that sometimes dwindled off into nothing as I wrote myself into a dead-end.

When I wrote my first mystery, Dead Ringer (which was my fourth novel), I did a bit of planning before writing, but not a whole lot. That strategy worked at the time, but when I approached my next mystery in the same fashion, the results weren’t so great. I ended up with a manuscript that was way too short and had to spend a lot of time and effort reworking it into a full-length story.

Since that experience, I’ve been doing a lot more planning before starting to write, and so far I’m finding that it makes my life easier. I’m not the kind of person who can plan out the entire story before drafting, with every scene outlined in detail, but I do like to have a framework to build on, especially for mysteries, which can get confusing with all the suspects, clues, and red herrings involved.

When preparing to write a mystery, I now start out by planning the basics. I come up with the killer, the victim(s), the motive, and the means. Once I know those elements, I make a list of suspects, people who have a reason to want the victim dead. I also include each suspect’s apparent motive. Then I move on to listing the things that each suspect will do or the information the main character will find out about them that makes that person seem guilty. Sometimes I’ll also make a note of what could end up exonerating that suspect in the end.

I assign each character a colour and then merge all the suspect notes into a timeline so I have a general idea of which events will occur in which order and when the main character will discover each piece of information. That timeline usually changes along the way, but it at least gives me something to work with. The colour coding helps me to see how the things related to each suspect will be distributed throughout the story, and also makes it obvious if one character needs more added to his or her part of the plot.

Once all that is done, I write a basic outline for the first two or three chapters, and then I start writing. Generally, I’ll outline between two and five chapters at a time. That allows me to have some direction while also letting the story take me places I couldn’t have anticipated beforehand.

So while I do work with an outline, that outline changes and evolves along the way. I guess that puts me somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between a plotter and a pantster. Probably a little closer to the plotter side now, which is proving valuable in my current circumstances. Now that I have deadlines to meet, I find it far less stressful to end up with a relatively strong plot at the end of the first draft, rather than having to spend weeks later on revising substantial parts of the structure of the story. Of course, that’s just what works best for me. Every writer is different, after all. 🙂

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3 Comments

  1. March 29, 2016 at 8:18 am

    This is fascinating! Thank you for sharing. (And I had no idea DEAD RINGER was the 4th novel you’d written). It makes sense to think through the basics first, especially with a mystery. I’ve never tried outlining as I go but it definitely seems to be working for you! Yay!

  2. May 11, 2016 at 2:17 pm

    […] often asked about the process of taking a book from a first draft to a published novel. In a previous post I talked about my drafting process, how I go from concept to manuscript, particularly when writing mysteries. This time I thought […]


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