It’s a Mystery to Me
I’ve had a few of my SF/F books veer off into the mystery genre before, but they weren’t what you’d call “well crafted.” Fortunately, I’ve read enough mysteries that my subconscious had a good grasp of framework so I didn’t make a complete hash of it.
But now I’m trying to do it on purpose, and I’m finding it heavy going.
I mean, going around questioning people? Okay, my MC is pretty social and could get people chatting but even so, having (1) zero police authority to investigate (2) a suspected crime (long term, well-established, espionage network) means she’s going to have trouble asking the right questions without some undetermined number of people deciding to kill her. Heck, I’m looking forward the Enemy agents trying.
And she’s busy. A University Professor with a baby who’s about to become a toddler.
So my problems are (1) Weaving her daily routine into figuring out _if_ the problems she’s running into are deliberate sabotage by a foreign agent, or whether it’s pure stupidity. (2) Then starting to winnow through the suspects.
And . . . it feels flat. And I just figured out why. All the suspects are cardboard jerks. I need to both make them into real people, and I need to make at least one of them into a friend, someone she really, really, doesn’t want to suspect.
So I’ll need to back engineer that. And . . . eight suspects is going to get tedious. I think I’ll drop a couple, eliminate a couple. Surely four or five people who are credible perps are enough to investigate. Right?
I’m by nature a pantser, and this planning ahead and doing things consciously is unnatural and awkward. It looks like my method on this book is going to be pantsing away full stream for several chapters, then stopping dead and see what I’ve been doing wrong and fix it. Take a good look at where I’m headed, then put on the blindfold and start running again.
Hopefully not off a cliff!
I’ve never mapped a mystery against the Hero’s Journey, but I may have to give it try this time. Hmm . . . find three objects, or three people . . . it might actually work.
For those unfamiliar with it, this is the version I use:
(1) Start in the ordinary world. This establishes what your hero’s life is like, before the adventure. Often, these days, stories open with an action sequence to hook the reader, then show the more normal life. Think about the opening of most James Bond films. Most of them are not _just_ a fantastic action scene, but help set up the main story problem.
(3) Refusal of call. The character refuses the call or hesitates to go. This is sometimes short or even implied. “I can’t go to Mos Eisley!”
(4) Meeting with the guide. This is not necessarily a guide. Some processes call him a mentor. Think Merlin to Arthur. Gandalf, Obi Wan . . . they tend toward short lifespans, as the Hero needs to take over and be the leader.
(5) Crossing the Threshold. “Uncle Owen? Aunt Beru?” There’s no going back now.
(6) Tests, Allies, Enemies . This varies with the novel, but think of the fairy tale. The character meets with three people. Each of them gives him or her something that can be used on the journey, or teaches him a skill he will need. You get the point. Send your character to school, hand him a magic sword or BFG 3000, have him find companions, vehicles, whatever your story requires for the MC to win.
(7) Try-fail sequences. At least three for a novel, some of the low points being caused by the previous attempts. Interleaving these with the acquiring of allies, skills, knowledge and equipment is useful.
(8) Approach to the inner-most cave—the black moment—the nadir—the “mirror moment”—the realization—the reimagining—the commitment. Call it what you will. Your character needs to emotionally crash, then come out of it energized and determined.
(9) The TEST. This is the greatest battle. The biggest love trial. Whatever. This is where your character is put through the white hot furnace and melts or not. What the trial is has been set since the beginning – the meeting with the villain, the crossing of the perilous chasm. The hero wins, story over . . . except if you do end it immediately the reader will be upset. A gradual let down is needed.
(10) Reward. Show what the hero gets out of it, immediately. Freedom, money, kiss, whatever. The awkward version is the end of the first Star Wars movie. Try for something more emotionally satisfying than an awards ceremony.
(11) Return to the new normal. This can be going home—or not. Or a marriage proposal. Or goodbyes. It needs to show the development the characters have gone through, how they adjust. Give the reader a glimpse of the future.
(12) And sometimes, the refusal of the return. The character isn’t ready to go back to the ordinary world. This can inspire your readers to reach for something beyond the ordinary.
Or it may be a sign that you have a series on your hands.
I can see where (6) and (7) are going to work pretty good for a mystery.
The Guide? Got him. Not going to kill him, though. But duty can call him away, for long enough that the MC solves the mystery herself.
Okay, maybe I can write a mystery after all.
Now I just need to pump up some characters and make one suspect a good friend.
And my first “Wait! How did this turn into a mystery? Book: