It is week twenty-one of 2019. How’s the writing coming along? A dear friend summoned the courage this week to show me a piece of writing that is trying to become something. She’s not sure exactly what kind of story she is telling or even who the narrator is yet, but I could see the promise – the authentic emotion, some vivid turns of phrase – shimmering behind the words. I told her to keep going, and that’s what I say to you too. Keep writing. Find the time, find the energy, find the words. See your story through.
Now, on to this week’s book, How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey. (This James Frey is the Edgar-nominated mystery writer, not the author of the controversial memoir/novel A Million Little Pieces.) To be completely honest, I picked this book because I was curious to see whether Frey addressed the literary fiction / genre fiction dichotomy I saw in last week’s book, Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction.
It didn’t take me long to find it. In chapter 2, Frey discusses throwing out the “dumbos” who show up in his mystery-writing classes because they’ve failed at writing literary fiction and want to try something they think is easier. “Most alleged literary novels,” Frey instructs us, “aren’t even novels at all, because they don’t tell a story. What they do is depress the reader for, oh, about three hundred pages, then the writer mercifully kills off the main character at the end. This proves what? Life sucks, then you die. How very dreary.” Okay then.
My hunch is that Burroway hasn’t read much genre fiction and Frey hasn’t read much literary fiction. I’d urge you not to make the same mistake. As Jane Smiley reminded us, the job of every novelist is “to develop a theory of how it feels to be alive.” Romance writers and thriller writers and literary fiction writers are all pursuing this same goal. Take a look and see what you can learn from them. Read everything. And then follow this advice from Frey: “Write what you like to read.” I think Burroway would agree.
Let’s move on to what Frey has to tell us about writing a novel. His advice is different in tone and structure from Burroway’s, but they agree about the fundamental building blocks of good fiction. Like Burroway, Frey discusses how to create compelling characters, how to build a sound plot, how to shape a dynamic scene, and how to write good prose. On this last point, Frey reminds us to use not just all five senses (sight, smell, sound, touch, taste), but also our characters’ sixth “psychic” sense – their intuitions about other characters.
Frey is firmly in the plotting camp, disliking the “reams of pages that eventually go into the recycle bin” that is the frequent result of the pantsing method. In place of what a pantser might call an exploratory draft, Frey recommends writing complete biographies of major characters (including their physiology, sociology, and psychology), as well as writing journal entries from their points of view in order to further define their personalities, motives, and voices.
Once you have worked through all of these preliminaries, you are ready to begin plotting. For mysteries, Frey makes the excellent point that it is the murderer who is the “author of the plot behind the plot” and that it is the murderer’s motive that is the engine of the novel. He starts by writing out a summary of that plot, working out why and how the murder was committed, before starting his “stepsheet,” which is like a step-by-step breakdown of the plot. For mysteries, Frey advises creating separate sections that follow what the reader will see and what is happening “off-stage,” in order to keep all of the pieces straight.
Frey walks us through a five-act plot structure that mirrors the stages of the classic hero’s journey:
Act I: Tells How the Hero/Detective Accepts the Mission to Find the Murderer
Act II: Tells How the Hero/Detective Is Tested and Changes, and, in the Pivotal Scene, Dies and Is Reborn
Act III: Tells How the Hero/Detective Is Tested Again and Finally Succeeds
Act IV: Tells How the Hero/Detective Traps the Murderer
Act V: Tells How the Events of the Story Impact the Major Characters
Frey believes that if you have taken the time to create complex characters, whose psychology and motivations you understand, that you can simply drop them into the plot and let them create the story: “Let your characters do the work. Think of what they will do, what they want, what is clever and resourceful for them to do, and if you have created dynamic characters, you will have a dynamic plot.”
My favorite aspect of Damn Good Mystery is that we get to see Frey do just this. He creates a mystery plot from scratch, starting from the seed of an idea about a setting in Montana. We see him create his characters, refine and expand and fine-tune them, and then we see him work through his stepsheet, act by act, with his notes about why he is making certain choices. Similarly, we get to see him in the act of revision, showing us progressive versions of scenes.
Remember Burroway’s helpful advice about using sequential and circumstantial summary? Frey also has excellent advice on this front, showing us the difference between summary and dramatic narrative:
Summary: “Shakti spent the afternoon knocking on doors all up and down Main Street, asking everyone she met if they knew a man named Swift. No one admitted that they did. By evening, she was tired, and went back to her hotel and prayed and meditated till past nine, then went to bed.”
Dramatic narrative: “Shakti began canvassing the town, desperate to find this “Swifty” person. About noon, just as there was a break in the snowstorm, the sun burst through the clouds, making North of Nowhere sparkle under a heavy blanket of snow. Shakti worked her way north, stopping first at the hardware store and asking the moon-faced clerk, who shook his head blankly, and an old ranchhand with a corncob pipe, who said he never did hear of the man, and a man with dark features wearing a hunting jacket, who told her to leave town. She covered the west side of Main and started back, her feet frozen in her unlined boots. More clouds were moving into the valley in the afternoon—dark clouds, meaning there’d be more snow by morning…”
The dramatic narrative version puts readers into the scene, providing sensory details that fill out the setting, cue a mood, and reveal the psychology of major and minor characters. Frey also demonstrates how to work a tiny piece of a scene – a snippet of dialogue or a quick action sequence – into the midst of a dramatic narrative, an advanced technique that can help you cover a lot of ground in your plot while keeping readers engaged.
Frey also suggests a writing exercise that might be useful for those of you who are still scratching around an idea. He suggests literally typing out, word for word, a scene from the work of a writer whose prose you admire. Then write a similar scene, trying to capture the same style. Keep doing this, imitating various styles and voices, Frey says, and “you’ll soon discover that your own, individual, distinctive styles will emerge, styles suited to your personality and to the particular story you are writing, styles unlike any of the styles you’ve been imitating.”
If you decide to give it a try, I’d love to see what you come up with. But whatever you do, put down some words this week. How about today? How about right now? Draft a character bio or a little scene in a note-taking app on your phone. Go out on the front steps or the back porch or to a bench in the park with a notebook and a cold beverage (may I suggest a Bitter White Lady?) and see what happens.
Here’s to seeing your story through, y’all,
Next week’s book: Janice Hardy, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft