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How do you plan the perfect crime?
CY Reid
Posted: Monday, May 9, 2011 11:08 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 52

Thinking this morning about a story I'd originally planned out as a graphic novel, I decided that when the time came for planning and preparation, I'd need a list of the various clues that would lead towards the culprit. I've never written mystery before, and it's a little mind-boggling given the seemingly immense complexity of a good whodunnit.

My initial plan was simply to chart the clues, as I've said, and then plan my plot beats around each of them in sequence, ending with the final lead that would tell my MC who their prime suspect should have been from the start.

I was wondering how the BookCountry mystery-heads plan their crimes and the breadcrumb trail of clues, as I'd like to learn about the various different approaches and if there are any in particular that are more effective than the rather basic one I've talked about here. So, BookCountrians - how do you plan the perfect crime?

Trailer Bride
Posted: Tuesday, May 10, 2011 10:45 PM
Joined: 5/8/2011
Posts: 31

That seems like a decent approach. But from my perspective, the perfect crime is one you get away with
CY Reid
Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 8:54 AM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 52

Damn, that's a valid point. That'd be a terrible book, unless it was something along the lines of Ocean's Eleven.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 7:15 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

If you are going to plan the crime itself out, do it right.

Is the crime intentional? Then first, plan out the crime from the criminal's point of view. what did they want to do, what research did they do. how did they prepare? what chain of events did they do hile doing the crime? that may also tell you a few places they may have left clues.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Sunday, May 15, 2011 3:08 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

I don't write mystery. Not out of any particular dislike for the genre, I'll read it if one's handed to me, but more because I haven't had one pop into my head. That said, I do have a lot of mysteries in what I write. I would say you desperately need three things of note.

One - you need red herrings. Some things seem like clues, but they're entirely innocuous. If you reveal them to be red herrings significantly after their introduction, it can completely change the landscape of the mystery. I read somewhere once that proper clue to herring ratio is 2:1, but that might be overdoing it. As a side note, making clues *seem* like red herrings is also a good way to muddy the waters.

Two - If it's not a crime of passion, remember Sherlock's comment about the man who commits the crime then does *nothing*. A lot of criminals are caught not because of what they did during the crime, but because of what they did after the fact to try and hide it.

Three - At all costs, avoid the deus ex. Nothing pisses me off more than some piece of information that was completely hidden from the audience until the final reveal. It doesn't make the detective look like a genius, it makes the author look... Well, I shan't use those words here. The goal is 'surprising yet inevitable'.

Also, keep in mind that you're not writing a crime; you're writing a story *about* a crime. You can't plan for a random stranger to be completely unwilling to reveal her alibi because she's having an affair with her hairstylist, and neither of their husbands know about it, but that kind of thing can really mess up an investigation.
Posted: Wednesday, May 18, 2011 3:55 AM
Joined: 5/18/2011
Posts: 1

I like your approach, especially for a graphic novel that could use more of a storyboard approach.

From my own experience, and it's not published experience, I've found that I started with a basic idea of the crimes (my story has multiple murders), where I wanted to end up, then just started writing. Once I got past the dreaded "how do I start this thing?" and got more into the meat of the story, the characters kind of took over the story a little bit, and things changed.

Some of what I had planned originally either didn't fit with the details I had added in there, or it was out of character, since I was learning more about the characters as I went along.

Just don't be afraid to let something change along the way if you need to. Sometimes square stories don't fit into round bookshelves.

Hope this helps.
Faith Black
Posted: Wednesday, May 18, 2011 9:17 PM
Joined: 3/8/2011
Posts: 2

As a mystery reader, and editor, a few things I find important that are worth thinking about. Robert mentioned red herrings, and yes they are super important and good to have. But unlike potato chips, diamonds, and handsome men, you CAN have too many red herrings. Too many clues thrown in purely to distract the reader from what's actually going on just gets distracting and they're really hard to keep track of. You need a few to throw the reader off and keep them guessing but not so many that everyone gets confused.

Also, be careful not to tie things up too quickly at the end. If we've spent 350 pages reading and then everything gets all tied up in a neat bow in 5 pages, it will feel very dissatisfying to the reader.

And I second the plea to avoid the deus ex machina. That's never a satisfying way to wrap up a mystery and inevitably ends up seeming like a copout.
Robert C Roman
Posted: Thursday, May 19, 2011 7:49 PM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

@Faith - there's probably some 'golden ratio' of legit clues to red herrings. Like I said, I read 2:1, but that seems rather fishy to me.

Another thought would be reverse red herrings; clues that are disproved, but it's the disproving that's the red herring.
CY Reid
Posted: Monday, May 23, 2011 8:56 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 52

It's fantastic to hear from people who are all so knowledgeable about the art of crime-crafting. My intention was to outline the truth, and chart who knows what, the pieces of evidence, and who's guilty of what and why. Then taking that, to transport it over to the narrative area of my brain and begin working out which parts go where.

Personally, on the subject of red herrings I personally feel that any number higher than two or three would get frustrating. One is ideal for me, as a reader.

Robert: I love your four rules, and they're something I'll work to when writing this story. I would ask you to expand on the third rule, however. When you say "surprising yet inevitable," it makes me think of those secretly villainous characters that are, in retrospect, inevitably going to expose themselves as evil, but I don't think that's quite what you mean. If I can nail that three-word concept, I might have a snowball's chance in hell of getting this mystery thing down.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Thursday, May 26, 2011 5:45 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 416

I really think a great show to watch in terms of red herrings, and things that have NOTHING to do with the crime getting in the way, is Castle. Well written show.
CY Reid
Posted: Friday, May 27, 2011 9:41 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 52

Castle is indeed a fantastic show, and really does exemplify how well that sort of narrative can play out. That, and Nathan Fillion is in it, which instantly +100s the entire thing.
Posted: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 6:25 PM
Joined: 5/4/2011
Posts: 20

Heard a mystery writer say anytime he's in trouble, he just murders the main suspect and goes from there. In his first drafts, there's bodies everywhere. Went on to say that oftentimes he doesn't know the truth until the end. It's a good way to keep the mystery fresh vs. outlining it all from the beginning. Then, in the rewrites he cleans it up, adds some clues and tones down all the murders. Don't know if this works for you, but he's been on NY Times bestseller list.
Ian Simpson
Posted: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 9:31 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 6

I also know a much-published mystery writer who is prepared to change her original plan as the book develops. That might include the identity of the killer. If you have a good mystery, there have to be plausible suspects, and you might find that suspect A, your original murderer, sticks out like a sore thumb, practically wearing a 'It wis me!' sign round their neck. If that happens to you, best have suspect B emerge as the killer.
CY Reid
Posted: Thursday, June 2, 2011 6:46 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 52

My plans tend to change as the book develops too; I'm very free-form with my plotting and tend to let events and narrative arcs develop by themselves during the first draft. I think your mystery writer has a good idea, Drake, but I can't help but wonder if that would make all of their novels somewhat similar in terms of twists.

Here's a thought: the idea I'm developing hinges on the fact that, out of everyone in his environment, my protagonist is the least powerful, but his reputation as an embodiment of the law is either respected or grudgingly accepted.

If almost everyone looks down on him because of who he is, and what he represents, it feels like he'll have to find a lot of alternative methods for getting his information out of them. He has to be 100% honest, and never willing to break the law to take someone down, but at the same time, almost no one wants to help him - he also happens to be the only figure of justice in the entire city. Does this feel like a worthy protagonist to you, if the majority of what he'll be operating on is previous experience and hunches, because evidence and testimony is so scarce?
Robert C Roman
Posted: Tuesday, June 7, 2011 11:28 AM
Joined: 3/12/2011
Posts: 383

@CY - I don't generally go in for detectives who work entirely on experience and hunches. It's not that I discount either, but too many of the stories I've seen with those have no basis for *why* the protagonist knows what he knows other than 'intuition', which can usually be read as 'author needs him to know'.

That said, I think it can work if you're very careful to only ever have the protagonist make leaps based on what he knows, especially if he then does a 'why do I think this?' retrospective. He would almost have to follow a 'find the dead space' method of crime solving, where he finds the phase space of the solution by constructing the phase space of everything that *isn't* the solution, i.e. stuff people will tell him because it doesn't matter.

Other than the potential for unjustified leaps of intuition, I'd say the character sounds very interesting. It also sounds like it might pay for him to be part old-school confidence man. Not in the 'lying to people' sense, but in the 'Trust me, I'm a *good* guy' sense. Only in this case, he actually *is* a good guy. The kind of person people say "you know, if you weren't The Cop, It would be cool to hang with you, but..." Charismatic.

Also, to comment on 'surprising yet inevitable', the idea is that when you do the reveal, the optimum reader reaction is the reaction I had when first viewing 'Sixth Sense' - I *knew* five minutes into the movie what the twist was, but by the end, I'd completely forgotten it, to the point where it shocked me. You want your reader to go "He *told* me that, and I didn't *get* it." In the case of the hidden evil character, you need to have all the clues in place that point to the hidden evil, but have the hidden evil be so well hidden that no one can buy it.

It works even better, even as it edges into horror, if the hidden evil character isn't actually evil per se, but has a worldview that either allows their evil action, or in fact mandates their evil actions in order to promote a greater good. Forex - a fundamentalist religious character who is polite, kind, and (supposedly) helpful to your 'Cop', because he's an authority figure and the relition says to respect authority. When faced with 'YOU did this!', they smile sweetly and say 'well, yes, of course I did, they were an abomination unto my god'. No rancor, no fury, no *guilt*, just calm acceptance.
Toni Wyatt
Posted: Thursday, June 9, 2011 3:42 PM
Joined: 4/26/2011
Posts: 53

I love Castle! One of the reasons I enjoy it is because of the writing. It's a smart show. I'd love to pick their writers' brains!

As a reader, what I enjoy about mysteries is being surprised at the end in a way that makes sense. The worst thing is having a Scooby-Do ending. The ending that is completely obvious and poses no challenge, or the ending that throws the perpetrator in at the last minute, never having given the reader a chance to play along.

As a writer, I try to have a few characters with enough motive and opportunity to make it a guessing game. I want the reader to be satisfied in the end, but also have the...whoa factor, and to feel they were kept guessing. I'm still working on it ; )
Posted: Saturday, July 30, 2011 8:38 PM
Joined: 7/16/2011
Posts: 2

I'm sorry. It looks like most of the respondents got away from the question asked: how do you plan the perfect crime. I think you do so by specifying the crime (A shoots B with a silenced rifle from 1/4 mile away). Then you start looking for things that can go wrong, clues that might be left, witnesses, etc. If it's to be a perfect crime, you'll need to eliminate all the things that can go wrong (picks a weekend evening when no one is around to witness), eliminate clues (Polices his brass, wipes down anything he may have touched, etc.) I usually ask a couple of friends what might go wrong or how they'd catch my killer. That often closes some gaping hole I left.
Dave McClure
Posted: Thursday, November 17, 2011 8:10 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 21

It's interesting, because I spent most of my first book trying to "plot" the mystery, and all I did was tie myself in knots.  Then I read a quote from Ray Bradbury, who said he never created the story.  He created the hero, and let the hero reveal the story to him.  I like that, and follow it now.  I begin with a "What if...?"  Such as, what if now, after all of these years, a deathbed confession suggests who really killed John F. Kennedy.  What would happen to the person who is caught in the middle?  (South River.)
Or, what would happen if the Civil War battle at Cross keys and the marauder John S. Mosby were the keys to a conspiracy and murders today?  (Cross Keys.)  Interestingly, I was half way through Cross Keys when I realized I had it all wrong, and had to start over to tell it the way it was supposed to be.
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, June 25, 2012 12:13 PM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 356

Bumping this up for newer members to see.

Michael R Hagan
Posted: Friday, November 30, 2012 12:48 PM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

I'm a new member, but I'm not going to contribute here. Having read the question and seen what a scary looking fellow you are, I'd be concerned about this topic of research.......... Would it be art imitating life, or life imitating art?

G'luck with the book!


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