I'll let you in on a little secret:
The reason I started writing mysteries with a western twist wasn't because I used to watch that many westerns. It was because I happened to be watching a particular western which was in reruns on TV Land, when I finally figured out how to plot a mystery.
The problem I'd had up to that point is that I tried to write mysteries the way I read them: You just start telling this story and let all these mysterious clues mount up and.... uh, then you get stuck.
I was pondering Agatha Christie and couldn't quite figure out how she managed to turn the story upside down with a revelation, and then flip it around with another, and then send it spinning off into space at the end. And I got the idea of the revelations. What I didn't get was how to handle the front story -- that is, how they worked together.
And what was playing on my TV in the background but... Maverick. You know that old slightly silly western staring James Garner (and sometimes Jack Kelly and/or James Bond... I mean Roger Moore). It pushed it's way into my consciousness, and I realized. OMG! That holds all the answers!
You see Maverick had a kind of pattern to the plot -- at least the ones with James Garner.
Act 1: Maverick would ride into town with a purpose. He'd be looking for an old friend who owed him money which he needed to get into a high-stakes poker game, or something like that. And there would be stuff going on, but he didn't give a rip, because he was James Garner. Eye rolling was sufficient reaction to even the worst disaster that might happen to somebody else.
But something would prevent him from doing what he wanted. So he'd work out a deal with someone who could help him, and.... just before the ad break he'd discover that someone had lied to him, and he'd find himself with a handful of trouble instead of the money he was owed.
Act 2: So, Maverick would change his course to suit what he now knew was the truth, and he'd go after his money/friend/whatever with renewed vigor. He'd overcome some obstacles and usually ignore a few weird things going on (because he didn't care), but by golly, by the end of the second act, he'd find out he'd been told another lie. A bigger lie! And he'd find he was in trouble.
Act 3: Okay, now Maverick is pissed off. He breaks some noses, cuts through some crap, and stomps his way to the truth, just in time to find out.... yep. There was yet another layer of lies, and now, all of a sudden, he was in really Deep Doo Doo. I mean, no-water-in-the-desert-while-a-lynch-mob-hunts-you deep trouble.
Act 4: And now, knowing the truth, Maverick is able to put his disinterested but really quite agile brain to good use, and also really kick some ass of the people who pulled the wool over his eyes, and resolve both the mystery and his own problem.
What I've just described is a pretty standard pulp formula - only here played for laughs most of the time. As a matter of fact, recently I was reading through Lester Dent's famous Master Plot for pulp short stories.
Dent's formula starts thusly: "...introduce the hero and swat him with a fistful of trouble...the hero pitches in to cope with this fistful of trouble... near the end of the (first act) there is a complete surprise twist...." Next act is to shovel more grief on the hero, he struggles, another surprising twist, and this happens again, until the hero "really gets it in the neck bad" and is buried in trouble... and he digs himself out.
I laughed when I first read this, because it is so much like the pattern I noticed in Maverick. And for that matter the part about the twists at the end of every act is a lot like Christie.
But this isn't a mystery plot, it's an adventure plot -- specifically a men's pulp adventure plot. Nothing to do with little old lady detectives and clues left among the daisies and lying butlers (well, except for the lying part.)
So how did this help me with mystery plotting?
It told me what the front story is. It told me how you handle what's going on when you are hiding what's really going on.
The front story is that the protagonist thinks he knows what's going on, and he is acting on that.
It is not a case of the protagonist knowing nothing and then slowly and gradually gathering evidence until he knows everything. No.
A mystery -- and any kind of story based on investigation (even historian stories) -- is about theories. The character believes something, and he acts on his beliefs. When obstacles are thrown in his path, he may dodge, but he doesn't actually change course until something big at the end of each act proves to him that his basic theory is wrong.
Yes, sure, he's learning stuff all along between those big revelations, but everything he learns he fits into his existing theory. He believes the pretty lady is in distress. All the clues seem to be about who is menacing her. Then Maverick learns that the pretty lady actually isn't in distress at all, she's a thief. Then all of a sudden, all the clues have a different meaning. He moves into the second act with a whole different understanding of what's going on.
So now, when I sit down and try to figure out a plot, the question I ask myself is not "what's the truth behind these lies?" but "where is the protagonist going, and what will be the big thing that changes that direction?"
The Graceful Arc of the Story
In spite of what I learned from Maverick and Lester Dent, however, I really think that stories have a natural progression that is more than just "it gets worse" or "the protag changes direction."
I love the four-act plot structure. I really think it follows a psychological pattern, where each act has a flavor all it's own. It progresses like a human progresses through the psychological stages of grief.
But that I will leave until January, when I'll start in on a series of posts and games related to plotting. I don't know exactly how many posts -- probably an introduction, and a separate post about each of the four acts and their special character. I don't know if I'm going to do separate posts for playing plotting games. We'll see when we get there.
In the meantime, I'll do a few sporatic posts during December, but we won't get back to anything major until January.
(Oh, and watch Sunday for a book announcement. I found a romantic little holiday short story in my files about Jackie and Mary Alwyn -- of The Wife of Freedom. It's a lot of fun and I hope to have it polished and uploaded before the weekend is done.)
See you in the funny papers.