Friday, February 14, 2014

Story Game - Generating a Mystery Story

The Mystery/Whodunnit Game is a variation of the Situation Game -- in that it focuses on creating a situation and cast of characters for a story. That is, what the situation is at the beginning of the story and the forces that will drive the story forward.

Two differences: Mysteries, unlike classic suspense, tend to be series fiction, and so this formula does not include the series elements -- in particular, no hero or heroine.  No protagonist.  That should already be set by the series itself.  The other is that I may experiment with my first plot wheel for this game.  (However, I'll get to that on a later day.)

The Assumption of Series

I've made three assumptions in creating this game.  I made these assumptions because... well, that's what's useful to me right now. 

1.) You've already developed your series.  You know who your protagonist(s) are and their relationships with other characters, and you know the location, etc.  You know the flavor and themes of the story.  You may or may not have written books in this series. (I may come up with a "Series Generation Game" later. For now you'll just have to make do.  Hey, write fanfic of your favorite mystery series.)

2.) The goal is to make this a long series.  This game is meant to come up with lots of classic mystery puzzles/plots.  (It still might help you if you are going to do only one or two stories -- but my point in creating it is to speed along the puzzle end of the story.)

3.) You already have an idea that you want to flesh out.

Start With an Idea

In my case, right now, I have an opening scene with no story. It has a couple of minor hooks to take the story further, but I have no idea what they mean.

However I often start with something else, just as nebulous: I might have a title I think is cool. (I do this often with Mick and Casey.)  Or I might have an idea for a tricky clue, or a cool chase scene.  Or a location, or a guest character.

These are all the sorts of things I normally keep on the shelf until I come up with an idea to suit them.  The point of the game is to skip the shelf. I'm too old to wait for ideas to ripen or to happen to find the right story. (My idea shelf is getting more and more crowded all the time.)

So the point of this game is to take an inspiration or idea, and get a mystery plot for it NOW, and get on with the writing.

Create a Character Relationship Circle

This is an upgraded version of the Random Relationships Mini-Game I put at the end of the first Story Game post.  

A quick summary of the  relationship game again:

*Decide how many characters you want.
*Roll a character, then roll a relationship. The relationship tells you what the character is to the next character.
*Keep rolling characters and relationships until you get to the end, and the last character's relationship will be with the first on the list.

I have created a somewhat more complicated (but also more flexible) version of the game:

I roll ten characters and relationships.  The first seven make up a circle, as I decribe above.  The other three are peripheral characters who I can attach to the circle any place I choose -- like charms on a charm bracelet.

Why did I choose this number of characters?

There's an old rule that you can't have more than five main suspects in a murder mystery.  IMHO, that really doesn't do it, because a really great mystery, a la Agatha Christie, will also have minor characters who have parts to play, and sometimes they will turn out to have done it. (And no, that's not always cheating -- I'll talk about that another time.)

But mostly, those minor characters are important as witnesses and motives. (I.e. a killer might have killed to keep a secret from a wife or boss who is a minor character).  Even if you never treat those other characters as suspects, each character has a life, and everyone in that life affects the story.

At the same time, I do like the main suspect list to be kept to a manageable size.  However, until I write the story, I don't know how these characters will develop.  Sometimes a minor character will grow on me, sometimes a person I thought was major will be dull.

So I create ten characters, and even though three are "peripheral," they are actually all equal at this point in terms of who will become the major characters and who are minor. The "peripheral" factor is just to make the mix of relationships a little more natural.

Here are the current lists/wheels for choosing Characters and Relationships.  (You can and should adapt these at will to suit your series and style.)


1. Female Child (1-12)
2. Male Child (1-12)
3. Female Teen (13-18)
4. Male Teen (13-18)
5. Female New Adult (19-24)
6. Male New Adult (19-24)
7. Female Adult (25-39)
8. Male Adult (25-39)
9. Female Middle Age (40-59)
10. Male Middle Age (40-59)
11. Female Senior (60-90)
12. Male Senior (60-90)

Relationships (to next character)

1. Parent/child
2. club/church/organization acquaintance
3. sibling
4. cousin or aunt/uncle or niece/nephew (depending on ages)
5. stranger
6. friend
7. enemy
8. coworker
9. boss
10. neighbor
11. admires or admired by
12. lover/spouse/best friend forever

First Brainstorming Session

After rolling the characters, I look first at the circle of the seven -- and see how they are clustered. This in an of itself will gives some idea of how these characters interlock -- and how they don't.  In a mystery, indirect connections can be the most interesting ones.

As it happens the first time I rolled this, I had two people were strangers to others, and several club/church acquaintances.  This broke the main ring into two clusters.  Hmmm, how are these two groups separate and what brings them together?

That's where my original idea came in handy, and that's also where the three peripheral characters came in handy.  But before I thought of either of those....

Place the Character Circle in the Series!

The location of your series and the kind of people that reside in it can help a lot in filling out the story.  You also have your regular characters and how they might connect in.

In the case of my "Man Who" series, the location is a Northern Lower Michigan beach town.  So with two different groups of people associated by a club or church.... it makes sense for one of those clubs to be the Country Club, and the others to be local members of a church.  The locals would likely work at the country club, and that would connect them.

This idea was strengthened by the fact that my originating idea involved an event which happens in a bar or tavern -- that could be the country club bar.  (And that really makes the idea take off for me!)

The next step is to figure out who might want to kill whom.

Motives and Suspects and Victims, oh my!

I created a list of motives.  I'm not fully happy with it yet, but it worked for me so far.  (Maybe I just got lucky.) Here it is:

1. Jealousy
2. Resentment
3. Money - victim is a threat to wealth the killer already has
4. Money - inheritance
5. Money - theft
6. Money - indirect, money will go to someone else
7. Frame up - Victim is just collateral damage in a plot to hurt someone via framing them for murder.
8. Sibling Rivalry
9. Victim stands in the way of romantic obsession
10. Victim is blackmailer
11. Victim knows something (not a blackmailer)
12. Revenge
13. Falling out among thieves or other plotters
14. Righteous crimes - killing a killer.

Now, I'm going to need motives for suspects as well as for the actual killer, so I chose three of these numbers at random.

Then since creating the relationship circle hadn't given me definite ideas on which character should be the killer or victim, I chose three of them at random and assigned the motives to them.

And then here is the trick: those characters can be killer, suspect, or victim.  The motive might apply to why that person is killed.

This is still the brainstorming stage.  Even the motives can be flexed and turned to suit the situation that arises.  So even though you rolled up "Sibling Rivalry" that rivalry can be connected to a rivalry over inheritance or a romantic obsession.  At this point I'm just looking for the emotions that tie the characters together.

So, at this point I just blather on paper or screen.  Do general brainstorming, maybe even try to find a theme. (Like maybe the siblings aren't the only rivals in the story. Maybe other characters have other kinds of rivalries. Maybe the victim fostered rivalries.)  I'm just looking for things that will get my imagination running.

Because I'm not done yet.

I mean, I could be.  This is enough to get a good story going.  But I'm not because I like a complicated story, and I like an element of intrigue/suspense in my mysteries, so I like there to be a bigger conspiracy or plot to go along with the murder.

Next Friday, I'll talk about my big spiffy new Wheel of the Crime Behind The Crime (which I think might replace the Crime Wheel in my romantic suspense game).  I'll also talk about my first foray into an actual plot wheel -- a Wheel of Reversals to help think ahead about those turns of event that happen at the end of each act of a story.

But that's it for now.  I'll do a Sunday Update with some new pictures and covers, and maybe a list of the movies I'm looking at for the Tuesday Plot Theory series.  And then on Tuesday, we'll continue with introducing characters in the first section of hte story.

See you in the funny papers.


bryanbeus said...

It's interesting to see the process of how you create a game.

You mentioned the idea of writing fan-fic for your favorite mysteries games. Have you ever tried it?

The Daring Novelist said...

No, I have way too many ideas of my own. However, I think fanfic has a big place in the development of a writer -- whether you actually write it down for real, or just use it in a game.

I wrote a whole series of blog posts on the importance of "Mary Sue" a while back:

In Praise of Mary Sue