Jan 20 • 21M

Operation Template

Mapping influence to build a more satisfying story

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Caroline Donahue
Ever wondered how to write a mystery novel? Peek over my shoulder as I share my audio diary of writing the first book in a new series. Along the way, I'll share conversations with published mystery authors and their advice on what it takes to write a mystery readers can't put down.
Episode details

We’re back with another solo episode of the podcast where I share a new experiment I’m doing: creating a template of beats for my mystery through the help of watching a film.

In this episode, I reveal the objections my critic had for this exploration, and why I ultimately believe it was a really smart use of my time. If you’d like to see a quick video of me walking through the steps I took in real time, let me know in the comments and I will share it soon.

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Transcript of Episode Four:

[00:00:25] Welcome back to the Oh Murder Podcast. I've been having a great time recording interviews with authors the last week or so, but I'm also really happy to be back talking to you about the writing process in a more immediate, nitty gritty way with regards to my mystery.

So the last time we spoke, I had reread the draft and was happy with what I read, but also aware that there were a ton of holes in the book and I wanted to keep going and find a way forward to make the story more complete. I have a better sense of the characters now. I know who they are. I have a sense of what they want. So character-wise, the story feels relatively solid. But when we're dealing with a mystery, there are plot threads and complexities that need to be addressed and organized that I haven't really figured out.

[00:01:38] What I found, being the sort of person who likes a precedent, who likes a map, who likes to see examples of the territory being covered before, I found this desire to create a template, and this wasn't the same impulse as say, a plotting process where I want to block out each little moment in the book.

[00:02:10] I wanted to see the template of each little moment of someone else's mystery so that I could lay my next to it and get a clearer sense of the comparisons and maybe ways and moments where my story could be clearer and perhaps better organized. And so it was this desire for a map that caused an idea to bubble up in my brain.

[00:02:39] I will not say that this idea was immediately accepted, in particular by my critic. The idea was either to read through a mystery that I really enjoyed and really drill down on what was covered in chapter or each section down into each of them, what was accomplished in each of these scenes?

[00:03:07] How did we move forward? How is the story diverging from the main plot line? When does it come back? Essentially, I wanted to take the story apart. If you envision a mystery as a computer or a radio, I wanted to take it apart, see all the different bits, and then see how it was put back together. I've had this impulse before.

[00:03:31] I've found myself buying paper copies of mysteries I really enjoyed, even if I hadn't originally read them in paper. I also had visions of highlighters breaking up scenes, and that impulse returned. But the other one that came up, which is ultimately the one I went with, was the thought that it would be a lot faster and possibly serve the same purpose, to just break a film down into beats or moments, and to make notes on which characters did what, which threads were present, how often they came back, how the pace was accomplished. Despite my critics saying it was a waste of time, and that what I really needed to do was keep writing and keep adding words to the word count so that its little ego would feel satisfied with the sense of progress,

[00:04:33] ultimately I couldn't resist this need for a bigger picture overview before I went back and built the next layer of the cake, so to speak, and so I selected a film. I'm not going to tell you which film it is, not because it's some huge secret, but because I don't think that the film I've chosen is the be all, end all of mysteries.

[00:04:57] It's simply addressed a number of questions that were important to me with my mystery. instead of sharing the particular one I completed this process with, I'm going to tell you the questions I asked in order to choose it. I asked myself what story elements were important to me to have present in a template.

[00:05:23] Because my book tastes place on a boat, it wasn't necessarily essential that the film be on a boat, rather it was more important that people be in a place that they were somehow trapped in. Not necessarily like rocks had covered a cave mouth, but more that it was a place that would be difficult for them to leave and that they're all in an isolated location and not, say, in the middle of a city where a bunch of people who maybe had nothing to do with the mystery were involved.

[00:05:58] I wanted everybody involved with the mystery to be isolated. I also wanted there to be quite a few characters, and I wanted there to be a number of small threads present for all these characters. My book has multiple characters present on the ship and all of them have some connection to the ultimate murder victim. I wanted that to be the case as well in the film. And I simply wanted a mood that was similar to the mood I was trying to create. With that in mind, I went online, as one does when searching for things like this, and searched for “mystery” plus these qualifications.

[00:06:56] Were the people in it isolated in some way? I did find an example that was on a boat, but it ultimately didn't fit. Did it have the right mood where there were a lot of complex characters linked to a victim and so on? And before long I did find a film. If you want to undertake this process as well, I would ask yourself what the essential characteristics are of your mystery:

[00:07:21] What is it about your book that feels most important to you? It may not be that people are isolated. It may not be that everyone has a connection to the victim. It could be something else entirely, but it's a really helpful process –at least it was for me –  to sit down and say, okay, what is characteristic, essential, distinctive about this book I'm trying to write?

Why does this book matter to me and what am I exploring? I didn’t look for an exact match, because I think that would be too worrying, like I was going to copy elements of it. It was more learning from someone else's approach to these same kinds of questions.

[00:08:13] And then once I had this clear, I got the movie so that I could play it on my computer, and I made it a fairly small window. I'm not watching this film for fun. I'm not laying on the couch. I did this at my desk and at the time of recording this episode, I'm not finished yet. I'm probably a little over halfway through.

[00:08:37] To begin, I opened a Scrivener project, a completely new Scrivener fiction project, and opened the manuscript. I deleted all the little extra bits, just left the basic documents. Then I opened the note card view for the whole manuscript and then each time there was a change of scene, I clicked to add another document, added another note card.

[00:09:05] I named each scene with a number and had a short abbreviation in caps for the plot thread. You could try, call it “main plot” thread, you know, “romantic”, name which characters are involved, “backstory”, et cetera, whatever fits for you. There are different groups of people that were important in my book.

[00:09:30] So I've named my film plot threads based on the groups of people and added details about what's happening, dinner or what time of day it is, what activity is happening. I put more notes than I planned into the index card, but in going very slowly through this process -- it takes longer than you think it will --

[00:09:55] I got through the first half an hour of the film and had 20 note cards, and it took me about 45 minutes or even a little bit longer. So if you're watching a 90 minute film or a two hour film, make sure you allocate much more than that amount of time to complete this project. It's going to take a lot longer than the length of the film because you'll be making notes and I kept pausing and I know I'm probably including far more detail than is necessary.

But what I'm seeing is patterns about how information is conveyed in scenes, how little we actually hear of each individual plot thread when there's a large cast. My book has a large cast, so how do we create full pictures of a large cast if we don't want to write a 900-page book? I'm learning a lot about including the most salient details on how much can be conveyed in a snatch of conversation that we overhear.

[00:11:18] It's quite different the way that you do it in a film because you can scan by with a camera and just overhear moments. But it's something that I now feel engaged and challenged to do in the manuscript, and so I'm planning to continue all the way through the film. I think I will be able to finish this project by the end of this week.

[00:11:39] The next step I want to take after this is to distill what I have now in the individual Scrivener index cards. I have names of characters from the film or, where the name isn't particularly obvious, I've described the character or used the actor's name as reference something that makes sense to me.

[00:12:05] Let’s say someone says something very mean to someone else, I'm not worried about the actual mean thing that one character said to another, but I might say re: my book “in this scene, one character tries to pick a fight with another”, and so then I can look in my book and say, Hmm – would this work?

[00:12:31] A lot of my conversations feel very collaborative and everybody within their little groups gets with each other very well, but that doesn't necessarily increase tension or a sense of foreboding the way I'd like to, to build suspense and mystery.

So wouldn't it be that much more interesting if, instead of having friendly groups at say, the cocktail party on the ship the first night of my book, why not mix together some of the groups and not have all of the friends be sat together? If they rub up against each other and some unpleasant interactions can happen, can that maybe create more of the atmosphere I'm going for?

[00:13:13] These are the kinds of insights I'm looking for from my template film to translate over to the book. The other thing I'm looking for is the arc of the story. How do we move between moments and slowly build tension? What happens when we discover the body of the victim? How do people handle it? How do they interact with each other?

[00:13:37] How do people unravel or withdraw? I’m thinking about how those potential reactions can be present in my characters. I like thinking about this from a couple of perspectives. One is, if you've read the book by Austin Kleon Steal Like an Artist, it isn't that I'm trying to recreate the film that I'm watching as a novel.

[00:14:03] It's more that the underpinnings or the outline helps me to organize a better version of my own book. Or if you think about a website, if you've ever created a website (if you publish a book, you will probably have to do this) it isn't something you begin out of nowhere.

[00:14:27] There are general conventions for the way websites are organized, and so if you work with a web designer with a preexisting website entity like Squarespace or WordPress, there are certain conventional structures in place and a web designer will ask you to look at a bunch of websites and show them ones that you like.

[00:14:53] Now, they're not going to create the exact same website when you show these examples, but it gives them an idea of the direction and approaches that might be satisfying. That’s very much the attitude I'm taking when working on this template. On the Secret Library I've mentioned, I think a couple times in this show, the conversation I had with Danny Ramadan and how, in his novel the Foghorn Echoes, there was a section where a character is alone in a house, having conversations with themselves, potentially with an imaginary figure.

[00:15:28] Even though I didn't think of this, I immediately recognized it when he told me he had Hamlet in mind when he was writing this section of the book. It was not so obvious that I thought, “oh my God, this is just like Hamlet” when I read the book, because his book is set in a completely different location.

[00:15:44] His characters come from completely different backgrounds. It's a totally different time period, but there are certain universal principles in Hamlet that also worked in his story and spoke to what he's trying to accomplish. That's another way of holding my intention in working with this particular film.

[00:16:05] I want to create my version of this style of mystery in the time and circumstances and situation with the characters that I've created, and that I feel may have a slight secret wink toward this other story. But if no one ever notices, then so much the better. I don't want to broadcast the influence, but I'm also okay respecting the influence.

[00:16:34] We don't want to copy, but I think it's a mistake for us to think that we have to create in a complete vacuum. All kinds of fields out in the world benefit from learning lessons from people who have experimented and tried things before. Science is always building on lessons from previous years, eras and generations even.

[00:17:01] It always mystifies me why we as writers hold ourselves to this standard of, “oh, I must create something entirely new.” But when we write genre fiction like mystery, we are bound to certain conventions. If you write a murder mystery, there has to be a murder. It's expected that who killed that victim will be clear by the end of the book.

[00:17:24] There are certain things that we have promised our reader by calling our book a Murder Mystery. Given that that's the case, I feel that awareness of how the genre has been approached by previous people I respect who have been incredibly successful in the process is worth my knowing. And even though I read mystery constantly, as you see from my posts about mysteries I've read in the last month, and having read mystery ever since I could essentially read at all. I may have a very deep relationship to the genre, but even so, I'm learning more by looking at one particular film this closely, looking at, “ah, this character appears here and here and here, and here's this little moment happening… And this moment then builds to several scenes later.”

[00:18:17] There is a springboard. That that previous moment has provided, and this is the kind of thing you can only learn by looking very closely. So once I complete this process, I will have a long, long, long list of note cards with details about the scenes.

Then I willopen a second document that's blank for the new draft of my book and use that distilled-down template of the film and ask myself, “okay, if I think of what happens in my novel as a menu, what from this menu of possibilities can I create my own menu of scenes that is inspired by and takes a cue from this previous example, and yet make it all my own?”

This has been a more productive challenge even than I anticipated. I'd love to know what you think of this, and if this experiment is particularly appealing, do let me know in the comments.

[00:19:25] I'm happy to create a video outlining how I created the process. If it's a little difficult to visualize just hearing it in the podcast. Let me know if this sparks your interest and we can keep exploring. I'd be interested to hear how you create templates, what kind of templates are useful to you, or what kind of template do you wish you had when you were working on your own project.

[00:19:51] Let's keep the conversation going, and next week we will have another interview, which I'm very excited to share. After that we'll go back to another of these audio journals about the process. I will see you then.