Mary Robinette Kowal’s Short Story Building Process

I recently posted about how author and writing teacher Mary Robinette Kowal uses the M.I.C.E. Quotient to help focus her stories, but while going through her blog I found that she also has a very refined process she uses for story development that is quite impressive. Below is the question sheet she gives her students (and uses herself) to go through the story creation process.

  1. Write down gee-whiz idea.
  2. Where does it happen? – general scenic location.
    1. Place – New York
    2. Setting – Diner
    3. Stage – Kitchen
  3. Characters who would be there (general list).  (Look for characters that aren’t as obvious — look for people across the socio-economic spectrum, because any event affects people differently depending on the resources they have.)
  4. From the list, pick three you want to focus on.  (Important to trust yourself as an audience member, because the first person you need to please is yourself.)
  5. You’ve picked the three you want to spend time with. What do they want out of life?  Go for the deep wants (i.e. to look good, not to diet).  One technique: write down a want, then ask why the character wants that.  Repeat until you’ve reached a deep desire.
  6. Pick the deep want that is most compelling to you. That character who has it is your main character.
  7. List what MC character has at stake.  “Stake” is a word a lot of people misunderstand — it is what will happen to them if they fail at what they are trying to do.  For instance, Captain of sailing ship, every time he takes a risk is to get a fleet of ships, but what he has at stake is that if he takes a risky route to earn more money, his ship could sink and he could lose everything.  Can write down a couple of things down as you’re trying to sort this out.
  8. Choose the primary stake for your MC character.
  9. Go back to what the MC character wants.  What is stopping the character from achieving their desires?  Why can’t they have what they want? 
  10. What is the most interesting thing standing in the way of your POV character?
  11.  What is your MC’s plan to get what they want?
  12. Write up 1-3 sentences summing up the decision you have made for your POV character.
  13. Identify the MICE quotient element based on the conflict you’ve most connect with.
    Milieu – Environment-centered story (entering/leaving specific, often exotic, location). Examples: Gulliver’s Travels.  Parts of Hunger Games (enters capital, enters game grounds, leaves game grounds, leaves capital). Are they trying to escape?

Inquiry– Mystery-centered story (a question the MC & reader both try to discover).  Examples: Sherlock Holmes, Matlock. Are they trying to answer a question?

Character – Internally-driven story (character dissatisfied with themselves).  Examples: Most romance rom-com movies, Finn’s arc in Star Wars 7? Are they unhappy with themselves?

Event – Externally-driven story (something happened to disrupt status quo/cause chaos). Examples: Most sci-fi or action movies (Armageddon, Jurassic Park, Rey’s arc in Star Wars 7, etc.)  Are they trying to change the status quo?

  1. Looking at the MICE quotient, use that to determine where the story begins and ends and explicitly add both to the 1-3 sentence summary.

You can find a step by step post of her going through the process to build a story on her blog, which also includes a downloadable version of the above in a Google DOC that you can convert to any format. I highly recommend going the post above to see how it all fits together and then she takes the results to turn them into a full blown story.

How M.I.C.E. can help writers.

Cute Mouse

A while ago on the Writing Excuses podcast I heard science fiction author Mary Robinette-Kowal discuss one of her personal favorite ways to structure stories, which is called the MICE Quotient. Mary didn’t come up with the idea, author Orson Scott-Card (another hyphenated writer) did, but Mary seems to be its primary evangelist, so I’ll give her credit for making me aware of it.

The MICE Quotient itself has a few parts, but the main part of it works like this – there are basically four different elements (Card calls them Factors) which make up stories, and those four elements can be used alone or in combination with each other. These four story elements are Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event based stories, which line up nicely to form the mnemonic “MICE.”

Milieu – a story about a world or setting, where that setting and how it functions and transforms is the focus of the story. These stories often start when the character enters this world or place, and they finish when the character leaves or comes to be a part of that place. Examples are epic fantasy (Tolkien wrote these kinds of stories), travelogues, dystopian and utopian fiction, and westerns.

Inquiry – a story about learning or acquiring information. These are detective stories, stories of exploration, or stories where new knowledge or skills are gained. They start when a character finds themselves in search of answers to a question (or questions) and they end when the answers are found. (Note, Card calls this one “Idea” and others sometimes call it “Information”, but I prefer Robinette-Kowal’s current use of “Inquiry” because it more elegantly sums up the key focus of these stories – seeking information. (she used to call it ask/answer for a while)

Character – a story where a character changes or transforms. These are stories about inner transformation which happen when some event occurs and then follows the paths that the character takes to reach a new state. The character usually starts unhappy with their current life or situation, and then through a series of experiences finds a new way to be at the end of the story. Romances are character stories, but many stories contain some kind of character transformation element.

Event – a story where an event happens and we follow the effects of that event. These stories are about external events happening around and to the characters. Often these are stories where the world has been made unbalanced, and the characters need to find a way to fix it or adapt to the new situation. It’s a little like someone throwing a rock into a pond, and then watching the ripples result. The story starts with an event and finishes when the effects of that event are done. Most action stories and superhero stories are event stories, as are disaster stories where we watch characters leap about trying to survive.

Each of these elements can be the basis for a whole scene, story, story arc, or novel, and usually most short stories are built around one of them, while most novels are built around many of them combined. (More on that in a bit.) However, their most basic function is to tell us not just what kind of story is being told, but how it begins and ends.

And, once we know where they start and finish, we can then focus on what happens in between. In most cases, this is going to be conflict based, as shown by this chart from Robinette-Kowal’s website:

MICE
this info-graphic is taken from here

However, this isn’t always the case. When that chart was created, it’s clear that Robinette-Kowal was thinking in terms of traditional western conflict-based narratives, however it would also work with stories of interaction like the Japanese tell. In these stories, two or more things interact in a way which produces change.

For example, let’s say we’re telling a story about a tree…

In a Milieu story the story could start with the MC’s (main character’s) family moving into a new home with a tree in the yard, and the story would end with the family moving away and a new family moving in. In between, the story could be about the family’s relationship with the tree and how it sheltered them, gave them fruit, made the clean up leaves, gave them a place to play, and more.

In an Inquiry story, the story would start with people noticing that a tree is sprouting purple fruit, and the story would end with the answer to the question why it was sprouting purple fruit. In between, we could learn that there is a meteor buried underneath the tree and the tree is absorbing weird radiation that causes the fruit to turn purple. Oh, and one in ten people who eat the fruit become immortals, while the other nine become horrible monsters that crave human brains.

In a Character story, the story starts with a man choosing to sit beneath a tree while he mourns the death of his wife, and the story ends with him accepting that death is part of the cycle of life, which he has learned watching the tree go through its seasonal routines. In between, he comes to sit beneath the tree each day to first escape his lonely house, and then later to enjoy being out in the world as his grief is slowly overcome. The character has gone from one internal emotional state to another through interaction with the tree.

In an Event story, an old tree is struck by lightning and left damaged but alive at the start, and then at the end the tree is cut down and turned into benches and tables for the local park. In between, the local people reminise about the place the tree has held in their lives as they discuss what to do about it, finally reaching a conclusion. The event has happened and we followed the results of that event until they settled.

So, as you can see, the MICE Quotient acts as a framework which tells us where a story element starts and finishes. This is useful in short stories or scenes because they often only have one dominant MICE element and so the story’s beginning and end is laid out clearly by what MICE element the story is built around. You just need to know what type of MICE element the story is built around, and you roughly know the shape of the story.

However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg, because in longer and larger stories, the MICE elements are used to structure and track storylines within larger works. And, in fact, most longer stories can have anywhere from a few to a few dozen MICE elements running inside them.

For example, let’s say you have a Romance novel.

At the start, in the introduction act, you set up the major threads of the story.

Milieu : The main character has been forced to move to a new apartment building.

Inquiry : The main character notices that the building manager is acting strangely – why?

Character : The main character is single and lonely.

Event : The main character has lost her job.

Thus logically, the end of the book MUST close those elements to feel satisfying to the reader.

/Milieu : The main character moves in with her new boyfriend in another apartment.

/Inquiry : The main character has learned the building manager was going to burn down the building and stopped him.

/Character : The main character has friends she made in the building, and most of all, found a new firefighter boyfriend by becoming an active member of the community.

/Event : The main character has found a new job as the new building manager.

Every story element in the beginning has been wrapped up by the end, making the odds that the story is satisfying more likely. Each element which is introduced has a counterpart ending, which the writer can plan out, and use to figure out where each piece of the story will start and finish. Leaving the writer to only need to worry about the dreaded middle, but even there the writer knows where they’re going and just needs to figure out how to connect those lines.

Also, while the major story elements should run through the long book or novel, there can also be shorter MICE elements inside the bigger story which start and finish in a particular scene, chapter, or story arc inside the larger work. A single scene could easily be a scene where the character navigates a new environment (milieu), tries to get information (Inquiry), must change themselves (Character), or deal with some new circumstances that have popped up (Event). How far you want to take this, is up to you.

If this whole thing still takes a bit of getting use to, fear not! Mary Robinette-Kowal gave a whole lecture on using this recently as part of Brandon Sanderon’s BYU creative writing series at the start of 2020, and you can watch it below. It also goes into more detail and other ways to use the MICE Quotient in your writing, so give it a watch!

So, what do you think? Would the MICE Quotient be a useful writing tool? How could you use it in thinking about the planning of your stories? I like that she links it with computer code and logic puzzles, because in a very real sense stories are exercises in creating strings of logical events that work together to produce a whole emotional experience in the audience.

Rob

The REAL Writing Masterclass – Brandon Sanderson’s Lecture Series

So, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently working my way through the Masterclass courses on writing. I’ve gone through most of the writers of both books and film they have available, and so far have found two clear must-listen winners – R.L. Stine and David Mamet, both of whom are both informative and entertaining in equal measure. But, even with these two masters of their craft, the courses are more a collection of vague writing theories and tips than actual classes taught by people who are good at teaching their craft.

However, there is a Masterclass available for free to you right now that is as solid a writing course as you’ll find, and taught by someone who is as good at teaching their craft as they are entertaining.

Science Fiction and Fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson has for several years been teaching courses at Brigham-Young University on writing in his field, and his entire 2020 creative writing course taught earlier this year is available on YouTube for you to enjoy.

I have to confess, I’ve tried to read two of Sanderson’s novels and couldn’t finish them because they’re really not to my taste (I’m just not an Epic Fantasy guy), but as a writer and educator I respect the hell out of him and his teaching. This is a collection of solid theory and practice combined by a man who has written a small library by himself and has been refining and testing his craft and theory for years.

I went in with the intention of watching his lecture on plot (a favorite subject, as anyone who has read this blog knows) and ended up watching all 13 lectures because there isn’t a single one without a pile of great information and ideas packed into it.

Do yourself a favor and give them a watch, even if you’re not a science fiction or fantasy writer. They’re free, and probably the best master class on writing you’re going to find.

Rob

The 7 Minute Solution

Today, I was going through David Mamet’s Masterclass, and he came to a part I found fascinating during his discussion of his play American Buffalo.

He talked about how human beings have an “alertness” cycle built into them when they’re doing tasks that causes them to mentally take a moment to casually check their environment every seven minutes. Also, every twenty minutes into doing something, there’s a bigger mental break as humans fully stop what they’re doing to access their situation. These are holdovers from the times of our ancestors, when paying attention to our environment could mean life or death, and are hardwired into human beings.

As a teacher, I already knew about the twenty minute rule – humans seem to have a limit of about twenty minutes to pay attention to a topic or subject before they get restless unless they’re really stimulated or engaged. After twenty minutes (some say 18), getting a class to stay on topic can be like rolling a boulder uphill, and so I follow the best practice of trying not to stay on one topic more than twenty minutes when lecturing. Instead, I will try to turn the lecture into a series of smaller parts, and when possible have activities or videos to add a little variety to things.

But, what I didn’t know was that there’s a standard smaller “unit” of seven minutes before people’s attention does a lighter reset. Mamet himself, who spends a lot of time in theaters, gives the anecdote that if the play starts at 8:00 the audience will quiet down precisely at 8:06 as their attention shifts fully to the most interesting thing happening – the play. He claims you can set your watch by it. I haven’t been able to find many other references to it beyond many business sites claiming it’s true, although the website Medium found something similar. They did a study of their large readership’s reading habits for their blogs, and discovered that seven minutes of attention was where readers’ interest in content seemed to peak. After that it dropped off, and if articles took longer than seven minutes to read the readership was less inclined to keep reading.

So, as a writer always thinking about optimization, these numbers 7 and 20, made me wonder if there might be a hack here for writers as well. Should we as writers be calibrating our content to fit into these attention blocks as a way to achieve maximum readability and keep our audiences hooked?

Fascinating stuff!

So, to keep the reader reading, putting in a natural break paired with a dramatic question like a cliffhanger or a bit of suspense at the seven minute mark sounds like the perfect way to keep your reader on track. That way they can either stop for the moment at a good point to rest, or they can plunge on to another seven minute binge to find out what happens next.

But, how long is seven minutes of reading content?

Well, that depends on the reader and the difficulty/complexity of the content itself. However, according to Forbes.com your average American Adult reader reads roughly 300 words per minute. So, doing some simple math, seven minutes of reading means 2100 words.

So, to answer the question that endless numbers of new writers ask every day – “How long should my chapters be?The answer is 2100 words, or if you want to simplify it a bit, make it 2000 words (since it doesn’t hurt to wait for the slower readers).

Of course, shorter would be fine too, but with shorter chapters (or scenes, since this could also be done with scene length) you’d naturally run into the problem that the seven minute gap would come at a random place in your story instead of a controlled moment when you can give them something that grabs their attention to keep them going.

What about the twenty minute limit?

Well, similarly, 20 minutes of reading is roughly 6000 words. So, if you prefer long chapters, you might think about 6000 being your upper limit before you take a break or insert a dramatic pause. And, even if you’re doing 2000 word chapters, then putting a more major dramatic moment every three chapters might be something worth doing to be ready when the reader hits their major restless moment.

Of course, in the end, you can make your chapters whatever length you like, but there’s no harm in being a little scientific and using a little human psychology to make your writing even more addictive.

Rob

The (Classic Doyle) Whydunnit Formula

The Adventure of the Red-Headed League | Baker Street Wiki | Fandom

‘Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’

‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.’

‘The dog did nothing in the night-time.’

‘That was the curious incident,’ remarked Sherlock Holmes.’

― Arthur Conan Doyle, “Silver Blaze

Things might not always go as planned, but there is always a reason why things happen. A whydunnit is a search for causes in order to understand the effects. Doyle wasn’t very concerned with motivation (most his criminals act simply from greed or anger), but he was a master of the art of finding interesting ways of framing events so that even things which were normal parts of life could seem strange and mysterious until Holmes unravelled them for the audience.

Strange happenings, people acting weirdly, unusual requests – these were all common ways a Sherlock Holmes whydunnit started, and the audience was then carried on a quest to find the reasons for these bizarre events and the more sinister causes which often lay behind them. By following the trails of logic, and backed up with his encyclopedic memory, Holmes was able to match result with action and often bring criminals to justice despite their elaborate schemes. 

A typical whydunnit looks a little like this…

Introduction (15% or less of the story, 900 words in a 6000 word story)

  • The main detectives are introduced in an interesting way which shows off their personalities. Often the detective shows off their incredible abilities by doing something that amazes the audience and other characters.  
  • A new character with a problem (hereafter called the “innocent”) appears before them and the main detective character shows off their detective skills by guessing information about the Innocent.

The Situation (35%, 2100 words)

  • The Innocent tells the detective characters about their problem. The innocent tells them the details of what happened which lead them to coming to see (or calling for) the detectives.
  • Something strange has happened to the Innocent and the reasons for this strange event will be revealed to be linked with a crime as the detectives investigate. The strange events are usually the result of a) a crime being hidden as it occurs, b) a crime being covered up after the fact, c) the Innocent being tricked into being part of a crime without knowing it. The crime can be murder, but is usually robbery or theft of some kind.
  • Regardless, the Innocent will tell the detectives their story, which will include all suspects (although they may be under fake names), the important details of the events they’ve experienced, and a few important clues (which they might not realize are clues and just think are details). The detective will catch these clues, but probably won’t put them together or mention this to the audience. The clues should be worked into the story in such a way that they don’t stand out as being clues and fit in with the rest of the Innocent’s story unless the audience pays very careful attention.

The Investigation (20%, 1200 words)

  • The detectives will take action to help the Innocent, usually by going out and gathering more clues or information.
  • If there’s not a lot of information, then we might follow the main detective and their partner as they talk to various people involved in the case. They may interview witnesses, examine crime scenes, or collect the stories of the people involved.
  • If there’s a lot of information to be gathered from various sources, the main detective and their partner may split up and then meet again later to compare notes. This is to speed up the process of telling the story by having one or both of them summarize the information they learned for each other and the audience.
  • Often the case will get stranger, or there will be a twist, near the end of this phase (but not always). The most common twist is the elimination of the “red herring” cause where the most likely reason is thrown out the window by new evidence.
  • At the end of this phase, the main detective (and the audience, maybe) will have the key information they need to solve the case and will often say that they know to their partner. (But not tell the audience what they’ve figured out.)

The Reveal (30%, 1800 words)

  • The main detective will now take steps to catch the guilty party.
  • This type of story usually ends with the detective finding the criminals and forcing them to confess the real crime they were hiding behind the strange events the Innocent experienced. The end of this one can come in many flavors, but usually either a) the criminal is caught while doing the crime they were trying to cover up with the strange events, or b) the criminal tried to commit the crime but has already failed for other reasons by the time the detectives confront them. In either case, the detective reveals everything that they figured out, and the criminal fills in the missing details. Especially if the criminal has failed due to their own mistakes (or bad luck), the criminal is just so depressed they don’t care anymore, which is why they tell all.
  • With the crime laid out, the audience should be able to look back now and see clearly how everything fit together in a reasonable way. There should be no magic powers, acts of god, or huge co-incidences, and everything should make sense.
  • Usually, there is one last unanswered question, and in the final scene the detective’s partner or the Innocent asks it to the main detective, and the detective answers them in some interesting way. The final scene usually ends on either a final thought or (in later stories) on an amusing note to balance out any tragedy which the ending revealed with positive emotions.

While Doyle seems to have been fond of whydunnits, they are largely the least common type of mysteries and audiences don’t seem to be as attracted to them as the other two types. This might be because they usually have the least exciting endings- the detective is learning why something happened like a curious dog following a scent, and then having found the scent the story just ends. Often in Doyle’s whydunnits, the criminal has already lost by the time Holmes tracks them down, and Holmes is just there to witness their tragic fall, not bring them to justice.

This is why Doyle often combined his Whydunnits with the other two types of mysteries, using strange events to lead into a whodunnit or howdunnit. Often the whydunnits which lead many of his stories are the results of distractions from real crimes or a side-effect of people doing something criminal or immoral. Cases such as the Red Headed League or the Christmas Goose are good examples of these.

That doesn’t mean pure whydunnits can’t be interesting, they can be very interesting in the hands of a skillful writer, but they can be the hardest of the three types to write well. Answering the question of why something happened isn’t as naturally exciting as revealing a hidden villain or cracking an impossible puzzle, so the writer needs to come up with an ending that’s going to get a strong emotional reaction from the audience to make it memorable.

The (Classic Doyle) Howdunnit Formula

Sidney Paget - The Adventure of the Speckled Band | Adventures of ...

Solving “impossible crimes” was one of the things Holmes was most famous for, and Doyle was fond of coming up with puzzles to challenge his great creation. In fact, a good way to think of a howdunnit is as it being a puzzle.

“How did the killer get in and out of the locked safe with guards around it?”

“How did the thief cover the distance between a party and the crime scene faster than a car can travel?”

“How did the victim die without leaving any evidence behind?”

The answers to these puzzles will lead to solving the crime, and preventing the criminal from getting away with their immoral actions. Maybe it will stop them from killing again? Maybe it will prevent them from getting on a plane to freedom? Either way, the puzzle is the key.

In Doyle’s case, a howdunnit usually runs something like this…

Introduction (15% or less of the story, 900 words in a 6000 word story)

  • The main detectives are introduced in an interesting way which shows off their personalities.
  • A new character with a problem (hereafter called the “innocent”) appears before them and the main detective character shows off their detective skills by guessing information about the Innocent.

The Situation (35%, 2100 words)

  • The Innocent tells the detective characters about their problem. The innocent tells them the details of what happened which lead them to coming to see (or calling for) the detectives.
  • A crime has been committed, and usually there is only one main suspect, but there is no proof they did it and the detective must figure out how the crime was committed to stop them from committing another crime or getting away.
  • The Innocent will tell the detectives their story, which will include all suspects (although they may be under fake names), the important details of the events they’ve experienced, and a few important clues (which they might not realize are clues and just think are details). The detective will catch these clues, but probably won’t put them together or mention this to the audience. The clues should be worked into the story in such a way that they don’t stand out as being clues and fit in with the rest of the Innocent’s story unless the audience pays very careful attention.

The Investigation (20%, 1200 words)

  • The detectives will take action to help the Innocent, usually by going out and gathering more clues or information.
  • If there’s not a lot of information, then we might follow the main detective and their partner as they talk to various people involved in the case. They may interview witnesses, examine crime scenes, or collect the stories of the people involved.
  • If there’s a lot of information to be gathered from various sources, the main detective and their partner may split up and then meet again later to compare notes. This is to speed up the process of telling the story by having one or both of them summarize the information they learned for each other and the audience.
  • Often the case will get stranger, or there will be a twist, near the end of this phase (but not always). The most common twist is the elimination of the “red herring” where the most likely method of committing the crime is eliminated as the way it was done. 
  • At the end of this phase, the main detective (and the audience, maybe) will have the key information they need to solve the case and will often say that they know to their partner. (But not tell the audience what they’ve figured out.)

The Reveal (30%, 1800 words)

  • The main detective will now take steps to catch the guilty party.
  • The detectives will set a trap for the criminal, usually by getting one step ahead of them and laying in wait. If the criminal is using the same “secret method” again, the detectives will often replace the victim to catch them in the act and then reveal how the criminal made a mistake that let them get a step ahead and prove the criminal’s guilt. If the criminal had a perfect crime, the detective will trick them into thinking they made a mistake, and then catch them when they try to cover up the mistake or flee. Confronted with the truth, the criminal will confess all, or if they died as the “secret method” kills them instead of their intended victim, the detective or someone else will fill in the missing pieces.  
  • With the crime laid out, the audience should be able to look back now and see clearly how everything fit together in a reasonable way. There should be no magic powers, acts of god, or huge co-incidences, and everything should make sense.
  • Usually, there is one last unanswered question, and in the final scene the detective’s partner or the Innocent asks it to the main detective, and the detective answers them in some interesting way. The final scene usually ends on either a final thought or (in later stories) on an amusing note to balance out any tragedy which the ending revealed with positive emotions.

One interesting feature of a howdunnit is that they are sometimes played as a sort of duel between the detective(s) and the culprit. The culprit is often (but not always) an active character in the story who the detective is interacting with and the detective gets to know as the story goes on, and since howdunnits can more easily be victimless crimes, the culprit might even be sympathetic in their goals. Or, the criminal may be a very unlikeable person who taunts the detective with their lack of proof and angers the audience like a true villain until the detective finally outwits them in a final display of brilliance or skill at the end.

The challenge with writing howdunnits is to come up with a puzzle that isn’t too easy for the audience to figure out while giving them enough clues to make it possible to solve before the end. Even Doyle didn’t always play fair in this regard, and sometimes slightly cheated to make sure the audience couldn’t guess until the end. However, whenever possible you should avoid doing that if the puzzle is the main question you build your story around.

A suggestion for writing these stories is to come up with the method for doing the “impossible crime” first, and then figure out what kind of crime it’s best used with. However, whatever method you use to plan it, thinking through the crime before writing is a must!

The (Classic Doyle) Whodunnit Formula

The Adventure of the Abbey Grange - Wikipedia

Without a doubt, the whodunnit is the most popular type of mystery there is in modern culture, and if you read or watch a mystery story today, it’s probably a whodunnit. CSI? Whodunnit. The Mentalist? Whodunnit. Criminal Minds? Whodunnit. Detective Conan/Case Closed? Whodunnit. Murdoch Mysteries/Artful Detective? Whodunnit.  

People love figuring out whodunnit!

Which is why it might come as a shock to you that most Sherlock Holmes stories, the paragon of mystery crime solving, aren’t whodunnits. Doyle actually preferred howdunnits and whydunnits instead, at least based on the number of each he wrote.

Oh, the criminal is often unknown until later in the story, but the focus of the stories isn’t so much on who did it, but how or why it was done, and the criminal’s identity is often secondary to figuring that out. This is one of the things that may make reading Holmes a bit of an adjustment for modern readers, since Doyle seems to have found the simple question of who did it much less interesting to hang a story on than how or why it was done. Sometimes the criminals even turn themselves in “off camera” once their schemes are revealed because it just isn’t that important to the story.

However, he did write whodunnit stories from time to time for variety, and the formula he used isn’t much different from the others at heart…

Introduction (15% or less of the story, 900 words in a 6000 word short story)

  • The main detectives are introduced in an interesting way which shows off their personalities.
  • A new character with a problem (hereafter called the “innocent”) appears before them and the main detective character shows off their detective skills by guessing information about the Innocent.

The Situation (35%, 2100 words)

  • The Innocent tells the detective characters about their problem. The innocent tells them the details of what happened which lead them to coming to see (or calling for) the detectives.
  • A crime has been committed and there are two or three suspects who could have committed it. The mystery is built around figuring out which one of them did the crime.
  • The Innocent will tell the detectives their story, which will include all suspects (although they may be under fake names), the important details of the events they’ve experienced, and a few important clues (which they might not realize are clues and just think are details). The detective will catch these clues, but probably won’t put them together or mention this to the audience. The clues should be worked into the story in such a way that they don’t stand out as being clues and fit in with the rest of the Innocent’s story unless the audience pays very careful attention.

The Investigation (20%, 1200 words)

  • The detectives will take action to help the Innocent, usually by going out and gathering more clues or information.
  • If there’s not a lot of information, then we might follow the main detective and their partner as they talk to various people involved in the case. They may interview witnesses, examine crime scenes, or collect the stories of the people involved.
  • If there’s a lot of information to be gathered from various sources, the main detective and their partner may split up and then meet again later to compare notes. This is to speed up the process of telling the story by having one or both of them summarize the information they learned for each other and the audience.
  • Often the case will get stranger, or there will be a twist, near the end of this phase (but not always). The most common twist is the elimination of the “red herring” where the most likely suspect is proven to be innocent by dying or new evidence showing they’re innocent. (This is why there is usually three suspects – since one will be eliminated from the list at this point.)
  • At the end of this phase, the main detective (and the audience, maybe) will have the key information they need to solve the case and will often say that they know to their partner. (But not tell the audience what they’ve figured out.)

The Reveal (30%, 1800 words)

  • The main detective will now take steps to catch the guilty party.
  • The detective gathers the guilty people together and tells them what really happened, explaining how each of them is connected with the crime until they settle on the real criminal last. The real criminal reveals why they did it when confronted with the truth, answering any questions the audience might have like motives (usually hatred because of past events or greed).
  • With the crime laid out, the audience should be able to look back now and see clearly how everything fit together in a reasonable way. There should be no magic powers, acts of god, or huge co-incidences, and everything should make sense.
  • Usually, there is one last unanswered question, and in the final scene the detective’s partner or the Innocent asks it to the main detective, and the detective answers them in some interesting way. The final scene usually ends on either a final thought or (in later stories) on an amusing note to balance out any tragedy which the ending revealed with positive emotions.

The above formula can also be used for novels, but would require a bit of expansion and development to make it work. One of the advantages of whodunnits is their ability to be padded out as much as needed by simply spending more time exploring and learning about the backgrounds of the victims and suspects. Subplots about how the crime was done and motivations are also easily incorporated into a whodunnit story as needed.

Generally, the main clues that reveal a culprit in a whodunnit story are going to be verbal ones – they say the wrong thing while giving testimonies or answering questions. Occasionally, it might be something they are tricked into revealing by the detective, in which case it is often something simple and innocuous were it not connected with the current case. However, spoken mistake are rarely enough to convict a person of being the criminal, so there will need to be other physical evidence available to support it and finish the case.

The Three Mysteries of Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes | Description, Stories, & Facts | Britannica

While making my way through Stephen Fry’s astoundingly good Sherlock Holmes: The Definitive Collection on Audible, I began to notice a pattern in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. Story after story in the collection tended to follow one of three different patterns, and after I started taking notes, I began to realize that these three patterns didn’t just apply to Holmes’ stories, but mysteries in general.

Using the language of mystery fans, I classify these three patterns as “whodunnits,” “howdunnits,” and “whydunnits.” For those not familiar with the term “dunnit,” it’s a slang version of “done it” and traditionally connected with “whodunnit” (who has done it) mysteries. And, in this and the following posts, I’ll be discussing each of them as they relate to the Holmes stories and the rough story formulas each of them is used in classic Holmes stories. Of course, these formulas can be applied to any plot or subplot to get a mystery out of them.

Let’s look at each in order of their popularity.

Whodunnit: A mystery story built about the question of who committed a crime. When most people think of mysteries, or “murder mysteries,” they’re thinking of whodunnits. In these stories, there will be two or more possible suspects who may have committed the crime and by the end of the story the detective will have figured out which one did it. There might be questions about how a crime was done, or motives, but ultimately everything leads back to the central question of who the criminal was. A classic Holmes whodunnit is “The Adventure of the Abby Grange.”

Howdunnit: A mystery story built around the question of how a crime was accomplished. A classic example of the howdunnit is the “locked room mystery,” which is defined on Wikipedia as a crime being “committed in circumstances under which it was seemingly impossible for the perpetrator to commit the crime or evade detection in the course of getting in and out of the crime scene.” These are also called “impossible crime” mysteries, for obvious reasons. Of course, there are other kinds of howdunnits as well, like a crime where the criminal seems to have been in two places at once, but the focus of these stories will always be the central question of how a crime was committed. In fact, often the criminal is known to both the reader and the detective(s), but to lay the hands of the law on the criminal requires figuring out how the crime was even possible first. A classic Holmes howdunnit is “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.”

Whydunnit: A mystery story built around the question of why something has happened (or is happening). These stories usually come in two flavors – motives and events. A motive-based whydunnit is built around the question of why a character did something, usually a crime. An event-based whydunnit is usually built around the question of why something out of the ordinary happened. Doyle made use of both, but he especially loved to write event-based whydunnits because of their ability to shock and intrigue readers. In a Doyle story, the reason behind the event is usually a crime, but one which is seen from a strange angle (often that of someone affected by the crime indirectly) and then when the events are seen correctly everything becomes clear. The story may involve elements of whodunnits or howdunnits, but the central mystery will always be why something did or did not happen. A classic Holmes whydunnit is “The Adventure of the Red Headed League.”

Of course, these stories are often not “pure” and often contain elements of each other as plots and subplots, and you can even have a story that contains all three- a mysterious criminal who commits an impossible crime for unknown reasons. However, especially with short stories, there is usually one of these three which is the dominant mystery question to be solved. Which one it is can usually be discerned by it being the last question the story answers, since once it is done, the story is effectively over.

Making each of these the focus of a story can change the story quite a bit, since each of them has their own special rules and quirks that will be discussed in turn in each of the following posts. Just click on the links below to look at how Doyle writes each in more depth.

Lastly, some of you might be saying, “Wait a moment, Rob! What about Whatdunnits? Whendunnits? and Wheredunnits?” If we’re playing with question words, wouldn’t those be stories too?

And you, intelligent reader, would be right, but those three are rarely the focus of a mystery story for good reasons.

A “whatdunnit” would be in a weird space between a “whodunnit” and a “howdunnit”, but really covering neither of them well. If a non-living (or non sentient) thing committed a crime (or other act) then technically it’s a “whodunnit” with a non-living suspect. This has been done, usually in stories where the victim accidentally killed themselves with some weapon or object, and the twist is that all the suspects were innocent. On the other hand, if the “whatdunnit” is about what object/method was used to commit a crime, then the term “howdunnit” is better because it covers a lot more possibilities.

A “whendunnit” or “wheredunnit” would build a story about the time or place a “crime” (or other act) occurs, but in most stories those are just pieces of information that lead to answering other questions. In fact, time and place are usually parts of “howdunnits” when they’re the focus of the story, so that category also covers them already.

Now, on to the formulas!

The (Classic Doyle) Whodunnit Formula

The (Classic Doyle) Howdunnit Formula

The (Classic Doyle) Whydunnit Formula

The Psychology, Geography, and Architecture of Horror: How Places Creep Us Out

I found a fascinating paper on why certain things creep people out, which is invaluable information for writers of horror, suspense, and anyone else who wants to play their reader’s nerves like a fiddle.

Abstract

Why do some types of settings and some combinations of sensory information induce a sense of dread in humans? This article brings empirical evidence from psychological research to bear on the experience of horror, and explains why the tried-and-true horror devices intuitively employed by writers and filmmakers work so well. Natural selection has favored individuals who gravitated toward environments containing the “right” physical and psychological features and avoided those which posed a threat. Places that contain a bad mix of these features induce unpleasant feelings of dread and fear, and therefore have become important ingredients of the settings for horror fiction and films. This article applies McAndrew and Koehnke’s (2016) theory of creepiness to the study of classic horror settings and explores the role played by architecture, isolation, association with death, and other environmental qualities in the experience of creepiness and dread.

Full article here: https://esiculture.com/the-psychology-geography-and-architecture-of-horror

Dan Brown Masterclass on Thrillers

I just finished going through the Dan Brown Masterclass on writing thrillers. Lots of good advice for new writers there, and a few little gems for me. 

I’m not going to write a full review, but I will say that Dan Brown’s background as a teacher really shows through. He’s thorough and methodical, and covers almost all the points that new writers would need to consider if they want to try to write standard thrillers. It’s a good 3+ hour lecture with a professional who knows his craft that covers a lot of ground.

However what I found most fascinating listening to it is that Dan Brown is a Setting>Plot>Character writer. His starting point in stories is setting, which he uses to find interesting plot ideas, and then he populates it with stock characters. Most writers are Character>Plot>Setting, or Plot>Character>Setting, but Dan’s approach is actually somewhat rarer, and (for me at least) that was the gold in this particular mine.

His key advice is to approach setting not as a sociologist, which is very common, especially among sci-fi and fantasy writers, but to approach it as a philosopher. To me, this was profound because what you’re doing then is looking for the fault-lines and cracks in the world you’re writing in and then exploring those. It creates a natural sense of depth in your world because your story is no longer about good and evil, but different perspectives on the same topics. You and the audience may agree with one side or the other, but if you do it right then both sides do have a valid reason for doing what they do.

Of course, he’s talking about modern-set thrillers based in our real world, and for fantasy and sci-fi writers things are a bit trickier. Imaginary worlds still need to be built logically first, but once you’ve gotten your basic setting down, then you can switch to the philosopher hat and start looking for those points of conflict that bring out things you’d like to explore in that world. Stories are about conflict, and the more conflicts you have to write about, the better. (Within limits, of course.)

As someone who still struggles a bit with themes sometimes, I found this a great piece of advice and plan to make heavy use of it in the future. Focusing on certain conflicts will cause natural themes to pop out, and influence the other aspects and shape of your story as well.

Of course, if you’ve ever read a Dan Brown book, you’ll know they’re basically research-based textbooks with plots, which is his thing, and it’s fine. However, going into this you should know that if you expect to be told how to create great characters, then you’re probably going to be sorely disappointed. While Dan is a master of settings, he’s someone who approaches those settings as a tourist, so his characters aren’t really outgrowths of his settings so much as tourists and guides who exist to show the setting off to readers.

What I mean is that his characters (to me) never really feel like they’re living, breathing examples of his settings who represent it with every act, word, and fiber of their being, but feel more like characters who exist to represent the most fundamental parts of the setting. They are part of the setting, but only the superficial parts and the parts the story wants to show off, but they don’t feel like natural outgrowths of their setting.

To give a simple example, it’s a bit like a picture of a horse drawn by someone who looked at many photographs of horses, and a picture drawn by an equal artist who grew up around horses their whole life. The photo-based artist can render a beautiful picture of a horse, but the one who grew up around them will be able to capture the subtle depth and character of horses in a way the photo-based artist never could.

Dan is good at technically rendering the ideas and character of settings, but he’s not so good at rendering them in depth or a way that makes you feel the people you meet are real people who were born from that environment.

Anyhow, if I were recommending something for a new writer to explore about writing thrillers, then I think I would definitely tell them to check out this masterclass.