How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey

How to Write a Damn Good Mystery by James N. Frey

I know what you’re thinking, but it isn’t that James Frey. Of course, maybe you read other books in this series first and are just out checking for reviews on this version of Mr. Frey’s work. If so, forgive my assumption. However, if you were wondering what the heck the infamous Frey knows about writing a good “anything” rest assured that this is not that fellow. This is a fine book about writing a readable and entertaining mystery. In fact, the subtitle says it all: “A Practical Step-by-Step Guide from Inspiration to Finished Manuscript”. Highly recommended.

Who is this book for?

How to Write a Damn Good Mystery is for the would-be mystery author. It is not an end all discourse on the subject, but it is a fine guide to getting your project up and running. It is also a good source book with numerous references to additional works that can help you hone your novel-building skills.

About the Author

As I noted above, this is not that Frey. James N. Frey is the author of the “Damn Good” series of writing self-help texts. In addition, he has also written a number of novels. He taught the craft of fiction at several writer’s communities as well as at UC Berkeley (Extension). Pedigree aside, James N. Frey is a brutally honest writer who gets at the core of the craft and will make you think about writing in a professional manner rather than as a literary hobbyist.


I’ve said it elsewhere, but I’ll say it again: writing is work. If you are not prepared to work, then this book is probably not for you (and neither is this site).

I realize that isn’t the most friendly of beginnings, but we need to have an understanding between us. There is writing that is done for fun and relaxation, even for artistic purposes, and there is writing that is done for profit and feeding your family. I’ve done the former for fifteen years and I can tell you about all there is to know about writing as a hobby, but here I am trying to turn my pastime into my profession. If you’re of a like mind then read on. If you want to continue as a hobbyist writer, that’s fine and I applaud you (because I know it ain’t easy) — but go ahead and get back to writing.

James N. Frey doesn’t open his book this way, but he might have. How to Write a Damn Good Mystery is about the process of building a serious mystery novel.

How to Write a Damn Good Mystery is not a collection of tips on what to do and what not to do. It’s a guide to brainstorming, planning, plotting, drafting, rewriting, and polishing a mystery.

This is pretty much the opposite of The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. If you read my analysis of that book, you’ll understand that James N. Frey’s book is going to help you in explicit ways versus leaving a lot of things open to interpretation. I think this is important because a how-to book ought to be instructive and not abstract. It ought to explain how a thing actually works, step-by-step. If I (as a reader) want to figure it out for myself, then I’ll just move on to in-depth analysis of an actual work of fiction. At the same time, I don’t want a how-to book to totally cramp my style. I don’t want it to say things like, “thou shalt not X” or “never will thee allow characters to Y.” That isn’t helpful either, because often the best fiction is about breaking some of the rules. What you need is a process for understanding the framework and then you can begin to experiment. This is exactly what James N. Frey sets out to do.

Why People Read Mysteries

I’ve never thought of myself as a mystery reader. When I think about mysteries, it’s usually the old lady solving the murder kind of thing or perhaps (on a limb) the hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I’ve certainly read these types of books before, and thoroughly enjoyed them, but my tastes usually run toward the more eclectic subjects. In short, if there isn’t a dragon or some alternate dimension involved I’m going to get bored pretty quick.

So, you might ask why on earth I’ve decided to read about writing mysteries when I ought to read Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. There are two reasons.

1. I’ve already read How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy and I highly recommend it.

2. I’ve tried to write a fantasy and failed, twice (no, at least three or four times).

This requires a little more explanation and I’ll get into it later. For the moment, let’s just say that I’ve been down that path already and there is something missing. I’m hoping to find it in How to Write a Damn Good Mystery and I’ll tell you why soon.

Quoting Marie Rodell’s Mystery Fiction (1943), Frey gives us the “classic” reasons why people love mysteries:

1. Thrill of the hunt: carried on intellectually in the cleverness of the detective and the reader.

2. Satisfaction of seeing the wicked punished.

3. Identification with people in the story that allows the reader to feel more heroic.

4. A sense of conviction about the reality of the story.

Frey goes on to use these points to illustrate something very deep about human nature, which is essentially the key to the first half of the book: Jungian archetypes.

If you are not familiar with the idea of archetypes, you might wish to pick up The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. This book wraps up the central idea of Carl Jung’s Man and His Symbols in a storytelling context designed primarily for screenwriters, but the theory is applicable to other forms. In brief, the idea of archetypes boils down to universal themes in the mythology of man. Heroes, villains, fools, wise men, quests and war. They are symbols and themes that one can trace across civilizations and literature down through the ages. It is powerful stuff, even if some people dismiss it as bunk.

Joseph Campbell is a name that may be familiar to you. Perhaps you’ve watched The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, an old special where Moyers walks through the stories of the ages with the mythologist Campbell and discusses his primary work, Hero with a Thousand Faces. Again, this is a great source text for studying the effects of Jungian archetypes on literature.

Frey uses these sources too. He also goes on to explain how they apply to the modern mystery.

The usual pattern of the hero’s journey is this: the hero has a call to adventure, which is generally some kind of a mission on behalf of the community; the hero goes forth into a strange land where he or she learns new rules, is tested, encounters various archetypal characters, has a death and rebirth, encounters the evil one, defeats the evil one, and returns with a boon that will be a benefit to the community.

Applying the mythic pattern to a modern mystery, Frey gives us a short example:

In the modern mystery the hero/detective has a mission to find a murderer and goes forth, not to a strange, magical land as in ancient myths, but to a place of lies and deception, a place foreign to the hero, where he or she encounters the evil one — a murderer — and, using courage and reason in a clever and resourceful way, defeats the evil one. Then the hero/detective returns to his or her community, brining the “boon” of justice.

As an author who has worked very hard to build a “literary” sense of the craft of writing (and failed), the idea of writing a book or story with this structure makes my skin crawl. Is it the idea of the guide that upsets me or is it the belief I have in my own cleverness which holds me back?

I’m pretty sure it’s the latter. I’ve always followed a strong drive to come to my own solutions, but even more powerful is the resistance to “showing my work”, not in the sense of sharing with others but in showing what happens behind the scenes or how I came to my conclusions. It’s much easier to just say that you know because you know, then it is to describe and explain your process to others. It’s called bullshit. Maybe you have a similar sense of your own writing and creative powers…

By the way, it’s called bullshit. Learn from my mistakes.

Injustice as Murder

Frey insists that the modern mystery must revolve around a murder (or nearly always, which is almost the same thing).

Readers find the dramatic presentation of reason conquering evil profoundly satisfying.

This sentence ends a rather tricky paragraph where Frey starts off talking about death as illogical and irrational (when framed in the context of a mystery) and ends by explain that the hero’s job is to show that such death is accountable to reason. I think this is probably the most important point in understanding the mechanics behind a mystery and it is integral to building the highest tension and drama.

If your central question (hopefully designed around a murder) is all too easily understood in a rational way, then you are probably not going to have a good mystery on your hands. At least not one that is going to hold the reader’s attention for page after page. At the moment, I am reading Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, a techno-thriller that incorporates many techniques of “standard” mysteries – centrally drawing in the reader by murdering a number of characters in strange ways and for seemingly illogical and even irrational causes. Not only has this technique hooked me into the story, but it has carried me through some pretty dull descriptions of the international banking industry and the incessant listing of technical thingiemajobbies. Now remember, I am a technologist by trade, so it takes a lot to bore me with technical detail (e.g. I read a lot of manuals). However, Crichton has me locked because I want to find out who the murders are and why they are killing seemingly innocent people.

This chapter ranges around a bit though. After hitting on this idea of irrational murder, Frey goes on to talk about what makes a hero a hero. I’ll break it down further, as Frey should have done for clarity’s sake.

Core Traits of a Modern Mythic Hero

There is a paragraph here that breaks across two pages. Now, I realize this is an incredibly picky thing to point out, but I do so because it’s important. This ideas in this paragraph are key, and even though they are repeated in the chapters ahead I think it is good to call out the core traits as defined by Frey.

Modern Mythic Detective Heroes are…

1. Courageous
2. Good at what they do for a living
3. Have a special talent
4. Are wounded
5. Are almost always an “outlaw” in some way

Modern mystery cultural heroes are not slaying dragons; they’re pursuing justice. The mystery is a story in which a cultural hero, in the face of grave moral wrong, seeks justice not for himself or herself, but for others. The mystery hero is self-sacrificing; that is the key to their character.

That’s a lot to draw from one paragraph, but Frey will make a lot of these elements in the pages to follow.

Paper-Thin Tigers

Depth of character is a common knock on mysteries, at least by those who live in the literary world. It’s chided as junk fiction, popcorn fiction, what have you. Frey addresses this point with a strong counter-argument: readers project their own personality on characters who seem to have little inner life of their own and this hooks them deeply. I suppose a statement like that is bound to get me in trouble, so I’ll caveat it by saying that Frey is not suggesting that you write cartoonish stereotypes. He gives examples of things that will and won’t work when constructing characters in later chapters.

I like this argument a lot. It explains why I sometimes act like a character from a movie once the film is over. It may also explain why some people like to repeat the dialogue from certain films over and over again. If nothing else, it may explain the popularity of Star Wars because you can’t make characters any thinner than that.

Anyway, this isn’t about fighting over the literary craft. What happens in popular fiction and literary fiction are two different things. If you are a writer of “literary” fiction it would be good to keep this in mind.

Types of Mysteries

In this section, Frey gives a view of three very high-level classifications of mystery stories. This isn’t a section about “hard-boiled” vs. “police procedural” vs. “historical” (et-cetera, bla, bla, bla). No, it’s about Genre, Mainstream, and Literary. He gives three definitions of each type, including general description, common publication format, and writers who exemplify the type.
Genre mysteries are usually published in mass-market paperback form. They are often thrillers in construction and focus on the chase and the clues. There’s a lot going on in these books, but not so much as to make them “total cartoons”. Sue Grafton and Tony Hillerman are Frey’s examples.

The Mainstream mystery features deeper characterizations. The characters have real lives and problems and in addition to solving the crime they also need to come to grips with their personal issues as well, which are often unrelated to the plot. These books are published in hardcover first. Scott Turow is Frey’s example.

[As a side note, Scott Turow judged the entries for the 2006 Best American Mystery Stories. His introduction to the collection is excellent and I highly recommend it (along with the stories included).]

Frey hopes that any reader of his book will forgo the Literary mystery entirely. This probably doesn’t come as much of a shock to you at this point, but I should point out that he dedicated the book to Raymond Chandler and Chandler is his “consummate master” of the literary mystery. In any case, the literary mystery is similar to the genre mystery just far darker. The heroes often long for death, seek it in fact. The tone is rough and brooding. It’s the kind of thing to which I find myself inexorably attracted but it is also the kind of thing that I as a writer find very frustrating and disheartening to write.

The Ideas that Make the Mystery

This chapter is about the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of hatching the idea that gives birth to your mystery. Ideas are one thing I can always count on. It’s stopping them from coming that I need help with Yet, as I’ve worked with my ideas (and those of other writers) I am surprised at how often a good idea turns sour under closer inspection.

Frey begins with the Good and works towards the Ugly. I think it is important to turn this the other way around because someone is likely to read the Good and thing, “Ok, I got it.” and move on without picking up on the things that are going to trip up your idea, Another reason is that the Ugly really spoke to me because Frey’s description describes many of my early efforts at writing fiction.


Let’s start at the bottom: just do it. I cannot tell you how many times this phrase appears in my journals and how many failed projects began with those words and their common variations. It is a horrible idea to start any project without a well-formed idea of what you are going to do. If it’s practice, then fine, think of it as doodling. However, the prototype always goes to production and if you want to avoid wasting a lot of time, you;d better have a plan.

The second ugly is trying to take a character who has no business being a protagonist using the “experience” to make them into a stronger person. Many writing books will tell you that characters need to change or evolve during the course of events. Inexperienced writers (like me) will take this as a cue to put in a very weak character and give them some challenge that forces them to rise to the occasion. I think there’s a way to do this right, but there are also many, many ways to do it wrong.

If you want an example of doing it right, I would point to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. The hero in that story, Richard Mayhew, seems very weak, but there are places at the start where Gaiman makes it clear that this is merely society weighing on the character. Richard does what needs doing when the time is right. However, Neverwhere is a quest story not a mystery and so there is more tolerance for that kind of changing/evolving. Another good example, and one that is a mystery, is Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, except Lethem’s book is definitely a literary mystery.

Too many “but’s” and “if’s” here. Best to avoid it altogether.


If the Ugly was just about plain-old bad writing, then the Bad is about breaking with tradition. Frey reminds us that mystery writing (like science fiction, fantasy, and romance) has a long tradition and that readers have certain expectations when approaching your work. Your job as the author is to meet those expectations and any serious derivation is going to tax the reader’s patience with the work.

This isn’t to say that you should follow the formula with slavish devotion though…

[Sigh] I hate it when writing books tell you two things at once and you have to sort of scratch your head and try to figure out what they mean. I realize of course that this is what art is all about, but it doesn’t mean I like it. It would be much better for an author of a how-to book to give examples of what they consider critical flaws, but then as soon as they write those down six or seven examples flaunting those flaws will appear and the argument with go flat. So, on we go ever forward.

Frey provides the following example:

Say you get this brilliant idea that the hero should be a psychic so that he or she does not bring the murderer to justice by reason, but by psychic means. Such an idea would produce a mystery that is messing with the form. Not a good idea.

Anyway, regardless of the caveat above, Frey is telling you to stick with the formula while cautiously playing with the elements. He also spends a good deal of time hacking on literary art (as he does throughout the book). I believe the idea here is to justify the use of a formula. As someone who is frustrated with literary art I can appreciate the need to explain how and why popular writing works in a different mode, but I am not convinced that it has to be quite this aggressive. The same can be said for literary writing books that trash the methods and art of popular fiction. They are simply different animals.

I point this out specifically, because if I ever wrote a book about writing books I would begin by noting that the worst thing an author can do is trash a different medium. I’ve done it myself on many occasions and I always look back with regret and embarrassment. It just doesn’t need to be that way.

The build up of all this trash-talking is designed to get to the heart of the “Bad” section though and the idea that writers of mystery fiction should take it as seriously as any other art form. This I can respect. I am trying to change from a literary writer to a popular writer myself and one might easily suspect I am doing it for the money. That would be wrong. I am a programmer by trade and experience and I can make a helluva lot more money writing code than I can writing fiction. But I love to tell stories, and that is what I want to do more than anything else. I am making a fundamental shift in technique because up until this point I feel I’ve created nothing but failures in my work, stories that do not read as well as they should, books that are written only for me. That said, I’m not going to turn down the money either. If you’re going to be professional, getting paid is part of the deal.


Working backwards through this chapter, I begin to see Frey’s logic in lining up his examples from Best to Worst. He wants to generate excitement, inspire reverence, and warn against outright failure. A solid thought process indeed.

The Good ideas are essentially those things about which you feel most passionate. This is solid writing advice for any would-be author regardless of genre or technique. I have come up with many a good idea in the past only to see it crash and burn as I’ve lost interest. Part of that is definitely my lack of technique. I’m spinning my wheels too much, but another issue is that sometimes I hold onto an idea that just isn’t my thing.

How do you know it’s a good idea? This is a question I get from other would-be writers who doubt their work. It’s certainly one I ask myself a lot, primarily because I get too many damn ideas. But having too many ideas also gives me a little insight into what separates a good idea from a passing flame, and that is staying power. A good idea will not let go of you, even years later. It will nag at your conscience and make you sit up at night staring out into the darkness. It will invade your quiet moments and make you feel restless.

I have several ideas that fall into this category. Not surprisingly, neither of my completed (and awful) novels have anything to do with these ideas. This is part of the reasons the books are so bad. I would also argue that it is one of the reasons my stories stink too. None of my “completed” stories (of which there are probably well over 100) have to do with my good ideas.

Why? Well, I’m afraid to put them down. I know that might sound odd, but I’m terrified of ruining what I know is a good idea by putting it down before I’m ready. This is not to say that I haven’t written about these ideas. I have. Hundreds of a pages of notes, plots, scenes, even fragmentary novels comprised of several chapters. I always turn away though because I think I haven’t got what it takes to give that good idea what it deserves.

So, I think that this is what makes up a good idea more than anything else: the fear that you will screw it up if you write it down. That is the idea you’re going to be careful with. That is the idea that is going to keep you working until the thing is right.

Don’t get me wrong though. These ideas are not crystal castles in the sky. Two of them are downright nasty. All of them involve a murder of some sort and that is how I found my way here to How to Write a Damn Good Mystery. Learn from my mistakes – find your niche and stick to it.

Plot Behind the Plot

Frey begins this chapter by restating the same thing I have been saying over and over: you’ve got to have a plan.

He points out that some successful writers claim never to have a plan when they set down to work, or perhaps even just a loose one at best which they chuck over the shoulder. He also says that this is complete bunk and that most of these folks use their lack of plan as an indicator of their creative genius. It’s a scam, a ruse.

I can understand this line of thinking. While I was reading this section of the book, I thought of the light and airy comedies of P.G. Wodehouse. Reading these stories, one would think they almost rolled off the fingers as fast as the man could type. However, in reality, Plum (as he was called by friends) was honest and upfront about the fact that he pretty much slaved over every story and novel. In his book of letters Author! Author! (published as Performing Flea in the UK), Wodehouse explained that he sometimes wrote over 150,000 words just to get into the idea of a character or story. This process sounds a lot like mine, but in my case when I’m doing that kind of work I almost always feel that I have failed and that it is only a matter of time before I quit the project. What I didn’t realize was that others do the same and it is a natural part of the process.

Frey gives a great argument against “just doing it”:

Just doing it may feel creative, but it’s really a huge time waster; the finished manuscript will not bee as well executed no matter how many drafts it goes through. If you plan your story carefully, not only will the process be faster, but the finished work will be far superior.

The reason for this? For one thing, talking about the backstory and their ruling passions, allows an author to learn their characters extremely well. Writing journals in the voices of the characters also provides a unique way for an author to become intimately acquainted. After the planning process, the writer will know the purpose of the scene, what the characters want, what conflicts could be exploited, and how the scene advances the story. The writer will be in control of their writing; not on a fishing expedition to “discover” what it was they were going to write and groping to understand the characters. The writing will become sure-footed, confident, vigorous, alive. And the scenes will be written very quickly.

I changed that last paragraph a bit (rather poorly) as Frey was discussing the application of his method to a writing class, but the points are excellent. Write from a plan and you will be in control.

Where and when will you story take place?

This is how Frey opens the next section. I often begin a story with the idea of a character or scene and then build out from there, but remember we are constructing the plot so the nugget for the story will already be in place. The next step is defining the surroundings. I include this little bit here because the idea of writing down the where and when of the story might take the wind out of your sails. After all, you want to get one with it, right? Well, learn from my mistakes.

Frey consciously asks this question because so many writers fail to set their story in a place where dramatic events are happening besides the mystery. That an important point because additional drama will give your story more depth by creating additional conflicts. Frey has some excellent examples here. You should check them out.

The Murderer is the Author of the Plot Behind the Plot

This is where Frey gets into the deep mechanics of plotting. You may find it surprising to learn that the murderer is the author of the plot behind the plot, that the murderer is the one who is driving the story. However, if you read those sections on the Hero’s Journey closely you will see that it is the Evil One who defines the journey for the Hero, who is generally reacting to things all along the way until the way forward becomes clear (and then he acts decisively to confront the Evil One).

The rest of this section refers to Frey’s other books about creating characters and then he dips into the qualities of a murderer. The next chapter covers this in detail, but here are the basic points:

The murderer will be evil. There’s really no exception here. The murders must be acting out of their own self-interest in order to satisfy the reader’s desire to see the wicked punished.

The murderer will not appear to be evil. Hiding the evilness of the murderer is important for dramatic purposes but it also gives additional mythic properties to the murderer and makes them seem even more frightening.

The murderer will be clever and resourceful. The thrill of the chase is only fulfilled when you have a murderer worthy of the detective.

The murderer will be wounded. The need to have some deep pain driving their selfish desires.

The murderer will be afraid. See Yoda for more insight on the path of fear, but essentially, fear can amplify any emotion.

When I read these principles, I thought immediately of Silas in The DaVinci Code and Lord Voldermort in Harry Potter as both good and bad examples. With the exception of not appearing evil, Voldermort is the perfect murderer (according to this criteria), and even there I would argue that in The Chamber of Secrets he fulfills the role without any flaws at all. Silas on the other hand is missing the cleverness. I saw him as a robot. He was resourceful and certainly evil, wounded and afraid. But except for the beginning, where he appears as a gentle (but odd-looking) monk, there is no doubt that he is evil. Combining his character with that of the Teacher might have been a better plan, or perhaps Dan Brown should have made Aringarosa more evil. Then again, maybe I am quibbling.

The Hero

After going on about the development of the murderer, Frey switches gears to cover the hero.

To qualify for inclusion into the mythic hero fraternity, our modern hero/detective in addition to being a well-rounded, dramatic character with a ruling passion, should:

  • have courage
  • be good at what he or she does for a living
  • have a special talent
  • be clever and resourceful
  • be wounded
  • be an outlaw
  • be self-sacrificing

Sounds a lot like the qualities of the murderer, right? Well, I suppose that only makes sense as these two will be dueling across several hundred pages. Frey goes on to explain each of these traits in detail and then tosses in a few extras that are common but not required:

  • often a loner
  • financially insecure
  • loyal to old friends and forgotten/lost causes
  • sexually appealing and/or potent

Remember though, these aren’t required but I suppose they can’t hurt. Up above I mentioned Richard Mayhew in Neverland. He actually fits all four of these extra qualities, but I can’t for the life of me remember what his special quality might be. It could be that he is just different from everyone else in this strange world he falls into… or maybe he is just an exception (one of many) to the rule.

Supporting Characters and the Mythic Motif

As I said before, Frey draws heavily on the theory of archetypes. This section of the book dives into the basic characters found in hero tales throughout the ages. So, I would encourage you to pick up The Writer’s Journey or some of the works of Joseph Campbell. I could summarize all of these types here, but it would be really silly as there are other references far better than mine.

After running on about mythic character types, Frey give the basic structure of most hero tales along with a few additions/twists. Later, he will break this out into a five Act structure which is common for most mysteries. I’ll detail that a bit further on.

Plotting, Stepsheets, Flowcharts or All of the Things I Try to Avoid

All along, I’ve said that I really hate structuring my work. This is the common tale of most hobbyists and I am no different. However, as a professional programmer I know the value of developing specifications, flowcharts, and detailed implementation plans. So, you’d think putting together a novel with an actual structure would be a natural for me. Well, it isn’t, and chances are that if you’re reading this it isn’t easy for you either.

Frey uses Stepsheets as the basis for building the plot. A stepsheet is basically a discussion of what is going on in the story both on and offstage. The idea here is to put together the logical sequence of events that will form the basis of the plot. What you put into a stepsheet is up to you. Frey gives a few examples, but really how much or how little you fill in is your business.

Determining what will be onstage and offstage is up to you, but the idea here is to keep you from ending up in situations where there have to be huge leaps to get characters into position. In the end, the plot should come together in a way that seems like it is the only way it could have happened.

After covering the basics of stepsheets, Frey mentions that some writers use flowcharts to follow the action. We are not talking about classic flowcharts in the process-mapping sense but columnar views of character action. He also suggests using index cards. I think this could be eliminated entirely though because he doesn’t spend more than two paragraphs talking about it and does not give an example.

The Four Pillars of Mystery Fiction

Sounds like the title of a book, doesn’t it? I suppose it could be. Better yet, it might be a section that should show up at the beginning of the book rather than the middle. In any case, these are the four elements one would do well to keep in mind while plotting:

Mystery Obvious, but easily overlooked. If your murder occurs in front of a bunch of witnesses, it is difficult to evoke a sense of mystery. The idea here is to have an unexplained event which we are encouraged to uncover through reading the book.

Suspense Suspense is about twists and turns. Keeping the reader engaged through “worry” and “wonder”. Wonder is the gee whiz of what might happen next, light questions about the characters fate. Worry is triggered by menace and/or impending doom. In a mystery, the more worry you have the better.

Conflict Frey doesn’t do a great job of explaining conflict here. He has the typical character A wants something but is blocked by event B type of thing. This is OK, but I think the best explanation I’ve read is from Albert Zuckerman in Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Zuckerman says that conflict arises when two characters want something from each other. I don’t know why, but something really clicked for me.

Suprise Readers of mystery expect the unexpected to happen. This is something I’m sure you’ve read elsewhere, but what it actually means is that readers build up expectations during the course of the story and then when you, as the author, make different things happen instead the reader is delighted. This doesn’t extend to core expectations though (like punishing the wicked), but it will keep your readers engaged and wondering what you will think up next.

The Five-Act Design

I mentioned earlier that Frey would use the five-act design as the foundation for building the plot. Here’s how it works:

Act I: Hero accepts the mission to find the murderer.

Act II: How the Hero is tested, changes, and in the pivotal scene, dies and is reborn.

Act III: How the Hero is tested again and succeeds (i.e. discovers the murderer)

Act IV: How the Hero traps the Murderer

Act V: How the events of the story impact the major characters

In Act I, following the mythic structure, we need to get the Hero out of their everyday world and into the new world where they will begin their heroic transformation. Some stories show the Hero resisting this call to action. Bad things usually result from that resistance that force the hero into action. Generally speaking though, there are a few things you need to do at the start to get things rolling:

  • create powerful story questions
  • put characters in dramatic conflict (characters exercising opposing wills)
  • touch the readers emotions, particularly sympathy

Frey gives a few examples of how most mysteries get started:

  • Show the murder without revealing the identity of the murderer
  • Show the murder and reveal the identity of the murderer
  • Show the body
  • Show the victim alive
  • Show the hero’s call to adventure

I’m not going to go through the other Acts here though. Consider Frey’s work here a decent overview, but for more specifics go to the source material I mentioned, especially Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

The rest is up to you

I’ve gone on quite a bit about this book now and from here on Frey is really giving very detailed examples using a plot he’s developed throughout the course of the book. Doesn’t make a lot of sense for me to summarize that here. You should read it.

After walking through his plotting technique, Frey moves on to giving tips for writing sharp, snappy prose. This is the sort of stuff you’ll find in other writing books, and frankly, I think there are far better books to be had here. His final chapter is about publishing and the need for an aggressive attitude. Couldn’t agree more, but again there are better books out there about this. The good part is that this stuff represents a tiny, tiny fraction of the whole and doesn’t detract in any way from what is essentially an excellent guide to developing a mystery.

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