On The Edge: Writing a Mystery That Matters / Author Claire Applewhite

Claire Applewhite

Claire Applewhite

Every life is a mystery. And every story of every life is a mystery. But it is not what happens that is the mystery. It is whether it has to happen no matter what, whether it is ordered and ordained, fixed and fated, or whether it can be missed, avoided, circumvented, passed by; that is the mystery.

Excerpt from For the Rest of Her Life, by Cornell Woolrich

     Faulkner tells us that “All meaning in the best fiction flows from the heart in conflict within itself.” We know that without conflict, there is no story. We must emotionally invest in our characters and make the reader feel what they feel with words. This emotive state is central to good fiction writing. Yet, another question lingers. What’s at stake?  Does it matter?

What is plot?  Plot is composed of events. Characters interpret the events in a certain sequence through dialogue and actions. But there’s a catch: these events must be significant because they have significant consequences. Plot is the things characters do, feel, think, or say that cause those consequences. Plot is a cause that has significant effects.

Plot theory suggests five stages of plot structure:

  1. A character has a problem.
  2. Complications arise and conflict intensifies.
  3. Crises culminate in a climax.
  4. The conflict is resolved.
  5. The protagonist learns something about self or life.

*Plot depicts a change of fortune
Figure 1 Fichtean Curve
In the Art of Fiction, John Gardner introduces the concept of the Fichtean Curve. The Fichtean Curve in Figure 1 represents the basic plot of a book. The WOW reaction is defined as the moment when a person’s anticipation of a resolution deviates from an expected result. The WOW moment is experienced when the conflict is resolved, following the climax portrayed in the Fichtean Curve figure.

Examples of WOW moments can be found in the final scene of Romeo and Juliet, or in The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy discovers the “wizard” behind the screen.

Figure 2 Fichtean Curve
     Figure 2 illustrates the use of multiple mini-conflicts to maintain reader interest. The mini-conflicts must be resolved before the ultimate prize can be attained. Note the UC and FC points. UC denotes unfinished conflict resolution where the denouement only partially resolves the main conflict, common in films and books in the 1970s and 80s. A reader experiences doubt, and ideally, the WOW effect lingers after the book is finished. FC is a mini final conflict that is introduced after the denouement and the deliberately left unresolved. It is commonly used to establish a premise for a sequel.

Plot must be developed to demonstrate character dimension and significant impact. The vehicle for story development is the Story Arc, comprised of three basic segments known as the Conflict, Crisis and Resolution, or the Beginning, the Middle and the End.

  1. Act 1.  A short, opening section leading to the first major event called the Conflict , also known as the Inciting Incident to the Crisis.
  2. Act 2.  The meat of the plot. Characters deal with the Crisis.
  3. Act 3.  Final movement of the story. Resolution must include a logical conclusion.

Plot archetypes are story patterns that have been codified to include established conventions and plot components. The strongest ones provide a foundation for a story and assume a certain knowledge base on the part of the reader.

     NINE Archetypal Plots:

     Revenge (Moby Dick), Betrayal (Othello), Catastrophe (Grapes of Wrath), Pursuit      (The Fugitive), Rebellion (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Macbeth), The Quest (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Don Quixote), Ambition (David Copperfield), (Self-Sacrifice (Schindler’s List), Rivalry (Cyrano de Bergerac).

Pacing fuels a plot’s engine. At its best, it drives the scenes upward through rising action, and creates tension and intrigue. It is vital that scenes be interspersed throughout the book to ensure this tension. All the crucial scenes should not all be saved for the end.

To illustrate the synergy between plot and pacing, let’s turn to the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. He says, “People think that pace is fast action, quick cutting, people running around, and it is not that at all. I think that pace is made by keeping the mind of the spectator occupied.  You don’t need to have quick cutting or playing, but you do need a very full story and the changing of situations one to another. So long as you can sustain that and not let up, you have pace. That is why suspense is such a valuable thing. All stories, even a love story, can have suspense. It’s not just saving someone from the scaffold, it’s whether the man will get the girl. Suspense has a lot to do with the audience’s own desires—audience identification. Very, very important, because they will care more about a known person. So first, I select background, then action and shape them into a plot. Finally, I select a character to motivate the whole of it all.”

Hitchcock cites two kinds of suspense:

Objective-the typical chase scene shown from all angles OR

Subjective: letting the audience experience through the eyes and/or mind of a chosen character or characters. Let the reader participate in the suspense, raising tension.

In Rope, a young man is strangled in the opening shot. His body is placed in a chest covered with a damask cloth and silver service, and hor d’oeuvres and drinks are served from it at a party for the victim’s relatives.

"Tennessee Plates" by Claire Applewhite

“Tennessee Plates” by Claire Applewhite

This is not a whodunit. Only the killers know the truth about the body. The readers must watch as the party guests navigate a treacherous scenario. That is suspense.

Whether you use a main plot or a series of mini-conflicts, take your reader on an unexpected path to a WOW moment. Make them feel what your characters feel, and they will care as deeply as you do—about a mystery that matters.


Claire Applewhite is a graduate of St. Louis University and the author of The Wrong Side of Memphis, Crazy For You, St. Louis HustleCandy Cadillac, and Tennessee Plates. She is the immediate Past President of the Missouri Writers Guild, a Board member of the Midwest Chapter, Mystery Writers of America, and a member of the St. Louis Metropolitan Press Club, St. Louis Writers Guild, Sisters in Crime, Ozark Writers League and Active member, Mystery Writers of America.  Website: www.ClaireApplewhite.com, radio and television interviews available.

(The Killer Nashville Guest Blog series is coordinated by KN Executive Director Beth Terrell (http://www.elizabethterrell.com/).  To be a part of this series, contact Beth at beth@killernashville.com.)


About Clay Stafford

Clay Stafford is an author / filmmaker (www.ClayStafford.com) and founder of Killer Nashville (www.KillerNashville.com). As a writer himself, he has over 1.5 million copies of his own books in print in over 14 languages. Stafford’s latest projects are the feature documentary “One of the Miracles” (www.OneOfTheMiracles.com) and the music CD “XO” (www.JefferyDeaverXOMusic.com). A champion of writers, Publishers Weekly has identified Stafford as playing “an essential role in defining which books become bestsellers” throughout “the nation’s book culture.” (PW 6/10/13)
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