An article in The Mystery Writer’s Handbook had some ideas on the merits and disadvantages of outlining your murder mystery story.
Once I have the idea for the kind of murder story I want to write, I decide first who is to be murdered. Then who kills him/her and for what reason.
In working this much out I have to develop some background on both killer and victim. I need to know quite a lot about their character and past life. With all that in mind, I can now go on to the problem of how the killer is going to commit the crime, where, when and what with.
At this point, if I have a gimmick, I know what the key is by which the detective will finally unlock the case. If it involves the scene of the crime, it is included. If there is no gimmick, this is the time to determine how the murder will eventually be solved.
Some ideas can be developed through my prior knowledge of the crime I now have. If that isn’t enough, I will introduce variations. At any rate this is where the general plot is thought out.
To some extent the plot will be determined by the crime I’ve planned. But on the other hand the plot idea will alter the murder. Each works on the other, but the whole story develops together at this point. In other words, I generally start with the scene of the murder and build from there.
Next comes the detective. I have to decide on the kind of detective he is, private eye or member of the regular force. This is a key part of the whole original story idea. His position will, of course, have an important effect upon the plotting I’ve done, since a private detective would work under a different set of rules from a police detective. But now his character has to be developed.
To have the plot progress according to plan, the clues will have to be uncovered in a certain order. That necessitates certain circumstances arising to make the clues happen. It also means a careful planning of the hero’s character. Different people work in different ways and I’ll need a particular type of person to move the way I want him to. Since this one person will have a strong impact upon the story, he/she must be chosen with a view to having the effect desired.
Once the murderer, victim, evidence and detective have been established, the next step is plot complication. That means the introduction of other suspects with motives and clues that will involve them.
Lastly, since none of the characters will remain static during proceedings, I must now determine how each person will react to the pressures around them and how that can further cast or remove suspicion. Their behaviour further complicates the plot, shifting the progress of the story one way or another, and the whole thing must be juggled into position so the proper end develops.
As is apparent, the whole story until this point has been in a state of flux and outlining would have been completely useless. Everything is in my mind only. I could now make an outline if I chose to. But I don’t for two reasons. One is that with the whole story committed to memory there is no need for an outline. Secondly, in the actual writing I find the story is still fluid. Though I know what will take place, I don’t yet know how the characters will behave.
It has been my experience that characters tend to act independently from my will and the tight rein of an outline would warp them out of shape. The only way I can keep their behaviour natural is to give them as much leeway as possible within the main framework of the story.
This is not to disparage outlining. Many authors do outline and work that way successfully. In fact, those who can outline have a decided advantage in many ways. With the whole story in front of them, they can write faster and with less need for rewriting.
But in my case, and this is a disadvantage, I have to write each story twice. The first draft could be considered a super-detailed outline for the second writing. In the final analysis, whether an author outlines or doesn’t is purely a matter of individual preference and no one can say one method produces a better result than the other. Try a story using each format and see which works best for you.
By Herbert Brean and Lawrence Treat. Reproduced for Educational Purposes.