Saturday, August 15, 2020

Witch Way to Write a Crime Novel



This is the third post in a row of my unsolicited observations on the craft of writing.  I’d like to get back to discussing the pressing issues of our day—Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, US Presidential Elections, Turkey’s clamor for an excuse to go to war with Greece–and a host of other light-hearted topics, but I’ve decided to leave that to the more than a billion people out there wondering what the &)*^’s gone wrong with our world. 


At least for this week. 


So here’s what’s in store for you today. A few years back, having just finished up a month long stint teaching mystery writing to college students and wanting to write about that experience, I wondered what I could say beyond simply stating the obvious:  Teaching is as much a learning experience for the professor as it is for the students.



And then I read a post written by mystery author Jeanne Matthews, and voilà, I had my inspiration.  Jeanne talked about Aristotle’s 2400-year-old classic narrative three-act structure, a form that remains at the heart of modern screen writing and serves as the bones of much great mystery writing.  Beginning, middle, end, or, as some have called it, intrigue crisis, climax. 



In preparing for my class, I found myself reading a lot about the process of mystery writing and learned that much of what I’d been doing largely intuitively—undoubtedly absorbed by osmosis through years of reading— actually had names!  That’s how I gained an understanding of my own seat of the pants, character driven, subconscious writing process, one I attempted to describe to my students...undoubtedly at times borrowing the words of others to do so.  So, here goes—borrowed words and all:


As Jeanne points out, not much has changed since Aristotle’s time, though for mystery writers there is another way of looking at structure.  It’s an elaboration on the three-act format, one developed 150 years ago by Gustav Freytag in what he described as his “Dramatic Arc in a Five Act Structure.”  It’s how I realize I write…as did this fellow Shakespeare.


Gustav Freytag

For visual purposes I think of the five acts as represented by the five elements of a vertical cross section of a distinctly pointed witch’s hat.  (1) A flat brim line (2) abruptly ascends to (3) a pinnacle and (4) just as sharply descends to meet up with (5) a final brim line.


So, what do these five parts of the witch’s hat represent in the structure of a crime novel?


1.       Introduction (Along the flat brim).   Here you set up the story, providing any contextual background the reader needs— time, place, background—but most importantly it contains the inciting incident; the point where things dramatically change, creating narrative tension as the protagonist has no choice but to act to resolve the incident.


2.      Rising Action (Ascending the crown).  Here is where conflicts, intrigues, and obstructions—creating further tension—are put in the way of the protagonist’s attempts to resolve the inciting incident. 


3.      Climax (At the point). The dramatic major turning point of the story for the protagonist, one that brings all elements together in one major chord that profoundly changes someone either for better or worse; it is the point of highest tension. It must feel right, as if inevitable.


4.      Falling Action (Descending the crown). The part after the main conflict has come to a head in the climax, and the story is heading to its conclusion, albeit with some final moments of suspense leaving the outcome in doubt.


5.      Resolution (Back on the flat brim).  Here the reader finds catharsis in a resolution to the inciting incident, one that overcomes the conflict and leaves the protagonist permanently changed.


As a slight variation to the classic Five Act structure, in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, she credits the late Alice Adams with creating a format for modern show-us-what-you-got tastes as simple as ABDCE—Action, Backstory, Development, Climax, Ending.  But don’t run out to your haberdasher for a new hat quite yet, for it simply moves the inciting incident up front, and then immediately returns to the traditional five-act structure.



And yes, even in the Five Act structure the three-act remains a critical element, for each scene should follow the classic formula of setup, buildup, payoff—the same as if telling a joke.  


Class adjourned.




  1. "the same as if telling a joke". Perfect!

  2. Yes, the same as telling a joke, except it takes months to tell it and then months more to see if anyone laughs.

  3. I am loving this series of posts, Professor!! xx