THE TEN BEST WAYS TO FIND AND DEVELOP STORY IDEAS FOR MYSTERIES
Let me start with a disclaimer. None of these methods are full proof. All I can really say is that they work for me. And in my decades long career as a working, professional writer, I have found out, either by discussions with other writers or by just plain observing, if something works for me, it often works for others, too. Except for certain structural requirements, there is no set way to develop a good mystery story. But there are sources and methods which inspire and provide jumping off points. The rest is up to the writer’s creativity and enthusiasm.
- Research – There is an old joke about a man who stops another man on the streets of Manhattan and asks for directions, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The other man replies, “Practice, practice, practice.” Hence, when looking for a good story, I say, “Research, research, research.” I’m not suggesting that you have to write about a real murder that happened or copy anything (God forbid!). What I do mean is that we writers are creatures with vivid imaginations. I find that research stimulates that part of my brain. Before I know it I find myself saying, “What if this happened instead and then that….” And relatively soon I have a story that satisfies me and is not even representative of the research I had read.
- Be Unpredictable – I am cursed with the inevitable tendency to get into a writer’s mind of any book I might be reading or film or TV show I am watching and figure out where he or she is going with a story. I am disappointed when I am right and very pleasantly surprised when I am wrong. You know when you are trudging along from plot point to plot point. If you’re not surprised, you can bet the reader/viewer won’t be either. You need to throw in what I call “story curveballs” at the end of each chapter or at least every few chapters (In film and TV: after every act or at every act break). Keep ‘em guessing.
- The Bedtime Analogy – My litmus test for an entertaining mystery story is very simple. When you tell your child a bedtime story and she/he keeps asking, “And what happened next, Daddy?”, you know you’ve got your kid’s attention. That’s also important in telling your story to your readers or viewers. You want them on the edge of their seats, wondering when the next surprise might come. If a writer can’t completely avoid predictability, then he/she must at the very least match each predictable event with something completely unexpected.
- Use Your Life – Unfortunately, everyone has had an experience of someone dying before his/her time which has left that person wondering why. That can be a good jumping off point for one’s imagination. More specifically, most people have experienced some fear, real or not, that has kept them awake at night – another good jumping off point. In fact, childhood fears are great fodder for stories. Stephen King does this beautifully. For other examples, look at the TV show Stranger Things, which employed a common childhood fear of demons and turned it into a fun story. I once took a guy who scared the hell out of me as a kid and made him one of my villains.
- Live – I realize this may sound odd. Honestly though, socializing is important. The more people you meet and understand how they tick, the better chance you have to develop well rounded characters. Also, you never know how another person’s life experiences may set off your creative juices.
- Travel – This can be expensive and being a working writer it might be easier for me. But even I use credit card points to allay the costs. If you can travel, meeting people from different cultures not only adds to your wealth of character choices but also might provide story ideas wedded in a way of thinking that you have never experienced.
- Don’t write for others – Hypothesizing what others might like and writing to that end is a sure recipe for failure. Odds are, it will leave you with a passionless, cliché story that few will like (not even you).
- Trust your gut – One thing I’ve discovered as a writer is that if I’m excited about a story, others are bound to be also. If a story energizes you, compelling you to turn on your computer, go for it.
- The Excitement Factor – Writing is hard work and the odds starting out are against you being successful at it. Why spend long hours laboring away at something that doesn’t enthuse you but you think is what the public wants? I mean, if that’s the case you might as well get a job as a barista or work for a corporation where the paycheck is guaranteed every week.
- Avoid reading or watching other mysteries while writing – Oh no, a mystery lover avoiding mysteries! This is a personal eccentricity of mine, stemming from my strong desire to stay original with my storytelling. I have a complete aversion to copying someone else and eventually hearing someone say, “Oh, that’s another Girl On A Train.” Most good writers don’t consciously copy anything, but sometimes a plot point, event, or a character can be digested subliminally, sit there for a while, and when you decide to use it, it seems like it’s always been yours. My solution is mystery abstinence, at least while writing my stories.
I hope people get something out of this. If it helps only one writer and as a result, his/her passion gets out there in print or in film, I’ll be pleased.