Saturday, March 25, 2017

A New Plotting Game - The TV Whodunnit

Those of you who have followed me from the other blog will remember my Story Games -- story generation exercises inspired by Erle Stanley Gardner's "plot wheels," which he used to speed up writing his pulp fiction.

I was quite happy with some of the games I came up with, which generated situations and character relationships, but I never did quite come up with a plot game.

Until now.

I call it the TV Whodunnit Game, and it's based on the plot structure of certain kinds of ensemble-cast police procedural TV shows you see these days.  In particular shows like Castle and NCIS.  These shows have an element in common with cozy mysteries that I really like: they have an enjoyable front story about the ongoing interpersonal adventures of the cast, and they usually have a discrete mystery puzzle for a plot.  By "discrete" I mean a whole story in one episode that at most only lightly interconnects with other stories.  (I tend to lose interest in these shows when they break out of this pattern with conspiracy, supervillain or serial killer plotlines. Gimme the old one episode whodunnit.)

Modern cozy mysteries are like this.  The series tends to be about an enjoyable place and people. Sometimes it's the amusing dramas of the detective's everyday life, sometimes it's an interesting hobby or setting.  And people read these kinds of books for this front story -- they read cat mysteries because they love cats, and follow a particular detective because they enjoy hanging around with her or her friends.

The mystery and murder plot is just a puzzle to hang this front story on.  Of course it must be diverting, but as with those TV cop shows, it can't be too difficult, because that not why people watch.  Plus with cozies, the puzzles tend to be simpler because, unlike with the older cozies written by the likes of Agatha Christie, there can't be any truly shocking twists.

I usually prefer those Christie-esque msyteries that twist and tangle, and mix in a little more dark side, but just now I'm in the mood to write some of those modern type cozies.  I realize that my current obsession with urban homesteading would feed perfectly into such a series.

So I started thinking about a plot structure I've noticed in those TV shows.  While it is most suited for police procedurals, I wonder if i could make it work for the amateur sleuth?

Plot Structure of Castle and NCIS:

Act 1: We start with a bunch of front story stuff with the series characters, and a body.  After talking to a few witnesses, we get a lead and the obvious suspect.  But at the end of the act, the suspect is ruled out; something changes the direction of the story.

Act 2: That change of direction leads to a new set of witnesses, and a second suspect. At the end of that act, that suspect is ruled out.

Act 3: repeat act 2 with new witnesses and characters.

Act 4: we are led back to someone we've already met, and the truth.

So basically, each act has a suspect and a couple of witnesses. While most of the later characters are somehow introduced early on -- they may appear in a bit part, or someone may mention something that sets them up  But they don't really get fully introduced until later.

TV Whodunnit Game

Begin with a form of the characters that are always in this kind of story:

Act1
*Victim
*Witness
*Sidekick (bit part, wife, husband, secretery, etc.)
*Opposing Witness
*Suspect 1

Act2
*Witness
*Sidekick
*Suspect 2

Act 3
*Witness
*Sidekick
*Suspect 3

Act4
No new characters at this point,we just revisit people we've met earlier. A sidekick may become a major witness at this point, though.  And the killer will be one of the people we met earlier. (Though it is unlikely they will be Suspect 3, since the story has to twist away from that direction.  It's possible though.)

To fill out this form, I created a set of cards out of half-sized 3x5 cards. I wrote about 150 actor names -- some major stars, but mostly character actors, TV people, etc.  Half men, half women.

I shuffle the cards and draw one for each of the character slots in the list above.

If you didn't want to do cards, you could just make a numbered list and use random.org to choose numbers.  If the same number gets chosen twice, you could either roll a new choice... or you could use it as a plot device -- a character masquerading as more than one person. (Or it could be twins or people with a strong resemblance, etc.)

Finally, once the names are chosen, I use Random.org to choose a number between 1-10 and pick a killer. (Note that there are ten witnesses and suspects in the first three acts.)  If you want to take the last suspect out of contention you can do a 1-9 choice.  Or you could leave him in as a challenge to your creativity.

Once you've chosen all the characters: react in dismay.

At first, every draw seems unlikely, ridiculous, impossible. ("Ernest Borgnine? Ernest Borgnine and Scarlett Johanson? What am I going to do with that?")

But the point is for this to be a springboard, not a leash.  You don't take the whole actor, and all his or her baggage. You use what comes to mind when you see the name and pick an element to use as a place marker. It may be from a roll the character played, or it might be just a physicality or image in your head. You can even say, "Hey I wonder what Borgnine was like as a 12 year old?"

If you prefer you could use something other than actors.  You could take random pictures you find on the internet, or lists of "types" or characters you otherwise generate at random. I just prefer actors, because they are flexible and can play all different sorts of people.

But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself: it's hard to just generate a story in a vacuum from these choices.  Before you worry about how Ernest Borgnine, Scarlett Johanson and Bill Bixby fit in a murder plot, think about two other things:

First, do you have a premise in mind for the book already?  My urban homesteader, Canista, is going to be a past middle-aged over-achieving housewife.  I also have a few starting scenarios in mind: Finding a body in an old, uninhabitable farmstead she'd like rehab. Finding a body in her freshly prepared raspberry trench.  She'll also have to come to the aid of friends who are accused.  Sometimes she'll be asked for help.

So my first consideration is how Canista might connect with the mystery.  Do I have an existing idea that this could fit with?  Is she going to find the body, or do I want to switch it up and connect her some other way?  Should her husband find the body?  Should her best friend be accused?  Should the discovery of the body, or the nature of the murder itself, create a problem for her or her friends?  Is she going to be stymied in her farming, and just be nosy?

The second consideration is to look over the mish-mash of character/actor choices and see problems and patterns.  Remember, even though the characters may make their major entrances in different sections of the story, doesn't mean they don't make up a social group.  My second draw for this had FOUR smart sassy young women in it.  Four.  All of a type, or near it.  And a fifth was an older version of the same type.  So... these are all part of a group. A theater group, a sorority, members of a fancy riding club where Canista has arranged to get manure for her crops. (Actually, that last one sounds better than the idea I had. Must take note....)

So brainstorm on how these characters are related and their motives and how the acts transition from this suspect to that suspect.

Which is the point of this game. It's not a situation game, it's a plot game.  The reason these characters are chosen by act is to create a path through the situation.

Finally -- two more sets of cards

Very often the witness testimony doesn't lead directly to the suspect. Sometimes it leads to a place, or a thing.  Some times a place or thing leads to the suspect.  A witness sends the detective to an office, where she finds a diary which leads to a suspect or another witness.

And it's generally better if you don't have a straight line of investigation anyway.

There are a lot of ways you could throw in these little twists. You could use a "dictionary exercise" if you still have a physical dictionary.  Between every witness and suspect, you put in a word randomly chosen from the dictionary.  Or you could do like I have and create two more stacks of cards for "locations" or "physical objects".  

So far, I admit, these additional card sets haven't been all that useful. They suggest a direction sometimes, but over-using them just makes things complicated.  I also might want to simply rewrite the cards.  Maybe I just came up with bad ideas for them. 

I suspect these will be not a part of the immediate game, but rather "helper" cards to draw when I want a little inspiration or a little more complication.  I could actually have lots of random helper decks if I liked. I could use some of the "wheels" from the previous games, especially motives.  It all kind of depends on the point of the game for you.

The Point of the Game?

Well, I might actually start writing again.  The game itself could be a tool toward that.  But it's also a tool toward endless diversion.  It is a game.  And an exercise, something to play with to keep my mind agile while I'm wrapped in things that keep me from writing.

In the meantime, I should probably post a garden update.  The weather and fate has not been fully cooperative. I did conquer a privet hedge, but alas, a sidewalk defeated me. Maybe next time I'll tell you about that.

See you in the funny papers.

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