My grandsons' school invited me to lecture about mystery writing in the classrooms of Alexander and Nathaniel, shown here in their Halloween costumes from last October.
At this juncture, their third-grade writing syllabus calls for them and their classmates to try their hands at mystery stories. One suggestion was that I talk about my process as a writer. That's an easy thing for any writer to describe, but it didn't seem it would help the children at all with their own stories. Of course, there is no lack of formulae for mystery writing; I could have taught them one of those. But it didn't seem right to constrain their young minds with structures they might take as hard and fast rules. I wanted to come up with something helpful to them in inventing out of their own imaginations.
About a week before the gig, I woke up in the middle of the night, thinking about the six major questions. A whole lot of ruminating in the wee hours yielded a plan that worked well in both in Alexander’s class and in Nathaniel's a week later.
We started by defining what the kids thought a mystery was. I wrote down their answers on the white board--a projection system that takes a bit of getting used to. When any of the students shouted out a definition that contained one of the question words—who, what, when, where, how and why—I put those words on a special list. When we had most of them up there, the children filled in the missing ones.
Then, we talked about how a mystery story usually begins with giving away the answers to three or four of those questions. But the writer withholds some of the answers. I made a crude diagram.
........ . . . . . .
Did they know the story of Hansel and Gretel? Sure, they did. What did the brother and sister do to help someone trying to follow them? Of course the kids knew that: a trail of breadcrumbs! That's what mystery writers do, I told them. They hold back the answers to two or three important questions, usually but NOT always Who and Why. They start the story by dropping a whole pile of breadcrumbs and then lead the reader through the rest by dropping a new hint every once in a while. And sometimes those hints are false ones. "Red herrings," a little girl with glasses and a boy with Harry Potter-ish black unruly hair shouted in unison.
We spent the rest of our time together inventing plots. "Somebody think up a main character," I asked.
"A cranky girl."
Somebody describe a bad guy.
A boy who actually looks like a hero but isn’t.
Who is going to be our victim?
The girl's grandmother.
For ten minutes in a furious flurry of creative thinking, we invented plot after plot. They never asked me where I get my ideas. They were just brimming with them.
I don't know how the kids made out with the stories they went on to write for themselves. The few beginnings I saw showed a lot of promise. A couple were astonishingly sophisticated in how they opened. One thing I know for sure: nothing I have ever read or heard as a student of the genre ever crystallized my thinking about how to plot a mystery as clearly as hanging out in the third grade.