Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Praying for Inspiration: 
Using Mystery's "Holy Trinity" 
to Generate Ideas 

By Rob Flumignan 

2002, Rob Flumignan 


What?  Another article about where ideas come from?  Not exactly.  Among many non-writers there seems to exist this notion that story ideas come out of nowhere, like little blessings from fairies powdered with magic dust.  I'd like to counter that belief by encouraging mystery writers to make ideas rather than get them. 

There is something to be said for the sudden shock of an idea that just "pops in there."  It's a great feeling and often leads to interesting stories.  But as a professional, one who wants to make a living at this writing game, you can't count on serendipity.  You've probably read this same train of thought in countless how-to books and writer's magazine articles.  It's good advice, even if it never states what you should do when the idea-bank is dry.  You certainly can't write a story without an idea for one.  So how do you make an idea? 

As mystery writers, we have an advantage that writers of other genres lack.  There is an underlying structure that defines the mystery story, a constant that we can depend on when it comes time to sit down and write:  Someone is killed by someone who is caught by someone else.  Got it?  In other words, every mystery has what I call the "Holy Trinity."  There is a Victim; the Victim is murdered by a Killer; the Killer is caught by a Sleuth.  Killer, Victim, Sleuth.  This is where you should start when making ideas. 

The Victim

The victim is probably the best place to begin.  You need a dead person in order to have a mystery...usually.  If you're thinking of exceptions, you're already on your way to making ideas.  Good for you. 

Most idea generating is a focused Q & A session with yourself.  Here we'll focus on possible victims.  Use any brainstorming technique you know.  I've recently discovered clustering.  It's a great way to organize the random thoughts kicking around in your head into a visible, easily referenced format.  For an explanation of this process, check out this link (http://www.gabrielerico.com/Main/ClusteringSampleVignettes.htm). 

Many mystery writers make the mistake of giving the victim short shrift.  After all, they're usually dead by page one or, if not, they're a mere chapter from meeting eternity.  Why bother developing this character?  Because the victim is a juicy source of ideas and an easy place to milk some emotion from your story. 

Ask yourself what kind of person you would want to kill.  Draw from real life.  Who can you absolutely not stand?  Kill them in fiction; it's great therapy.  Sue Grafton got the idea for her first Kinsey Millhone adventure trying to think up ways to off her ex-husband.  Not only did that lead to a best-selling mystery series, but can you imagine how good she must have felt writing that? 

Don't stop with the anger, though.  Ask yourself who you wouldn't want dead.  Whose death would ultimately crush you to near incapacity?  When your eyes start to water, you know you've got it. 

Now here's the final trick.  Mix the two people you just thought up.  Start brainstorming characteristics that will meld and change those people beyond recognition.  Are you starting to make ideas for a victim? 

If you think this will only work once or twice, eventually running out of people from real life, remember that it's only a starting point.  Mix the questions.  Can you find a reason someone might kill your best friend?  The real purpose of this exercise is to create focus.  You are no longer just searching for a random idea, you are developing a victim, a character in a story that until now you had no idea even existed. 

The Killer

This is the second best place to start when trying to make ideas.  If you can't think of a victim, or don't like what you're coming up with, try developing a killer. 

The important questions for inventing a killer mostly concern motivation and personality.  Why does this person feel the need to take a life?  What sort of person could bring themselves to commit such an act?  Remain careful to avoid the all-evil killer.  This goes for antagonists in every genre, yet is especially important in the mystery story.  What will make your idea (and the rest of the resulting story) stand out from the pack is how real you can make your killer. 

Start thinking up connections to your victim if you've got one.  Remember most murders are committed by someone close to the victim.  In the mystery story, that connection is determined by the author, and the more unique you can make it, the stronger (and harder to solve) your murder.  First thought might lead to a relative.  The crafty author will dig deeper.  Perhaps the killer is a co-worker, or the victim's hairdresser. 

Jot quick lists, one column for connections (i.e. lawyer, brother, doctor, etc.) another for motivations.  Now pair them up, searching for the unusual combinations that still make sense -- or that you can alter to make sense. 

Also think of ways this killer would take the victim's life.  Remember Sue Grafton's daydream of killing her husband?  She thought of poison.  If that's your cup of tea, research poisons and ways of distributing them.  (In your cup of tea, perhaps.) 

The Sleuth

If anyone is wondering why I put sleuth as the last place to start when making ideas, it's because it is often the first place everyone starts, and can lead to neglecting the other two characters in the mystery.  Plus there is no use for a sleuth if you don't have a victim -- produced by a killer.  When you start with the sleuth you run the risk of blocking yourself, because after all that vigilant character development, the poor detective still has nothing to do. 

An exception to this advice is if you're actively trying to develop a series character.  Lawrence Block started his Matthew Scudder series in this way, sketching out Scudder before he even had an idea for a book.  His intention was to create a series character for an interested publisher, and am I glad he did.  If you have similar motivations, you can start with the sleuth, but when you're done go immediately back up the list and start making ideas to keep your detective gainfully employed. 

When you get to the sleuth, if you don't plan on making a series character out of her (at least not until your publisher and adoring readers demand an encore) start brainstorming the connections to the victim.  Obviously your sleuth has to have a vested interest in solving the victim's murder beyond mere curiosity.  Even if you are using a series sleuth, I'd suggest thinking up ways to get him emotionally involved in the case. 

Remember when you asked yourself who you'd hate to see murdered?  Get back to that emotion and give it to your sleuth.  The sleuth, by default, is usually the character who most reflects the author's personality.  Try casting yourself as the sleuth.  What sort of beliefs, desires, goals, pains, loves, peeves do you posses that you'd like to air with the rest of the world?  What sort of qualities do you wish you had?  One thing I enjoy most about writing detective stories is this ability to speak through a character while at the same time telling a gripping story. 

A warning:  Stay away from laundry lists of character quirks.  This is a pitfall writers developing series sleuths frequently fall into.  Your detective may collect comic books, only shower on Sundays, drink hot sauce straight from the bottle, and moonlight as a clown for Barnum and Bailey, but this will not make an original character unless there's a soul underneath all those eccentricities.  Stick to exploring the humanity of your characters and you'll make the best ideas. 

Answered Prayers

Part of creating great ideas is a process of building and destroying.  You build a large amount of material -- brainstorming, making lists, clustering, jotting notes on index cards... making a huge mess.  Then you tear apart what you have, throwing most of it out, refining what you keep, destroying everything else.  You may have to go back and work up some more raw material and shred that as well.  Build and destroy. 

I've told you to start with the victim, go to the killer, and end with the sleuth, but keep in mind that the process is never that straightforward.  You may try developing a victim and like nothing you create.  Skip to the killer, or the sleuth, if you must.  You may then develop a sleuth and realize if you alter your killer and tweak your victim, ranging back and forth among your mystery's "Holy Trinity," you'll have a great connection and a stronger story.  This is fine.  This is the process of making ideas. 

Keep building and destroying. 

You might notice if you jump right into the process that the need for an idea becomes obsolete.  After all, you weren't looking for an idea, you were looking for a story.  Story starts with character, and the mystery story starts with a victim. 

Never forget, if you want to write a mystery story and you need an idea, don't pray for inspiration; turn to mystery's "Holy Trinity" and make some ideas of your own.