Friday, 7 May 2021

So you want to write a crime novel: Part 5. Plot and Theme



Some people get very confused about the term plot. Plot is, quite simply, the events in your novel. Nothing more, nothing less. That said, it is enormously important because if you chart the events that need to occur and then play with the order of them, you can write a completely different novel. So plot is a central, vital part of your story. We will cover how your characters can affect the events – your plot – even as you are writing it, in a later blogpost.

 Your theme — and every story has one — is an overarching entity that floats above the story. I will deal with that in a while.


How does it work in practise? That depends on what lit the fire for the story in the first place, of course, but the following is an idea off the top of my head as I type this sentence.

 What-if a burned-out singer wants to make a comeback, but ends up murdered before she can lay down one track in the recording studio?

 So we need enough characters, with motives, to people this story. Let’s have the victim first. Melody Honeycutt was hugely successful ten years ago before she was seriously injured in a road traffic accident in the tour bus on the way to her next gig. This impacted on her backing singers, her manager, her (then) husband, their (now teenage) daughter because it was her success and its resultant income that kept them financially afloat.

 The last ten years have been rough for Melody but she has recovered enough to want to sing again, something made more important when she sees the state of her finances, the management of which she had left to her husband, Jack, which is the main reason he is now her ex-husband. She has decided to put together some songs, a few of which she has written herself, and record them before piggybacking on any success the album has to do another tour. Do you see how the character will affect the events in your story?

 Okay, so the last two paragraphs are the premise of your story. To tighten up your understanding of that premise, you now need to create an elevator pitch — so called because it has to be short enough to pitch to an editor in an elevator and strong enough to spark his/her interest. BUT, creating an elevator pitch makes you focus on the absolute central issue in your story even if you never get anywhere near an editor (or an elevator).

For the following example, I must thank Penny Grubb & Danuta Reah’s The Writers Toolkit, since revised with the new title How To Write Fantastic Fiction.

An elevator pitch is the heart of your story in a few sentences.

1. You need a compelling character – we have Melody.

2. Her objective – to be successful again.

3. A situation where Melody is in a perilous situation – not a physical peril, necessarily, depending upon what you are writing. The peril is a situation that might prevent her from achieving her objective.

4. Melody’s opponent.

5. Melody is faced with a disaster caused by that opponent. What is at stake?

You can play this out several times within the life of the novel, but the bare bones are those five elements. How does this work for our story?

One sentence to cover the first three points above.

(1, 2 & 3) Melody Honeycutt (main character), desperate to restart her singing career, cut short by an accident (objective), comes out to drive to the studio for her first recording slot, but finds all her tyres have been slashed.(Peril)

And then the what’s at stake issue:

(4 and 5) Her ex-husband (opponent), who is aware she is trying to kickstart her career, rings to say their daughter has been rushed to hospital (disaster). Should Melody rush to the hospital to be with her daughter and miss the once-only recording opportunity or should she leave her daughter to her husband and the medics and forge ahead with her new career (what is at stake)?

From these bare bones, you can build a hundred different stories, in several genres. If this were a romance, the daughter would probably be in a coma and Melody and Jack would rekindle their love over her sickbed.

If this were a historical novel, you might have Melody trying to succeed as a singer at court. Her husband is jealous that her beauty might attract a wealthy courtier. When her daughter is injured, the stakes might be that the Queen or one of her ladies has promised to consider the girl as a maid. You get the picture.

For a crime novel, I would be tempted to make Jack a controlling character who has secretly kept tabs on Melody ever since she kicked him out for embezzling her money. He has “accidentally” caused the daughter’s injury to stop his ex-wife from ever becoming famous again. Melody rings the hospital and the injury is very superficial. She rings her daughter who tells her to get to the studio.

Melody borrows her neighbour’s car or the (handsome?) neighbour drives her to the studio. Jack then embarks on a full-scale scare and stalk campaign to frighten her into stopping. He kills her cat, leaves threatening messages on her doormat and dead animals on her doorstep. But the police can’t pin anything on him. You can go from there…


Sometimes writers know the theme before they start. Sometimes it becomes obvious in the writing. However, all fiction has a theme of some kind. You either decide what it is and then start plotting or you write and discover the theme as you go but without knowing your theme your writing will not be as focussed as it should be.

Carrying on from the plot above, what could the theme for Melody’s story be? Escape from a long bondage, perhaps, when she becomes a success again. Or, if she succumbs to the threats and doesn’t fulfil her dream, the theme might be fear overcoming ambition. The choice is yours, but you can see that the former would be an upbeat, feel-good ending and the latter a downbeat one. Whatever you choose, the ending must be logical and satisfactory.

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