When Bob and I wrote The Weekend Novelist Writes A Mystery, we discovered that mystery novels are built on a set of Modular Scenes.
A modular scene is a self-contained unit. It stands alone. It helps the writer to control the bulk of information — physical detail, clues, facts, place names, character bios — that makes up mystery writing. Building the novel with modular scenes gives the writer a powerful tool.
At first, in homage to C.G. Jung, we called them ‘archetypal’ because these scenes can take hundreds of forms while keeping their basic structure. Later, we added ‘modular’ to ‘archetypal’ because these scenes kept coming back just like tinker toy parts or leggos. From Mickey Spillane to Robert Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries, modular scenes are there.
We hit on the idea of plotting an entire novel using modular scenes. We then analyzed a novel by A. Christie and plotted it using the modulars. That work shows up at the end of this section where we lay out Modulars for a Christie novel and show a side by side comparison of modulars from two mysteries.
With modulars, the order is immaterial except that, of course, you can’t have a pathology/lab report, suspect interrogation and so forth until you have a body and/or a crime.
A second insight that grew out of the modular idea is that a crime scene is the product of a caper of some kind. Writers who understand this notion have little trouble working out the problem of backstory.
Following is a list of a few Modular Scenes. For more details on modulars, buy The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery. Read it and do the exercises.
Modular Scenes for Mystery Writers.
Lab work — technical data-gathering process where experts examine evidence from the crime scene to prepare for lab reports.
Pathology lab report —
Forensics lab report —
Crime scene —
Suspect list — a plot device that foregrounds suspect interrogation.
Suspect interrogation — probing for insights, the sleuth interrogates suspects searching for the truth.
Witness interview — interviewing witnesses, relatives, friends, employers, the sleuth reconstructs the victim’s past searching for connections to the killer.
…… ……. ……
Killer Confrontation—The sleuth fingers the killer. The confrontation sometimes ends in hand to hand ritual combat, killer and sleuth. Of course the sleuth wins.
Sleuth’s Reward– The payoff to the sleuth for solving the case: Sees the killer in custody, in jail, or best of all—Dead. Hanged.
Plotting with Modular Scenes
from “The Weekend Novelist Writes A Mystery”
Plotting The Body in the Library with Modular Scenes
1. Helper Onstage ‑ Dolly Bantry.
Mary the maid intrudes, breaking into the closed circle of the helper’s dream, spoiling the mild autumn morning with her announcement of the body in the library.
2. Crime Report.
Receiving a phone call from Colonel Bantry, Constable Palk reports the body in the library to his wife, then phones his superior, Inspector Slack.
3. Sleuth Onstage.
Receiving a phone call from her helper, the sleuth asks questions about the body in the library. The time is before nine.
4. Crime Scene.
Crossing two thresholds (the front door and the library doorway), and two threshold guardians (Colonel Bantry, Constable Palk), the sleuth buries a key insight in a three word dialogue line: “She’s very young.”
5. Police Onstage/Helper Onstage.
In the hallway at Gossington, Colonel Bantry and Colonel Melchett, Chief Constable at Much Benham, fret about the shock effect of the corpse on the helper, the sleuth’s helper.
6. Object Link ‑ Tawdry Dress.
A tawdry dress linked to the costume behavior of the lower classes alerts the sleuth to the possible false identity of the corpse.
7. Suspect Interrogation ‑ Colonel Bantry.
Colonel Melchett grills Colonel Bantry (Suspect One), who is known to have flirted with pretty young girls across the tennis net.
8. Suspect Interrogation ‑ Basil Blake.
Colonel Melchett grills Basil Blake (Suspect Two), the Film Man outsider who has a blonde girl friend named Dinah Lee. Framed by a photo, Basil Blake will be arrested for murder.
…. ….. ……
Side by Side Comparison of Modulars from Two Novels
|Body in the Library – Cozy||Gorky Park – Police Procedural|
|Discovery of Corpse||Discovery of Corpse|
|Reporting Crime||Reporting Crime|
|Sleuth Onstage (Marple)||Sleuth Onstage (Renko)|
|Crime Scene – Library||Crime Scene – Gorky Park|
|Keystone Cops Onstage||Suspect Onstage – Pribluda (Keystone cop)|
|Object Link – Tawdry Dress||Pathology Lab – Gutta Percha|
|Suspect Int – Colonel Bantry||Brush with Authority – Sleuth’s Boss|
|Suspect Int – Basil Blake||Dossier – Pribluda = killer|
|Forensic Report – Dr. Haydock||Sleuth’s Lair – Departing Wife|
|Police Report – Red Herring||Forensics Lab – chicken&fish blood|
|Killer Onstage – Josie Turner||Recreation of Crime – killer & 3 vics|
|First Encounter – Sleuth & Killer||Object Link – Ice Skates & femme fatale|
|Witness Interview – Mr. Prescott||Twisted Love – sleuth smacks cuckolder|
|Witness Interview – Adelaide||Sleuth Reporting – Iamskoy|
|Witness Interview – George Bartlett||Expert Helper – Andreev the Artist|
|Witness Interview – Night Porter||Return to Crime Scene – Suspect Kirwill|
|Witness Interview – Conway Jefferson||Surveillance – Killer & femme fatale|
|Recreation of Crime||Dossier – Killer is American|
|Victim’s Lair – Painted Lady||First Encounter – sleuth and killer|
© 2010 by Jack Remick and Robert Ray