Writing Wednesdays : The importance of a murder board

Roughly 50% of any Castle episode.

A wall of mugshots and evidence photos, scrawled timelines of events, arrows or bits of string connecting the dots. If it’s limited to a small area, like a whiteboard or two, and nicely organized, then it’s a cop using the wheels of justice. If it’s expansive and scattered and in the hands of an average citizen, it’s an invitation to the Crazy House.

Wall-o-crazy in Leverage

Hardison's conspiracy theorist impression - pretty good, actually

If there’s a fine line between genius and insanity, there’s an even thinner line between a murder board and a wall of crazy.

In television and cinema, I see these all the time, usually because it’s a dang effective visual tool. In a single shot, you can see the progress of a criminal investigation, or a person’s current state of mind, and recap all the important bits without the bog of exposition. But there’s undoubtedly another reason that these crop up so often – because it works. Especially for this writer.

When I was working on my first novel during senior year of college, I never needed something so expansive or visual. My plot was plenty twisty and backstabbing, but not so much that I couldn’t keep track of it. Also, that story wasn’t so much a whodunit as a howdunit – a journey-is-more-important-than-the-destination kinda thing. So much that I was told point-blank that the ending was obvious by the third chapter, but the internal transformation of the protagonist had enough momentum to push things forward. Until I tossed in couple red herrings and the blind-sidingly violent death of a major character. :D

However, that was about five years ago, and now that I’m starting a whole series, simple plots just don’t keep my interest. I like lots of toys on my playground, even if I’m not going to use the toys for a while. As a result, my plots get complicated. Damnably complicated. And why I’ve found a ‘murder board’ to be an absolute necessity.

Even if it tends to devolve into wall-o-crazy.

For example, for the last week or so, I’ve felt like slamming my head against the desk because I know that I need to start shifting from Plot A to Plot B, but had no idea how to do that without jerking the book’s momentum around like a noob driving a stick shift for the first time. So I looked up to the huge corkboard hung over my desk for guidance, and realized that it wasn’t my book that was off – it was my murder board. So much random stuff had been tacked up there that the plot threads weren’t visible anymore, or they’d gotten tangled up in random plot turns. Worse, I hadn’t taken the time to figure out my main villain yet. Other than, ‘he does X and Y and Z because he wants to mess up my hero,’ I didn’t know my villain at all. Why was he doing X? Why Y? Why all these schemes? And what connection/relationship does he have with the Pawn Villain of Plot A? And if my villain got loose the year prior to the book, what had he done in the interim that he hadn’t been noticed by the heroes yet?

Also, I realized that I still had old plot threads from the first book in the series that hadn’t been resolved or even unraveled.

Old plot threads that could help explain the villain’s current actions.

The lightbulb went on. A lightbulb that wouldn’t have been found if I hadn’t taken the time to fix my board.

I <3 my board, even if makes me look a little crazy.

What are some other ideas for plotting out books and finding plot holes?


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