OK, so I've read in several illustrious locations the admonition to put character above plot in order to write well; most of these locations have been aimed at 'serious' writers, and I find myself wondering exactly how this applies in the writing of crime/mystery fiction. I honestly can't see how a good (which, to me, means strongly and tightly plotted) mystery can be written without putting plot foremost. Comments?


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I think you need BOTH! You've got to have a great plot that puts your realistic, 3-dimensional character to the test, forcing him/her into uncomfortable/dangerous situations that exploit the character's weaknesses and draw on his/her strengths. I think plot and character have to be intertwined and feed on each other.
Without a plot you have nothing but a Russian novel that goes on forever and basically says nothing. Without characters your plot is nothing but a set of driving directions that say, "At the next stop light, turn right."

It takes two deadly poisons to create salt. To have a great book requires the two ingredients measured equally.
It definitely takes both for a good mystery. I don't think you can have a book in this genre without plot... unless you really stretch the definition. But to gain me as a permanent audience, one who eagely anticipates every novel and even rereads the ones I have, though the mystery's long since been revealed, you better focus on giving me some characters to care about.

Otherwise I'll enjoy the book and pass it on to a friend who'll pass it on to a friend and eventually leave it at the beach or the doctor's office.
Excellent point.
I believe it's like the chicken and the egg: sometimes, the chicken comes first, and sometimes the egg does.

Often when we dream up a plot, we have dream up characters to fit the plot. And what starts a plot but an idea, but the idea of a specific character can help the writer develop the plot.

The way I do it, even if I have the plot, is to begin with a character in action. Of course, that is not original with me. The first book I knows of that suggested that was originally published in the 1930s or 1940s. Although I first read it in books published later. In order of time, not as I learned it but as it was originally published to more recent publications, the order of authors of that kind of start were: Jack Woodford, Lester Dent, Scott Meredith, Randall Cassel, and Dean Koontz.

The writer develops both plot and character along the way. If smart, the writer layers both story and plot along the way.

Even those writers who begin with a full-book plot outline have to give cursory descriptions of the character, even if that description is as bare as "the detective," "the victim," "Suspect number ..."

Whether you work from plot or character, you have to flesh out both as you go along. If the idea was the instigator, and face it, you had the idea first, and from there you developed the plot. If you had the character first, you probably created a person who will move the plot along. Some authors can just sit down and write, but something in their subconscious keeps makes some changes as they go along. They juggle the plot, sharpen the characterization, then they juggle.

Sometimes a plot is episodic, with a journey or a sojourn, but even episodic plots have a beginning, middle and end of the journey be that journey a quest, a vacation or an entire lifetime.


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