Search This Blog

The Mystery Skeleton


Last week, we looked at Mystery subgenres. This week, we examine the building blocks for the mystery skeleton.

The overall story problem is a crime or puzzle that needs to be solved.


The reader asks: What happened or who did it and will they find out in time?

Not all mysteries are murders, some involve thefts, treason, treasure hunts, puzzles or disappearances. Mysteries are often written as a series with a central protagonist solving separate crimes or puzzles in each book. The case is solved in almost all cases. If the nemesis escapes at the last moment to torment the detective another day, the case that drew them in is considered solved.

Twists where someone other than the detective solves the crime or there wasn’t a crime after all will typically anger the fans of the Mystery genre. That story should be rerouted to the Thriller section. Their expectations are high and they want to be mystified.

In Mystery stories, the protagonist is the amateur or professional sleuth who solves the mystery.



In a Mystery, the antagonist is the criminal the sleuth is chasing or the person most opposed to the secret coming out. He or she should be a cunning foe who goes to great lengths to hide his connection to the crime. Sometimes it is another character that gets 

in the way or makes solving the case harder. It can be a superior, a competitor, a guilty co-worker, or someone in the crime solving business with something to hide or dislike for the protagonist. This is especially true of formulaic or cozy mysteries where no one threatens the sleuth directly. It can be a repeated character such as Moriarity in Sherlock Holmes. 

External Conflict scenes focus directly on the Mystery itself. The protagonist investigates leads, locates the missing weapon, and arrests the bad guy. These are the meeting room scenes where the team discusses progress, the courtroom scenes, or the funeral scenes. These scenes lead up to and include the final climactic confrontation and resolution.

Antagonist Conflict scenes show the protagonist talking to, stalking, or matching wits with the character that serves as the antagonist. In most mysteries, the verbal camera follows the sleuth. Whether in first person or third, the reader knows only what the detective knows. Clues have been dropped and the reader may or may not have picked them up, but in most cases the reader isn’t privy to the POV of the antagonist. However, if you follow the antagonist with your verbal camera, these scenes would show him working his plan. The detective is hot on his trail, but the antagonist stays one step ahead. Or the antagonist works behind the scenes to stall, mislead, or interfere with the investigation.

Interpersonal Conflict scenes reveal how the friends and foes impact the story. The protagonist is misled by the murderer’s sidekicks or by other suspects who have something to hide. The chief tells the cop to find the murderer quickly or he will be demoted. The amateur sleuth is threatened by the victim’s son who is protecting his girlfriend who is the true murderer. Friends and foes tug him toward and pull him away from the trail in a game of hot or cold. Some characters help the sleuth, willingly or unwillingly, intentionally or unintentionally. Others hinder his progress, lie, misdirect, and apply pressure: suspects, witnesses, team members, relatives, love interest, etc.

Internal Conflict scenes reveal the protagonist sitting in the opera house with his wife wondering if they can keep their marriage together while observing the murder suspect across the way. He may be an alcoholic sitting in a bar nursing a soda instead of the beer he longs for. This is the sleuth dealing with his deep wound or dark secret or the cop questioning the morality of his job. Other characters can be present and act as foils, but the topic is his personal dilemma that leads to a point of change.

Check out the newly released Mystery Build A Plot Workbook in print and e-book format.

There are free crime, suspect, and victim profile worksheets available on my website.

Next week, we look at the Road Trip story skeleton.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict available in print and e-book and explore the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Mystery Subgenres

Last week, we explored the Literary skeleton, this week we explore Mystery subgenres.

1. Amateur Investigator stories feature a protagonist who is not currently a cop or a PI. They are drawn into the mystery because of personal stakes, incurable curiosity, or a brilliant mind. 

2. Bumbling Detectives mix the Mystery structure with the Comedy structure.

3. Cozy mysteries feature either an amateur or professional sleuth and are usually set in small towns. There is little focus on violence and it avoids gory details.

4. Medical mysteries feature physicians or other medical professionals who encounter and solve murders or mysterious illnesses.

5. Hard Boiled/Noir mysteries feature a gritty, cynical, usually male private investigator, in a violent urban setting. This is the “dame walked into my office” subgenre.

6. Historical mysteries feature clever detectives in many historical settings. They can use historical figures as detective or have a detective investigate stories involving or surrounding historical figures.

7. Howdunit
mysteries begin with the reader "witnessing" the murder, crime, etc. and the story unravels how the perpetrator is caught.

8. Legal Mysteries feature a sleuth who is a lawyer or court official who solves the case on their own when the clueless or corrupt cops fail to do so.

9. Police Procedurals  feature a sleuth who is police detective, officer, forensic technician, medical examiner, etc. who solves the murder or crime. The crimes range from mild to gruesome. The level of gory detail varies.

10. Private Investigator mysteries feature a sleuth (sometimes an ex-cop, soldier, spy or lawyer) who delves into the cases that the cops often can’t, or don’t want, to solve.

11. Supernatural mysteries combine the mystery structure with a Fantasy element.


Next week, we take a look at the building blocks for the Mystery skeleton.

Check out the newly released Mystery Build A Plot Workbook in print and e-book format.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict available in print and e-book and explore the free tools and information about the series on my website.

The Literary Skeleton

Last week, we looked at broad categories of literary stories. This week, we look at the individual building blocks.

The overall story problem is usually a wrenching, life-altering, personal decision or life event.

The reader asks: What are they feeling and how will it change?

Theme is key. Literary can have a specific plot or be a slice of life vignette. Literary fiction does not always follow the traditional story arc, but the protagonist should undergo a point of change no matter how minimal.


The Literary story can be mixed with elements of any genre, but the focus is largely on the psychological dissection of the event. You can have a Literary ghost story or a Literary war story, but the reader is waiting for the protagonist’s resolution of their personal dilemma rather than the outcome of the war. Coming of age stories are often Literary. A child undergoes a transformation to adult because of some crisis or situation. Literary stories often explore heavy hitting issues such as abuse, illness, sexuality, parenthood, aging parents, etc. 

The focus in a Literary story is the language used to convey it, the writer’s unique prose or voice. Genre pieces can be written with the lyricism of Literary and a Literary novel can follow a genre story arc. The difference is the pace and the lyricism of the tale. Literary stories take the time to express philosophies and explore the human condition in ways the other genres cannot. Conflicts are often subtle.

In Literary stories, the options for protagonist are endless. It can be a child coming of age or an elderly person facing end  of life. It can be a person dealing with an illness, a complicated friendship, a divorce, or a legal or ethical dilemma.


There doesn’t have to be an antagonist per se, rather an antagonistic situation. The characters are the focus rather than the events. The subtle tension must make the reader so invested in the characters, they are willing to wade through the slower pace and lyrical wording to find out what happens. The luxury of the literary novel is the language and situation used to convey the thematic premise are the focus. It does not always end happily and theme is crucial.

External Conflict scenes don’t have to involve dramatic fight or chase scenes. They don’t require action-oriented thriller moments. They may not have the swoon-inducing desire of a Romance, though it may include those elements. Whatever the story line, it requires tension. These scenes bring the camera in close to dissect the protagonist’s psyche. Even so, elements in the external world the character navigates affect their personal metamorphosis or cause a drastic change in their way of thinking.

Antagonist Conflict scenes in the literary novel are often less overt than in any other genre. There may not be a “bad guy.” It may not be good versus evil. It may be making the right choice versus the wrong one. It may be a split in the protagonist’s psyche, the devil sitting on his shoulder. However, there is some antagonistic force working against what the character knows is the right decision. It can be society, medical realities, the legal system, or a friend or relative with an opposing agenda. The antagonist’s POV is rarely explored in these stories though there are antagonistic forces.

Interpersonal Conflict scenes follow friends and foes that confuse the issue: a love interest, a bullying boss, or dysfunctional relatives. There will be those who debate various sides of the thematic argument. Some characters push them toward the wrong decision and some toward the right one.

Internal Conflict scenes are at the heart of the story problem in the literary fiction novel, but there can still be a smaller personal issue that makes his decision that much harder to make. These scenes reflect the subtle shifts in his thinking or behavior.

Next week, we take a look at Mystery subgenres.

Check out the newly released addition to the Story Building Blocks series: Literary Build A Plot Workbook available in print and e-book.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and explore the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Literary Subgenres

Last week, we explored the Horror story skeleton.  This week, we take a look a subgenres of the literary skeleton.

I realize the term "literary" fiction is usually construed as "literature," and there are massive discussions about what constitutes literature. In my series, I consider literary stories a slower, more character focused form of fiction. I make no attempt to define literature. The distinction from other genre fiction is that there is a lyrical quality. The pace can be slow. There can be lingering, poignant closeups with your verbal camera. The focus is on the interiority of the character far more than the action.

I have come up with a list of several broad categories.


1. Activist/Cause Literary stories examine the ramification of a social topic, politics, religion, and man's inhumanity to man.

2. Coming of Age Literary stories examine an adolescent facing adulthood.

3. Crime Literary stories examine the impact and fallout from a crime for the victim, victim's family, or the perpetrator, or his family.

4. Disease/Death Literary stories examine the effects of a serious illness or the impact of a death.

5. Friendship Literary stories examine the building, maintenance, or unraveling of a friendship.

6. Historical Literary stories examine the impact of a pivotal point in history on an individual, a family, or population. The focus is not so much on the gritty details of the historical event, rather how the times impacted specific people.

7. Legal Literary stories examine how upholding or contesting the law impacts a person or group of people.

8. Malfeasance Literary stories examine how a corporation or group has damaged people and how they are exposed.

9. Multi-Generation Family sagas examine the lives of two or more generations in a family.

10. Relationship Literary stories examine the building, maintenance, or unraveling of any relationship: rivals, family, groups, or friendships.

11. Romantic Literary stories examine the building, maintenance, or unraveling of a romantic relationship.

12. Revelation Literary stories examine the impact of the revelation of a secret or a universal truth.

13. Situational Literary stories peel back the layers of a problem to reveal the cause.

14. War Literary stories explore the causes, outcomes, and cost of war.

Next week, we take a look at the building blocks that constitute a literary skeleton.


Check out the newly released addition to the Story Building Blocks series: Literary Build A Plot Workbook available in print and e-book.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and explore the free tools and information about the series on my website.

The Horror Skeleton

Last week, we explored horror subgenres. This week, we dissect the story skeleton.

No story makes your skin crawl more than the horror story. It takes suspense to a higher, usually more explicit, level and generally contains more graphic material than the Thriller.

The overall story problem in this genre is a mortal threat to an individual or group. There can be a mystery at the heart of it, but it is separate from the mystery genre.

The reader expects to be not only thrilled and anxious, but horrified and you need to start from page one. You can start slow and build on the horror, but true fans won’t appreciate a slow, horror-free build-up to a final horrible truth.

The point of the Horror story is to make the readers squirm, scream, and confront their fears either individually or as a group. The fears can be everyday things such as fear of being alone, the dead, the unknown, or the dark. The horror genre magnifies our fears so we can examine them safely.

There must a sense of being trapped in a room, a house, a town, or on a planet you can’t escape and therefore must turn and face the threat. 
It’s scariest if the reader doesn’t know where the threat is hiding or where it will strike next. Tension rises when the reader thinks, “There’s something in the dark, I can’t see it, how can I protect myself from it?” Horror threats prey on our elemental fear of being alone and defenseless.

Horror sometimes follows the “who will die next” plot, knocking off secondary or tertiary characters. I am turned off by mindless body count plots, but they are certainly utilized.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that tension deflates after the "bang." I would add tension deflates after the "Boo." A good horror story throttles between "gotcha" moments, keeping a firm foot on the plot gas pedal.

The reader asks: What brought the danger near and how will they get away from it?


External Conflict scenes follow the effects of the evil on the entire cast or story world. The intent of these scenes is to scare the pants off of your readers. You have to confine them and torture them. Tension is created when the threat is something suspected but just out of sight. The menace has to be believable and constitute a mortal threat to one, some, or all. Panic rises. Suspicion shifts. Reality blurs.

In these scenes, the protagonist and/or victims are chased down a dark corridor, find the journal with the ghost’s picture, or search the library for who used to own the creepy house. They get locked in the cellar by the demon as the house goes up in flames.

In the final external scenes, the threat is removed, unless it is banished to return in the sequel.


Antagonist Conflict scenes depend on what kind of antagonist you have chosen. There can be a person or an entity that embodies the horror.  Antagonists include the abnormal and paranormal: ghosts, zombies, vampires, serial murderers, killer sharks, giant spiders, viruses, vampires, werewolves, or clowns. The antagonist must be nearly impossible to beat and to fail means death.


A dire threat like a virus is better if there is someone who wants the virus to run its course. I am reminded of a film that I saw called The Happening. Even though it was directed by one of my favorites, M. Night Shyamalan, the antagonist was a breeze that killed people and wasn’t really menacing enough. There were no clear stakes in the game either. The horror was caused by spores from trees carried on the wind. The deaths were random. Random targets aren't as effective as intentional targets the audience cares about.

In these scenes, the evil and the protagonist face off with each other. The protagonist comes into contact with the ghost and asks the ghost why it is haunting the house. The evil entity attempts to kill but misses the hero.

The object of horror’s motivation is rarely examined. You see the vampire creeping toward the sleeping girl because you know vampires suck blood. The sea monster slithers down a city street from the manhole and eats people, because that is what monsters do. The serial killer kills because he must. We rarely follow the swamp monster as he goes about his swampy day. That’s not to say you can’t. If the antagonist is a person or represented by a person, you can follow their POV in these scenes and explore their agenda.

If you don't follow the antagonist's POV, these scenes show near misses with the antagonist or the results of his machinations between external conflict scenes. These are complications caused by the antagonist.


Interpersonal Conflict scenes are where the protagonist consults a priest about banishing the demon. The hero finds someone to let him into the witch’s castle. He learns from the librarian that all ghosts have unfinished business. His buddy tells him he is crazy for believing in ghosts in the first place. People encourage him to stay and fight and some beg him to flee. Some people act for him, others against him. If secondary characters have subplots, they fit here.

This is usually where they learn the monster’s Achilles' heel.

Internal Conflict scenes are where the protagonist debates his belief in ghosts or wrestles with his depression over the death of his mother. The scientist wonders if he should finally ask his co-researcher out for a date. He struggles with whatever force is driving him to kill the monster or prove that aliens are out there. 

These scenes are sometimes missing in the horror story, unless it is psychological horror. Personal stakes and character change enrich any story.


Next week, we will take a look at Literary subgenres.

Check out the newly released addition to the Story Building Blocks series: Horror Build A Plot Workbook available in print and e-book.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and explore the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Horror Subgenres

There are several subgenres of horror from suspenseful to gruesome.

1. Alien Horror takes Science Fiction to a darker place. The source of the horror is either on another planet or something brought to Earth from outer space.

2. Creepy Kids Horror features children who turn out to be evil or possessed by demons or Satan.

3. Erotic Horror features explicit content: sadomasochism, torture, the dark side of sexuality and the sex trade.

4. Extreme Horror contains explicit violence and is often a “who dies first plot” with no real rhyme or reason other than to kill the victims off in horrendous fashion.

5. Holocaust Horror contains mass deaths, either in the past or future. They can be due to human slaughter, a rogue virus, monsters, zombies, etc. They are often dystopian or post-apocalyptic settings.

6. Humorous Horror combines the horror structure with the comedy structure. It is scary and/or gruesome, but also funny.

7. Mind Control Horror plays on our fear of not being in control of our own minds. The mind can be taken over via sorcery or via technology. Victims are forced to act against their will and nature and are horrifying aware of it – unlike a mindless zombie.

8. Noir Horror
 uses a gritty, urban setting with cynical protagonists who must fight the horror facing himself or everyone.

9. Paranormal Horror
 features a mortal protagonist who must fight off immortal or supernatural threats. These include exorcist tales, possession, ghosts or demons.

10. Psychological Horror keeps the verbal camera in tight focus on the protagonist. He and the audience are kept in the dark. They aren’t certain what they are fighting until the end. This subgenre can also follow the evil or insane protagonist such as a serial killer, where the protagonist actually turns out to be the antagonist.

11. Rampant Technology Horror examines our fears that man has gone too far in their technology or achievements. It can feature monster toasters or robots that kill. It can be the ghost in the machine or the machine that steals your soul.

13. Satanic Bargain Horror features a protagonist who strikes a deal with the devil, like Dorian Gray. They end up paying a horrible price for their decision.

Next week, we will take a look at the Horror story skeleton. C
heck out the newly released addition to the Story Building Blocks series: Horror Build A Plot Workbook available in print and e-book.


For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and explore the free tools and information about the series on my website.

Historical Story Skeleton

Previously, we examined Historical fiction subgenres. This week, we will dissect the building blocks that make up the historical novel.

The overall story problem in this genre explores an event from the past

The reader asks. "What was it like and how did it change things?"

For the purposes of Story Building Blocks, it can involve historical characters in a historical situation, historical characters in fictional situations, or fictional characters in historical situations.


There can be elements of Romance, Mystery, Thriller, Science Fiction, or Fantasy, but the overall story problem focuses on the historical situation with emphasis on a point in history. It can shed new light, debunk old theories, or twist history in an unusual way.

The art of the Historical novel lies in the details.  Creating a 3-D story world enriches the plot. Your story world must be true to the time, place, and people involved. You must research the customs, culture, and knowledge of the period to make it believable.
There will be fact-checking nitpickers out there ready to tear your authenticity apart.

Thankfully, there are myriad resources for research and access has never been easier. Helpful authors have provided guides to different historical periods, including costuming, weapons, manners, and morals. There are online databases to mine, maps to view, and even CGI recreations of places. If your local library lacks references, there are online resources to make up for it.

Good historical stories follow a traditional story arc of a main character that wants something and fights to get it: freedom, government, law and order, peace, war, revolution, social change, influence, or power.


In Historical stories, the protagonist can be a historical person or a fictional character in a historical setting.

The antagonist in the Historical saga offers stiff opposition. He or she can be a Confederate general, Nazi spy, Roman Emperor, or rival Queen. It can be a congressman or a sailor or a corrupt plantation owner.

External Conflict scenes reveal the historical situation in which the actual or fictional characters are involved. These are the battlefield scenes, the meetings of great minds to debate passing a bill. It could be a war, a political coup, a great debate, a ball or dance, an afternoon tea, an election, a business transaction, a slave auction, a lecture, a plantation house fire, or a meeting of Suffragettes. These are the battle scenes, the senate speeches, or the ship leaves for the New World. They include the inciting event and series of encounters that lead up to and include the final decisive event.

Antagonist Conflict scenes follow the opposing forces, the Union leader versus the Confederate leader, the assassin planning to shoot the president, or the congressman accepting bribes. They involve either the protagonist facing off against the antagonist on opposite sides of the argument or battlefield or the antagonist plotting and scheming on his own if you follow his point of view. The antagonist is often explored in this type of story, allowing you an opportunity to argue the opposite thematic point.

Interpersonal Conflict scenes can enrich the central theme with arguments both for and against the issue being explored: slavery, north versus south, England versus Scotland, Aborigines versus settlers, women’s suffrage, or worker’s rights. You can illustrate the shades of gray, how an outcome is good for some but bad for others. The friends and foes take sides, work to achieve their own goals, and shape the outcome by their aid or interference.

Internal Conflict scenes follow the protagonist as he debates the morality of his decisions. He is motivated by love, hate, fear, or revenge. Other people can be present, but this is his personal dilemma, the backstory of how he came to be involved, or the emotional price he will pay for upsetting the status quo. This is the war of allegiance to family, lovers, friends, or political groups. He could be dealing with the death of a loved one, a miscarriage of justice, or conflicting ties that make participating in the larger battle difficult.

For help with building the Historical novel, check out the Historical Build A Plot Workbook and the Build A World Workbook.

Next week, we will take a look at Horror Story subgenres.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.