[Note: I’m on holiday this week and reposting this popular article from 2021.] Readers recognize genres based on watching films and reading books. Although many readers cannot name a genre’s obligatory scenes and conventions, they sense when something is missing. To help you spot potential plot holes, envision the entire narrative. Plot your story using the Story Body* structure.
The Story Body Purpose
Writers vary in their approaches, so I’m going to summarize the Crime genre. This outline highlights crucial elements used to plot your story, and if those essentials are missing, readers sense the loss. For an overview of how all the pieces fit together, check out 5-Step Storytelling.
- Obligatory Scenes: These are the must-have scenes associated with a genre, such as the discovery of a body in a murder mystery.
- Audience Expectations: Readers expect an emotional rush from reading their favorite genres. For example, they expect excitement from a thriller and an intellectual challenge from a murder mystery.
- Genre-relevant Lead: Audiences expect certain traits and behaviors aligned with the genre. For instance, in a cozy mystery, readers expect a likable female amateur sleuth who overcomes her flaw to identify the criminal.
- Genre-suitable Supporting Cast: Genres often dictate the type of characters who will enhance the story. For example, quirky characters who add interest and humor to a cozy mystery.
- Genre Conventions: The genre suggests story-plot content that meets the audience’s expectations, such as the climatic moment in a murder mystery where the sleuth exposes the killer.
- Genre Main Plot and Subplots: Story-plot events that follow genre-based patterns. For example, a cozy mystery includes the discovery of a body near the beginning of the story.
Genres remain somewhat fluid as filmmakers and authors push boundaries. For instance, the style of a cozy mystery by today’s writers differs from books by Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Slayer, yet the foundational blocks of a murder mystery remain. Writers can discern what currently satisfies their target audience’s expectations by reading books within their chosen genre and scanning the many reader reviews.
To illustrate a genre’s primary category and its subcategories, I chose Crime as my external genre, which includes the Murder Mystery subgenre.
➨Murder Mystery (a Subgenre of Crime)
This subgenre includes:
- Master Detective:
- Cozy (Amazon subdivides)
- Crafts & Hobbies
- Noir / Hardboiled
- Police Procedural
- Cozy (Amazon subdivides)
- Other Crime:
- Organized Crime
➨Internal Genres (often paired with Crime)
I’ll give an example of how you can plot your story, but first let’s look at the Cozy Mystery structure.
Cozy Mystery Subgenre Structure
The audience has pre-established expectations of a Cozy Mystery.
- An early scene in the first act where sleuth discovers a murder.
- A scene where a character paraphrases the external theme.
- A scene where someone close to sleuth states the internal theme.
- A few scenes that serve as reminders of the external and internal themes.
- Scenes that bond readers to sleuth when she does something nice for someone, especially if done for a person who doesn’t deserve kindness.
- A scene where someone praises the criminal’s abilities.
- A scene hinting of the criminal’s object of desire—the MacGuffin.
- Another scene showing the discovery of the criminal’s MacGuffin.
- Multiple scenes showing sleuth chasing clues.
- A climatic scene where sleuth exposes the criminal.
- And a resolution scene showing the criminal brought to justice.
- Puzzle: The intellectual challenge and intrigue of solving the whodunit ahead of the story’s big reveal.
- Security: Participation in the investigation without the real-world risks of chasing criminals.
- Satisfaction: The pleasure of seeing justice served.
➨Lead Character Expectations
- Reluctant Amateur Sleuth (Primary Protagonist): The investigator is often a likable amateur female sleuth who has (or develops) an interesting reason to get involved and solve the crime.
- Sleuth’s Character Arc: In a series, the sleuth’s arc often continues to progress, such as starting out reluctant to investigate before committing to the effort.
- Likable Person: Sleuth’s endearing qualities entice readers to want to know more.
- Admirable and Realistic Traits: As sleuth interacts with others, she shows a mix of self-sufficiency and vulnerability.
- Entertains and Informs: Sleuth’s daily activities plus her investigation offer interesting details to entertain and inform readers.
- Triumphs Over Problems: Her efforts to overcome internal issues and external obstacles inspire readers.
➨Supporting Cast Expectations
- Worthy Opponent (Primary Antagonist): The murderer’s abilities and flaws are a match for sleuth’s talents, skills, and issues.
- Quirky Characters: Humorous, quirky characters with intriguing backstories spark conflict and inspire sleuth.
- Community Characters: Other individuals interact with sleuth, including family, police, and friends.
➨Cozy Mystery Conventions
A cozy mystery includes conventions that set it apart from thrillers, hard-core crime, and horror.
- In a series, the readers prefer each book solves the mystery, and they dislike cliffhangers designed to entice them to buy the next book.
- An inciting crime occurs near the novel’s beginning, and if more offenses occur, each crime increases stakes and adds complexity. Note: Cozy mysteries balance family, friendship and murder; thus, one murder or only a few homicides per story.
- The murder takes place offstage.
- Murderer’s reason for killing must be plausible.
- Readers expect to see every clue they’ll need to solve the mystery, and they dislike having unknown evidence interjected at the end to wrap up the story.
- Readers enjoy the intellectual challenge of legitimate red herrings that distract and confuse, misdirecting them away from clues, facts, suspects, and timelines.
- Top cozy mysteries introduce fresh twists that surprise and delight readers.
- As the contest of wits with sleuth progresses, the murderer makes it personal.
- Each story sets up a “ticking clock” that limits time to solve crime.
- The investigator is often a likable amateur female sleuth who has (or develops) an interesting reason to get involved.
- Both the sleuth and murderer have endearing qualities and flaws.
- While investigating, the sleuth encounters obstacles that increase conflicts and tension, such as a personal issue that impedes her solving the crime.
- A cozy mystery avoids profanities, explicit sex, and graphic violence because of reader expectations.
- The setting is a small town or subset of a larger city where the inciting crime happens.
- The murderer is from the same community as the victim.
- Victims are frequently disreputable, making the crime seem understandable or even justified.
- A cozy mystery series often has something that ties one book to the next, such as a trope, theme, hobby, or occupation.
- Stakes escalate because someone or something sleuth cares about is in danger.
➨Main Plot and Subplots
As I determined how to plot my story, I chose to amplify the main plot with four subplots .
- The investigation of the murder and victim is the Main Plot.
- Humorous, quirky characters with intriguing backstories spark conflict and inspire sleuth, serving as the Secondary Character Subplot.
- Other characters reappear across the series (e.g., family, police chief, friends) and serve as the Community Conflict Subplot.
- The Sleuth’s Character Arc Subplot shows the lead character’s progressive change as she deals with issues (e.g., flaws, needs, wants, emotional wound, relationships).
- The Setting and Story World Subplot paints a charming and interesting place readers will want to revisit. This world offers opportunities to introduce more characters across the series.
Main Plot and Subplots Story Bodies
As you envision the whole story, keep in mind the relationship between the main plot and subplots. It’s much easier to arrange all the pieces if you build a Story Spine and flesh out a Story Body for the main plot and each subplot.
- External Crime Theme: The external theme values range from justice to injustice. For example:
- Justice wins when the sleuth outwits the villain, which is an essential reason readers like cozy mysteries.
- Injustice wins when the villain outwits the sleuth, but that outcome conflicts with what audiences expect from a cozy mystery.
- Internal Morality Theme: The internal theme values range from altruism to selfishness. For instance:
- Good triumphs when the sleuth sacrifices her world-focused and selfish values in favor of the needs of others.
- Evil reigns when the sleuth pursues her selfish needs ahead of the needs of the cozy community.
Plot Your Story with Questions
I turned my initial story idea into this premise.
When the murder of a client disrupts an introverted gallery owner’s peaceful life in the Texas Hill Country, she uses her art investigative skills to identify the killer and discovers the intriguing odyssey of a priceless painting looted in World War II.
Next, I profiled my POV character and completed the Story Spine. Then, based on my premise, the cozy mystery subgenre, and lead character’s profile, I created and answered dozens of questions.
Q: Who plays the primary POV role in the story?
Q: What are the inner issues that influence the lead character’s choices?
A: The main character resists the call to sleuth because she fears the loss of her idyllic life
Q: What does the lead character typically do?
A: Dorothy typically walks her dog early each day, then has breakfast with husband, and around 10:00 a.m., opens her art gallery.
Q: What is Dorothy’s object of desire (i.e., her want)?
A: She wants to identify who killed her client (i.e., bring the murderer to justice).
Q: What lesson must Dorothy learn that supersedes her want?
A: To become the amateur sleuth who brings the killer to justice, Dorothy must overcome her fear of losing the idyllic life she and husband carved out in their adopted small town, and that means she must apply what her husband said, “You can’t let fear hold you back from what your called to do.”
➨Setting and Time
Q. Where does the story take place?
A: The story unfolds in a fictional small town located at the top of the hill country in central Texas. Most of the activity takes place in the businesses located along the Main Street.
Q: When does the story happen?
A: The story begins with a prologue taking place at the end of World War II. Save for the epilogue, the rest of the story occurs during two-weeks in the present.
➨Conflicts and Obstacles
Q: What is the crucial challenge faced by Dorothy?
A: The core conflict pits the sleuth against an elusive murderer. Additional challenges:
- The main character resists the call to sleuth because she fears the loss of her idyllic life.
- Her best friend’s troubled past feeds sleuth’s fears.
- Local police chief first encourages, then hinders sleuth.
- The beautiful small-town setting changes from idyllic to deadly.
- Sleuth faces off against five different suspects, and she receives deadly threats.
Plot Your Story with Story Body Prompts
There are 18 Story Beats, and each one pairs with a Story Body prompt. For example:
ACT 1: STABLE WORLD
- HOOK: Once upon a time, there was a (Lead Character) who was (Lead Character’s major flaw).
- SETUP: Every day, (Lead Character’s routine; story setting and time).
- TRIGGER: But, one day, (problem or event) occurred, and (Lead Character) (tried to solve the problem or deal with the event).
- WRANGLE: Unfortunately, (consequences of Lead Character’s flaw-driven action occurred).
- THRUST INTO 2: Because of that, (Lead Character) decided (on Lead Character’s goal) and had to (Lead Character’s initial [plan to fulfill that goal).
ACT 2A: UNSTABLE WORLD (Part One)
- RESPONSE: In order to take this action, Lead Character decided to (act on Lead Character’s initial plan).
- POWER PLAY 1: Unfortunately, (obstacle) happened,
- PREMISE: which caused (complications).
- MIDPOINT: Since that happened, (Lead Character) faced (new task or risk).
ACT 2B: UNSTABLE WORLD (Part Two)
- ACTION: Where Lead Character once wanted to (i.e., the want), Lead Character was now aware of (the need), and (pursued new task or faced up to the new risk).
- POWER PLAY 2: But how could Lead Character succeed because of (obstacle)?
- BATTLE 1: Filled with (emotions because of outcome), Lead Character (took a new action).
ACT 3: CHANGED WORLD
- PLUNGE INTO 3: And because of that, (consequences) occurred, leaving Lead Character feeling (emotions at a low point).
- PONDER: Lead Character encounters setbacks, reflects on the consequences, and that helped (come up with problem solution).
- FACE OFF: All Lead Character had to do was (take action), but that required a face off with (the obstacle).
- BATTLE 2: Using (Lead Character’s/other character’s abilities), (Lead Character’s skills), and (Lead Character’s discoveries), Lead Character was able to (overcome the obstacle).
- CLIMAX: Unfortunately, (a reversal of fortune occurred—failures, setting up the CLIMAX for Lead Character’s third and final battle). This battle continued until finally, (Lead Character applied the lesson learned—mentor’s advice).
- RESOLUTION: And, ever since then, (the change that has occurred), which (the meaning of the change to Lead Character, Other Characters, and audience).
A Story Body Plot Example
Use the Story Body to tell a complete version of your narrative.
ACT 1: STABLE WORLD
Once upon a time there was an art gallery owner who loved her idyllic life in a small town, but while walking her dog, she came across a body—her newest client.
Every day, she felt more compelled to find out who killed him. Using her investigative skills honed from years of researching art, she tried to identify the killer, causing friction at home, conflicts with friends, and hindrances from police chief.
But one day, she discovered the intriguing odyssey of a valuable painting looted at the end of World War II—the same painting her dead client had left for appraisal.
Unfortunately, Dorothy’s fear of losing her idyllic life kept her from immediately investigating. Her internal debate continued until she recalled what her husband had said, “You can’t let fear hold you back from what you’re called to do.”
THRUST INTO 2
Because of that encouragement, she began interviewing suspects who had reasons to do away with her client.
ACT 2A: UNSTABLE WORLD (Part One)
In order to take this action, Dorothy visited with each suspect despite the expected resistance from the individuals and police chief.
POWER PLAY 1
Unfortunately, Dorothy received threats, fueling her fear of losing the life she loves.
Which caused delays in the investigation, but she continued interviewing suspects over multiple days. With each individual, she encountered obstacles, causing more conflicts at home, with her best friend and the police chief.
Since that happened, she encountered even more issues at home, work, and play, forcing her to face the real possibility she might lose her idyllic life if she continued investigating the murder. Instead of letting fear hold her back, she vowed to follow her calling as an amateur sleuth.
ACT 2B: UNSTABLE WORLD (Part Two)
Where she once wanted to maintain her idyllic life, she was now aware of her selfless duty to her adopted community, and diligently narrowed the field of suspects while dealing with even more conflicts and obstacles.
POWER PLAY 2
But how could she succeed because of the danger she faces from the two remaining suspects?
Filled with fear because of the deadly threats, Dorothy’s mixture of faith and resolve helped her muster the courage to continue. She uncovered vital clues and scheduled a meeting with her prime suspect.
ACT 3: CHANGED WORLD
PLUNGE INTO 3
As a result of her faith and resolve, she eliminated all suspects, save for one, but as she closed in on the killer’s identification, her efforts put Dorothy and her husband in danger. When she confronted the suspect, he denied the allegation, and that set off a series of events that shifted Dorothy’s life from idyllic to deadly.
She encountered more setbacks, forcing her to refocus the investigation on one of the previously ruled-out suspects. This time, as the threats continued, only a thin thread of faith sustained her.
All she had to do was meet with the suspect, but that required a face off with the man who had threatened her and husband, and that could lead to a deadly outcome.
Relying on her husband’s military training, her investigative skills, and her keen awareness of additional evidence, she pulled off the meeting without loss of life, eliminating that suspect and giving her the clues needed to confront the actual killer.
Until finally, Dorothy and her husband faced certain death at the hands of the killer. They tried to escape, and failed twice, but her fearless taunts allowed the police chief to arrive undetected and capture the distracted killer.
And ever since then, she and her husband grew closer, and he encouraged her to continue her calling as the small town’s resident amateur sleuth.
Next Phase: The Global Story Beats
With three steps of 7-Step Storytelling completed, I can now envision the entire story. Before writing scenes and scene sequences, however, I’ll need to complete the Global Story Beats. Then tackle the Story Logline followed by the Scenes and Scene Sequences.
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When writing a novel of 50,000 to 100,000 words, how do you keep track of all the details?
Free Character Template
*In Pilar Alessandra’s book, The Coffee Break Screenwriter**, I saw the similarities between what she called the Bedtime Story and Kenn Adams Story Spine. That inspired me to bridge the gap between the Story Spine and Global Story Beats with what I’m calling the Story Body.
**As an Amazon Associate, I may earn a small commission from qualifying purchases, but it won’t cost you a penny more. Learn more in my Affiliate Disclaimer.
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