Not long ago, graphic designer Maya Eilam suggested a fascinating way to look at the shape of a story – through a graphic pattern. She based her ideas on Kurt Vonnegut’s theories about archetypal story patterns (e.g. ‘boy meets girl,’ and ‘creation stories,’ among others).
I got to thinking about story patterns for certain kinds of crime fiction novels and thought it might be interesting to see what those patterns look like pictorially. Now of course, each story is a little bit different. Still, let’s take a look at some basic story patterns.
Keep in mind as you read that a) I am not a graphic designer, so the graphics are not professional; b) this is all just my take on story shapes; c) there’s only space on this post for a few examples. I’m sure that you’ll be able to think of a lot more than I could.
The Classic/Golden Age Novel
In many (‘though certainly not all!) classic/Golden Age crime novels, we meet the characters. Then something untoward happens and then, there’s a murder. The sleuth begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together, only to have to deal with a second murder or other setback. Then the sleuth puts more pieces of the puzzle together, to arrive at a resolution. There’s very often a hint of romance in such novels too (although again, certainly not always).
That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow. The story starts as we get to know the various members of the Angkatell family. They’re preparing for a weekend gathering that will also include Harley Street specialist John Christow and his wife Gerda. The weekend begins and we see the tensions among the characters rise. Then, John Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot is staying at a nearby cottage he’s taken, and he and Inspector Grange work to find out who the killer is. At first Poirot gets to some of the truth about the murder but of course, there are setbacks. Then, Poirot finds the other pieces of the puzzle. There’s a bit of a romance angle too for two of the characters. Of course, the novel has other depths too, but you can see how it’s consistent with this pattern.
There’s also John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook. That’s the story of the murder of Martin Starberth. The Starberth family were Governors of Chatterham Prison for several generations, and it’s still the family custom for each Starberth heir to spend the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the Governor’s Room at the now-ruined prison as a sort of initiation rite. When Martin Starberth takes his turn, he’s found dead the next morning. The story is told through the eyes of Tad Rampole, an American who’s visiting Dr. Gideon Fell, who lives not far from the prison. First, we meet the characters. The tension rises as we learn the story of the Starberth family, and then Martin Starberth is killed. There are some clues to the puzzle, but there are setbacks as this seems to be one of those ‘impossible crimes.’ It isn’t of course, and Fell finds that the key to the mystery is a cryptic poem. Again, parts of the story don’t strictly follow this story shape, but in general, it fits. Oh, and there’s a romance in this novel too.
The Police Procedural
There are of course a lot of variations on the police procedural theme. But in general, the real action in them starts when a body is discovered. Then the police interview witnesses and those who were involved with the victim. Sometimes the detective gets a clue or even several pieces of the puzzle. Then there’s often a setback as clues don’t pan out, more victims are killed, or the police detective is warned off a case for whatever reason. Then comes the break in the case. There’s also sometimes a confrontation between the detective and the criminal. Then, even if the criminal isn’t always led away in handcuffs, we know the truth about the case.
That’s what happens in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, the first of their Martin Beck series. The action in the story begins when the body of an unknown woman is pulled from a Swedish lake. After a lot of effort she is identified as Roseanna McGraw, an American who was touring Sweden when she was killed. Martin Beck and his team talk to people who might be witnesses, and there’s a parallel investigation in the victim’s hometown in Nebraska. But there are setbacks as the detectives really can’t find a viable suspect. Then there’s a major breakthrough in the case and the killer is identified. There’s a confrontation with that person and the case is solved. Of course there’s more to the novel than that, but you can see how it’s consistent with this pattern.
We also see this pattern in Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear. New South Wales police detective Ella Marconi and her team are called in when Paul Fowler is killed. He was with a group of friends tossing a football around when he suddenly collapsed. When it’s found that he was shot, the team begins to talk with the people on the scene as well as with other people in Fowler’s life. There are setbacks as several people involved in the case keep things back. There are other deaths, too. But then there’s a breakthrough, and Marconi and her team find out the truth. Again, there are other layers to this novel and there are subplots. But in many ways it’s consistent with the basic story structure.
The Cosy Mystery
The characters in a cosy mystery are often very important. So lots of cosies start with an introduction to the characters. Then something happens that raises the tension level. Then there’s a murder. The sleuth (who’s usually an amateur, ‘though of course, not always) is drawn into the case. She or he often has a love interest or something else that brings some hope (cosies tend to be optimistic). But there are setbacks. Either the sleuth is suspected of the crime, or there’s another murder – sometimes both. However, there is support from the sleuth’s real friends and sometimes from the sleuth’s love interest. The sleuth puts the pieces of the puzzle together, sometimes having a confrontation with the killer. Then the story comes together when the case is solved.
Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal is like that. In that novel, a local theatre group has been doing a production of Henry V under the direction of local high school principal Hilary VanBrook. On the night of the last performance, VanBrook is murdered. Since the murder was on his property, and the suspects are people he knows, Qwill investigates the case. As he does so, he gets support from his friends in town and of course there’s his love interest Polly Duncan. There are also setbacks as there is another murder. Some of the clues don’t pan out either. But in the end, Qwill finds out who killed VanBrook and why.
We also see that sort of pattern in Dicey Deere’s The Irish Village Murder. Professional translator/interpreter Torrey Tunet has just returned to her European ‘home base’ in the Irish village of Ballynagh. She’s soon drawn into a murder case when her friend Megan O’Faolain is accused of shooting noted history writer John Gwathney. Tunet doesn’t believe her friend is guilty, so she begins to ask questions. As she does so, we get to know the various characters and we also learn about Gwathney’s personal and professional lives. In the end, and with help from her lover Jaspar Shaw, Tunet finds out who really killed the victim and why. In one sense, this novel varies just a little from the overall story structure I’ve depicted; we get to know the characters after Gwathney’s body is discovered. But in most ways it’s quite consistent.
The Noir Novel
Noir stories are, by their nature, not happy stories about well-adjusted people, and you can see that reflected in the story structure. In many of these stories, the main character is not overly happy to begin with. Then, something happens that propels that character on a downward spiral. The character gets involved in a murder investigation in one way or another and things don’t get much better. There are setbacks that draw the main character further down. There may sometimes be some sort of possibility for optimism as the main character finds out the truth. But in the end, solving the case doesn’t make for a happy ending, and the protagonist doesn’t come out of things ahead of the proverbial game.
That’s the case with Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, which takes place in 1950’s Southern California. Lora King is a Pasadena schoolteacher whose brother Bill has just become married Alice Steele. Lora’s not happy about this. For one thing, she doesn’t know much about Alice, and something about her is disturbing. Still, she tries to make the best of things for Bill’s sake. But as Lora slowly learns out more about Alice, she sees that her new sister-in-law has a very murky past and is hiding a lot of her life. The more Lora finds out though, the more drawn into Alice’s life she becomes. Then there’s a death that turns out to be murder. Is Alice involved? If so, Bill could be in real danger. So Lora begins to investigate and finds out that she’s pulled more and more into the case. She risks everything to try to find out the truth and save Bill, and I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that knowing what really happened doesn’t make life any better.
Ken Bruen’s The Guards is also fairly consistent with this sort of story shape. Jack Taylor has recently been separated from the Garda, mostly for drinking that led to a very unprofessional encounter with a speeder. Now he’s hung out his PI shingle in Galway, and Ann Henderson hires him. Her daughter Sarah recently died in what police say was an incident of suicide. But Ann doesn’t believe that. Taylor agrees to take the case and starts asking questions. He soon finds out that he’s not going to get much help from his former Garda colleagues. And it doesn’t help matters that Sarah’s death may be connected to the deaths of some other young girls – killings that some highly placed people do not want solved. But Taylor has begun to care very much for Ann Henderson. Besides, he doesn’t much like it when obstacles are put in his way. So he persists. He even stops drinking for a time and starts to put his life together. He finds out the truth about Sarah Henderson, but it doesn’t change the sadness of this case. And it doesn’t really make life better for Taylor.
One thing about well-written novels is that there’s much more to them than just their overall shape. There is a richness of character, plot and so on that keeps the reader engaged. So a story map only goes so far in describing a given novel. What’s more, each author has an individual way of approaching story shapes and structures, and many authors play with the structure deliberately. So not every novel falls neatly within one or another structure. Still, I think it’s an interesting way to think about crime novels. Thanks to Maya Eilam for the inspiration and to author and fellow blogger Rob Kitchin for sharing the article.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Belle and Sebastian’s Storytelling.