Elements of Detective stories
Fandom wikis often provide detailed summaries of the plots of detective show episodes that can be used to illustrate the use of these elements. This is a slightly modified summary of a Monk plot:
Mr. Monk Goes to the Office 
In a parking garage , a shadowy male figure  is seemingly changing a tire on his car. A security guard, Ronnie Shelton , confronts him, telling him that the vehicle is not his car, and takes out his cellphone, planning to call the police. Before he can call, the man shoots him twice in the chest with a .45 caliber gun , drags his body underneath a nearby parked truck, and comes back to the car, waiting. Soon, financier Warren Kemp walks into the garage, talking on his cellphone. As, finishing his call, he approaches his car, the man comes at him from behind, points the gun at his back, and orders him to open the front car door and put his right hand in it, which Kemp does. Then the man closes the car door, breaking Kemp's hand , and runs away, leaving Kemp to scream in terror and agony.
At the crime scene, Adrian Monk  tries to talk with other police officers, using prepared notes, but he fails every time. Then he and Natalie  go to Captain Stottlemeyer, who recounts what happened: a man killed the security guard (they found gun shells), then waited for Kemp and broke his right hand. Monk notices a wrench  found near one of the cars and figures out that it doesn't match the wheel bolts of that car [10a], so the killer obviously took it with him so he could pretend he was changing a car wheel while waiting for Kemp [10a]. The wrench also makes it apparent that he drives a European car (since the wrench is metric, and all cars in parking lot are American [10a]). He also finds a toothpick near the car tire, which the killer had been chewing , and says that the killer (judging by that) wants to boost his ego [10a] (but later says he's just guessing, when he sees that Stottlemeyer is chewing a toothpick as well [10b]). Soon, Kemp notices Natalie and takes an interest in her [9b]. The paramedic says that Kemp must go to the hospital, but Kemp wants Monk to go to his office the next day, along with Natalie.
The next morning, while waiting for Kemp, Natalie says she used to have the kind of job he has, but she soon quit because she hated doing the same things every day and start feeling like a number. Although she believes that type of job is terrible, Monk seems to enjoy it [9b].
They talk to Kemp [11b]. Monk is upset because Kemp broke nine bones during the attack (he wished that Kemp had broken ten [9b]). Due to imprints on the carpet , Natalie figures out that furniture was recently moved to the opposite side from which it was originally [10a]. Kemp says his decorator Angela Dirks did that [10b], and also mentions that he talks about very important things here  and the security company comes every two weeks looking for microphones and other listening devices [10b]. He says he's very scared and paranoid that the killer is someone close to him and asks Monk if he will go undercover in the office . Natalie says he couldn't do that, but Monk accepts the offer.
Sometime after, Monk goes into the office  undercover. One of the employees, Annette [4a], takes him to his cubicle. During the walk, Monk tries to solicit information about the incident [11b], but he doesn't find out much. One employee, a strange guy named Chilton [4a] argues about why Monk took the spot at the office which he wanted, but Annette defends Monk [9b]. Chilton later collects money for the celebration of his own 40th birthday [9b].
At the police station, Lieutenant Randy Disher comes up with a very plausible theory: it seems that there's been an inside man who was selling important financial information, and Kemp was the suspect . There's possibility that Kemp was cooperating with the killer, they argued and the killer breaks his hand as the warning, killing the security guard in process .
Back at the office, all the employees are going to a restaurant at the bottom of the building using the elevator. Monk promises to go with them, but he doesn't enter the elevator, and he lies saying that he will waiting for another one. Then he meets Kemp and Natalie, and he reveals that he didn't learn anything. After Monk leaves, Kemp offers to go to his office with Natalie, and she agrees [9b].
At the restaurant, as the employees are eating nachos, Monk is only pretending to eat (since they're all touching nachos, and he is a germophobe) [9b]. He also reveals that Annette and one other employee, Greg [4a], are a couple [9a], and starts calling his new friends “the office crowd.”
Meanwhile, Kemp and Natalie are hanging out and are getting even closer to each other [9b]. She even mentions that, in a bar in Vermont, she beat up a guy who was annoying her friend [9b].
Later, when Kemp meets Monk, Monk agrees to go bowling with the other employees to see if he can learn anything new. He also notices that Chilton is chewing a toothpick , just as the killer did .
In the hall, Natalie hears two women talking about her and saying that she almost killed some guy in Vermont and sent an email about it to the whole staff. She concludes that Kemp leaked that information and confronts him. He denies everything, but she doesn't believe him [9b]. She and Monk also reveal that Chilton has an alibi .
During the game, Chilton points out that Monk doesn't wear special bowling shoes, and that he shouldn't play. Other employees try to make him wear the bowling shoes, but he refuses because somebody else was wearing the shoes. The other team wins [9b].
Back in the office, Monk says he bought the bowling shoes, but other employees are still very cold to him. The only one that seems willing to talk to him is Angela, albeit to get his opinion on what color he likes for new curtains that she is planning to put in .
Late at night, a shadowy male person , who chews a toothpick , enters the decorator's place and shoots her once , killing her, and uses a pillow as a silencer .
The next day, Stottlemeyer and Disher are on the crime scene. Disher says that Angela worked for the same company for which Kemp works, and that the killer and weapon are probably the same [10a]. The toothpick  is also found.
“The office crowd” goes into the Chinese restaurant without Monk. [9b] He goes down the building to another restaurant  with Natalie. Natalie says that there must be a connection between two homicides [10a]. When Monk sees the man sitting opposite from them , who has a hearing aid , constantly look into Kemp's window  and write notes down on paper , Monk solves the case.
Here's What Happened
Monk smiles strangely, so his lips won't move, and gives the summation :
That man can read lips [10a] and he discovered that he could see Kemp's window through the restaurant's window [10a, 12]. By watching Kemp as he talked to clients, he found out a lot of important business information [10a, 12], allowing him to make plenty of money [6, 12]. But when Kemp's furniture was rearranged, Kemp's right hand covered his mouth while talking on the phone [10a]. So, the killer needed Kemp to change hands . He also killed Angela (the decorator) because she wanted to put in curtains that would have put a permanent kibosh on his racket [6, 10a].
Unfortunately, the killer saw Natalie in the mirror and read her lips . He comes to her and Monk and shows them a gun. He wants them to go out, but Natalie screams into his ear and Monk takes his gun. Natalie calls the police.
Later, Natalie tries to continue her relationship with Kemp, saying that the killer probably saw them and sent an e-mail to make them fight [10a], but she fails to get him back, walking out with Adrian as he packs his desk.
Knowledge of the elements typical of the detective story can help viewers (or readers) to solve the mystery themselves as they follow the detective's investigation of a case, provided that information that the story withholds from viewers (or readers) is not so vital to the mystery's solution as to prevent them from inferring the significance of the clues offered along the way. Sometimes, the relationship between the killer and the victim is the key to unlocking the solution, since the relationship allows the cause-and-effect link between the murder and its motive. For example, a killer and a victim may be related through marriage, and the killer may murder his wife because she is unfaithful to him. Alternatively, for the same reason, the cuckolded husband may kill the adulterous lover, rather than his wife or both his wife's lover and his wife. It is from their relationship that his motive, revenge, arises.
Note: The episode summary is borrowed, with permission, from the Fandom Monk Wiki, which operates under the provision of the Fandom “Community Creation Policy” that stipulates that “text on Fandom communities is available under a free content license, meaning the information you put on the wiki can be copied and reused by anyone.”
Murder: It Takes a Community
I just finished binge-watching The Brokenwood Mysteries. Set in New Zealand, the series is devoted to the investigations of local murders. Detective Constable Sam Breen, Detective Kristin Sims, and Detective Senior Sergeant Mike Shepherd, assisted by Dr. Gina Kadinsky, medical coroner, form a dynamic team of well-drawn, if somewhat eccentric, characters.
Writing flash fiction
Flash fiction has been defined as being stories under a certain number of words. The number of words varies. Campbell and Rogers Press (somewhat arbitrarily) defines this type of fiction as comprised of stories that are 1,200 or fewer words long.
Flash fiction stories are not vignettes; they're complete stories told in two or three (or, occasionally more) parts. Their scenes are integral to the plot, their characters are necessary and well-drawn, and there's a purpose to the tales; each has a theme, if not a moral. Many are cautionary tales, but they need not be.
Most have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Some are of literary quality; others are genre stories. Since every word counts, flash fiction authors rewrite and rewrite, eliminating unnecessary adverbs and adjectives, trimming phrases, and pruning sentences.
There is no right or wrong way to tell a story, but some ways are more effective than others. Writers may start a story with a specific situation, with a particular character, with an unusual setting, with an inspiring theme, or with a goal, a problem, or a conflict.
Lawrence Block often writes short stories (not flash fiction) that start with an insult or an outrage that prompts revenge. These stories, employing the biter-bit plot, involve an ironic reversal in which the table is turned on an aggressive, often predatory, antagonist so that the protagonist, in gaining revenge, also gains the upper hand against his or her opponent.
O. Henry's stories offer readers a twist. An initial situation suggests a certain outcome, but the end of the story offers a surprise, an unexpected resolution of the conflict that, although unanticipated, is both plausible and appropriate. For example, in “The Gift of the Magi,” Jim sells his watch to buy combs for his wife Della, while she sells her hair to buy a fob for his watch. In “The Ransom of Red Chief,” kidnappers find their hostage, a rambunctious and highly energetic boy, more than they'd bargained for and offer to pay his parents to take him off their hands. O. Henry didn't write flash fiction, either, but his technique lends itself to tales of any length, including those much shorter than his own.
Another way to generate a story's scheme is to use a two-part approach, wherein the first part implies or demands the second: problem-solution, cause-effect, victimization-revenge, lost-found, haughty-humbled.
Edgar Allan Poe defined the short story as a narrative that a reader can finish in a single sitting. While he didn't define the length of “a single sitting,” we might suppose that the length of a typical feature film, arguably about ninety minutes to two hours, would make as good a definition as any other. Research suggests that the average reading speed is about 200 words per minute, so, if a flash fiction story is 1,200 words, the average reader could complete it in about six minutes, give or take a few seconds, whereas, reading steadily for hour and a half, a reader could finish an 18,000-word short story.
Obviously, flash fiction authors have to capture their readers' attention quickly, maintain their interest, and move from the story's beginning to its end as efficiently as possible, without seeming to force the story's resolution on the reader.
Here are a few tips that can help to make this happen:
Think of a few literary or movie characters who made an indelible mark on you. Ask yourself, why do I remember these particular characters when I've forgotten so many others? What makes these characters, but not others, memorable?
Probably, you will identify certain characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and even views of the world. The characters you admire will probably have acted honorably, valorously, and heroically. Those you recall, perhaps with a shudder, feeling fear, disgust, or horror, probably strike you as evil or dangerous, as contemptible and loathsome, because of their characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world views. While the admirable characters support others, the contemptible are usually interested in serving only themselves.
More specifically, though, how are characters sketched by writers?
Most characters are collections of personality traits. These traits are implied through the characters' actions, or behavior, including the words they speak, their dialogue. In movies and, more than ever before, in novels, behavior is the means by which personality traits, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world views are shown.
In the thriller Falling Down (1993), William Foster, an unemployed engineer, sees society as “falling down” right before his eyes. While the movie leaves no doubt that society is, in fact, in a state of partial collapse, it is also true that Foster himself is “falling down.” He's lost his job. His marriage has ended in divorce. His ex-wife, Beth, has been awarded sole custody of their daughter Adele and has secured a restraining order against Foster, who has a penchant to act aggressively, even violently, toward others, including, apparently, Beth herself. Foster has lied to his mother, with whom he stays, telling her that he is still employed. In fact, he carries an empty briefcase around town, wearing out shoe leather as he wanders more or less aimlessly until he conceives of the idea of visiting Adele on her birthday, despite the restraining order that has been issued against him and Beth's clear demands that he avoid contact with her and Adele.
At first, Foster is a likable, understandable character. He is an educated, hardworking man who plays by the rules and expects to be treated accordingly. He is courteous, polite, respectful, and dutiful—until things don't go his way. Then, he becomes aggressive, insulting, violent, and, eventually, even murderous.
Throughout the film, as Foster encounters escalating examples of the increasingly extreme societal decline he is convinced has overtaken life in Los Angeles and, perhaps the United States as well, he himself collapses further and further psychologically, and he reacts to the instances of social decline with more and more extreme behavior, ratcheting up his aggression and violence, revealing himself to be a truly unstable and dangerous man.
As his reactions to stress and what he sees as the erosion of social conventions and, indeed, society itself become increasingly extreme and violent, his behavior begins to distance us from him. We understand that he is not who we thought he was. His civility is a mask. The real man is a walking time bomb who could go “off” at any moment.
Showing what a character appears to be allows writers to reveal what he actually is, and this difference surprises the movie's audience. This same technique works not only in Falling Down but in many other movies. It also works in novels and other forms of fiction.
In addition to showing Foster's personality—his traits, behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world view—as he reacts to various incidents which confirm his belief that society is “falling down,” even as his own psyche collapses, the film shows how inappropriate, unnecessary, and dangerous his reactions are by contrasting them with those of another character who encounters similar problems as those which face Foster.
Using a foil, a character whose behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world view strongly contrasts with those of another, opposing character, is a tried- and-true means of characterization which Falling Down uses to good effect. In Falling Down, Sgt. Prendergast is Foster's foil.
Foster has “lost” a daughter; Prendergast has lost one through the girl's death. Foster's marriage has ended in divorce. Prendergast's wife Amanda suffers from anxiety, which makes her feel the need to control her environment and to order both her own and Prendergast's lives. Foster has been fired from his job. Despite less-than-ideal working conditions, Prendergast wants to remain on the Los Angeles Police Department's force, but Amanda wants him to retire to Lake Havasu City, Arizona.
Both Foster and Prendergast see a collapse of social traditions, organizations, institutions, and mores, but—and here is the chief difference between these men who, to a large degree, live rather parallel lives—Foster feels cheated by “the system” and wants what he considers to be his due, whereas Prendergast is content to prop up society and to help to protect and defend it against its threats, including Foster himself.
The use of Prendergast as Foster's foil more sharply defines the characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world views of both the unemployed defense engineer and the detective.
One effective way to sketch a character is to show what he seems to be so that, later, you can reveal what he actually is like, and a superb way of revealing this discrepancy is to contrast the character with a foil.
Such techniques of characterization are widely used as time-tested ways of sketching characters because they are effective. By showing characters react to a variety of situations and incidents and by contrasting these reactions with those of another character who is the opposite in his or her characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, values, beliefs, and world views, writers create indelible characters who stand out as memorable individuals. Such an approach can be, and is, used in all genres of fiction, both on the page and on the sound stage.
The Biter-bit plot
The biter-bit plot is simple, but effective, and versatile, lending itself to all genres of fiction. At the heart of this plot, an ironic reversal results in a character's receiving his or her just desserts. A form of poetic justice, the biter-bit plot turns the tables on a typically brash, domineering, or otherwise unsavory character. This plot usually has a two- or three-part structure.
Many of the stories in Lawrence Blocks collection One Night Stands and Lost Weekends are based on the biter-bit formula.
“Bargain in Blood” divides its biter-bit plot into three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end:
“The Burning Fury”
“Just Window Shopping”
The biter-bit plot is easy to use:
For further study, read and analyze the way that O. Henry uses twists to end such of his short stories as “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Ransom of Red Chief,” and “The Cop and the Anthem.”
Eight major types of characters
Over the years, writers have developed many types of fictional characters. The eight listed here are major types. Protagonists and antagonists appear in every story. The others are included frequently in many narratives.
Antagonist: The character opposed to the protagonist. The antagonist could be a rival or an enemy to the protagonist or a friend who resists the protagonist's actions because the behaviors seem reckless or harmful to the protagonist him- or herself. A short story usually has a single antagonist, but a novel may include several antagonists. In Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, antagonists include Pap Finn, the Duke and the Dauphin, Tom Sawyer, and, indeed, at times, Huck himself. Every story has an antagonist, even if the antagonist is some aspect of the protagonist him- or herself. (See “Protagonist.”)
Confidant (feminine “confidante”): A trusted friend of the protagonist with whom the protagonist shares his or her secrets and to whom the protagonist may look for advice and support. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer is Huck's confidant. Huck confides in Tom that Jim has been captured, and Tom assists in the boys’ efforts to free him.
Dynamic Character: A character, often the story's protagonist, who undergoes significant change (i. e., character development) during the course of the story in which he or she appears. Henry Fleming, the main character of Stephen Crane's Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage, is a dynamic character. At first, he acts in a cowardly fashion, fleeing the battlefield. Later, however, he behaves heroically, leading troops against the enemy, and becomes a man of courage and resolve. (See “Static Character.”)
Flat Character: A character whose personality consists of only one or, at most, a few traits. (Each trait can be identified by a single adjective.) In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Melanie Wilkes is a static character. Throughout the novel, she remains a gracious, compassionate, understanding, and loyal friend to all. (See “Round Character.”)
Foil: A character whose personality traits, being opposite of the main character's traits, highlight the protagonist's personality traits. In Miguel Cervantes's Don Quixote of La Mancha, the realistic, practical Sancho Panza's statements and actions contrast sharply with, and, therefore, underscore, Don Quixote's romantic, often delusional thoughts and behaviors.
Protagonist: The main character of a story. Huckleberry Finn is the protagonist of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Don Quixote is the protagonist of Don Quixote of La Mancha, and Scarlett O’Hara is the protagonist of Gone with the Wind. (See “Antagonist.”)
Round Character: A character whose personality is made up of many traits. (Each trait can be identified by a single adjective.) Henry Fleming is a round character. At the beginning of The Red Badge of Courage, he is a gullible, idealist romantic whose notions about warfare are based only on his reading of books that glorify battle. However, after he himself experiences combat, first fleeing the battlefield and later conducting himself with honor and valor, he comes to understand that war is far from the glamorous spectacle he'd earlier believed it to be. (See “Flat Character.”)
Static Character: A usually minor character who does not undergo change (i. e., character development) during the story in which he or she appears. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck's friend, Tom Sawyer, is a static character. An irrepressible prankster and a gullible believer of the romantic books he reads, Tom remains, at the novel's end, the same figure he was shown to be at the beginning of the novel. The Duke and the Dauphin, the con artists Huck meets on his journey down the Mississippi River, are also static characters. Two of a kind, they never change in their devotion to swindling others. (See “Dynamic Character.”)
Plotting by theme
Plotting by Theme, Part 1: Process
A great definition of theme, at least in regard to some stories, is the lesson that the protagonist learns as a result of his or her experiences.
According to this definition, the story's main character, or protagonist, is the one who learns a lesson. When writing your story, it's important to remember not to get off track and let a secondary character learn the lesson meant for the protagonist. Although such a mistake may seem unlikely, it can happen all too easily.
Ask yourself, What lesson do I want my protagonist to learn? If the main character is to learn something, he or she must first lack the understanding to be acquired. This point may seem obvious, but, again, it's easy to start off on the wrong foot by suggesting or showing (or even stating directly) that the protagonist already knows the very thing that he or she needs to learn and then forget, as you write the story, that you did so.
Make the lesson something specific, not general. For example, “I want my protagonist to learn to be a better person” is too broad, but “I want my protagonist to learn to be be humble” is fairly specific.
Think of your lesson as having three parts: (1) ignorance, (2) experience, and (3) lesson (understanding). As your story unfolds, your protagonist will undergo a transformation from ignorance to understanding as he or she has various experiences.
With this in mind, after establishing what lesson you want your protagonist to learn, identify the experiences that will teach your main character this lesson. Then determine how you will show that your protagonist has learned this lesson.
You might come up with something like this:
At the start of your story, Pete, your protagonist, is arrogant (he has not learned to be humble). He thinks that his Secret Santa, Kelly, whose parents are poor, has bought him a cheap gift, especially when he sees how small the gift-wrapped package is. He tells his friend Billy that he wishes a different student had been his Secret Santa.
In the middle of your story, Pete is humbled, first, by having Jimmy, a popular classmate, scorn the gift that Pete, as Jimmy's Secret Santa, buys for Jimmy, and, again, when Kelly gives him a better and more thoughtful gift than Pete had anticipated receiving.
At the end of your story, Pete has learned to be humble. He confesses his former arrogance to Kelly and apologizes to her, before thanking Jimmy for inadvertently calling to Pete's attention Pete's own arrogance.
Plotting by Theme, Part 2: Example
As we've seen, using theme to plot a story is an effective approach to writing fiction. Let's look at how a famous Hollywood movie uses this approach.
The movie The Wizard of Oz is a good example of theme as understood in this manner. At the outset of the film, the main character, Dorothy Gale, is shown as being disappointed in—and, I might add, unappreciative of—her home with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry.
They live on a farm in Kansas, where everything seems dull and gray to Dorothy. While it's true that she doesn't have any friends her own age, except for her dog Toto, and it's true that her aunt and uncle, like their farmhands, seem to have little time for her, it's also apparent that Dorothy, like many children her age, is self-absorbed. She doesn't seem to recognize or appreciate the hard work that the adults have to do to keep food on the table and clothes on their backs. They're living during the Great Depression. Times are hard for everyone, but, at least, they have one another.
For Dorothy, though, life on the farm with her aunt and uncle is not enough. She dreams—literally, as it turns out—of a place “somewhere over the rainbow,” where all is bright and beautiful and life is full of excitement and adventure.
A circus fortuneteller, Professor Marvel, who waits out the approaching storm in his wagon, assures Dorothy, who visits him after running away from home, that her aunt and uncle love her a great deal and are worried about her safety.
But his assurances come too late: although Dorothy hurries home, she is caught in the storm and, taking refuge with Toto inside the family's farmhouse, she is carried off to Oz by a cyclone.
As soon as she arrives in Oz, Dorothy becomes homesick. She wants to return to Kansas, to her farm, to Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, to her home. The experiences she has while she's in Oz make her more and more homesick. She meets a brainless Scarecrow, a heartless Tin Man, and a cowardly lion. She learns what it would be like to have no brain, no heart, and no “nerve.”
But she also learns to depend on and to act on behalf of herself. She becomes independent, resourceful, courageous. She defends the Scarecrow and her other companions, and she stands up to both the Wicked Witch and the Wizard of Oz himself. She matures.
At the end of the story, her experiences in Oz have taught her a valuable lesson, which she shares with her aunt and uncle: “There's no place like home.” The self-absorbed girl who disliked her home and failed to appreciate her relatives now enjoys her home and values Aunt Em and Uncle Henry.
Gary Pullman in an English instructor at UNLV and a writer. His An Adventure of the Old West series is available in e-book and paperback formats.