Sunday, 27 August 2017

Twisting Christie (GUMSHOE All)

When constructing a mystery scenario - say for BubbleGumshoe - the Director/Keeper will want to keep the players on their toes. Everyone loves a plot twist. It's practically mandatory. The problem is, how to keep players from guessing the twist halfway through?

In some settings, guessing the twist is half the fun. The Dracula Dossier, for instance, provides three possible ways for any person, place or thing to develop; as an innocent, or unconnected plot point, as an Edom-friendly plot point, or as Dracula's puppet. That way the Director can adjust things on the fly, and account for unwise player mutterings like, 'God, we would be so, so hosed if the Journalist turned out to be one of Dracula's minions.' The twist is baked in.

That said, the Dracula Dossier is huge. Over 360 pages of unrelenting evil. When writing your own stuff, you may not want to spend time making sure every single person, place or thing the players might encounter has three different aspects. So what to do?

Author Karen Woodward has this to say about mystery maven Agatha Christie:

Christie often (though not always) had three distinct threads interwoven throughout most of her plots. Let's call these the A story, the B story and the C story.

A Story --> the murder (the whodunit)

B Story --> a romance

C Story --> a touch of evil

The A story is the main story, the story of the murder. The B story is a subplot that includes one of the main characters in a romance. The C story is another subplot, one about a character who has malign intentions toward one of the other characters. These intentions aren't related to the murder--perhaps this is suspected but, in the end, the 'touch of evil' character will not be intimately connected with it.

In Death In The Clouds, for example, the A plot is the murder of blackmailer and moneylender Madame Giselle. The B plot is the romance between ingĂ©nue Jane Grey and dentist Norman Gale. The C plot revolves around crime novelist Mister Clancy, who may or may not be the murderer. 

Yet a typical scenario often has only an A plot: one clear objective, which the agents or investigators have to shoot for or die in the attempt. Seldom is there a B plot, and almost never a C. However the disentanglement of A from B and C is what makes the twist a twist. It's because the reader can't be sure that A won't turn into C at the last minute, or vice versa, that the denouement becomes a denouement, and not just a rubber mask removal.

Now, it's unreasonable to have a romance B plot in every single scenario. Christie liked them, but you're trying to get a plot out every other week, where she's aiming to get a novel out every six months or so. Equally, in a TV series where there's a romance subplot, the romance isn't part of every single episode. Flirting, yes, but not the full-blown will-they-won't-they stuff. The audience gets tired if you return to the same plot points in every scenario, whether it's romance or some other thing.

However a B plot that adds some non-threatening drama is perfectly reasonable. Even better if it includes something the characters can relate to, but what that thing is will depend largely on the setting. In Bookhounds of London, the obvious target is the store itself. In Dreamhounds of Paris, it could be a proposed art showing, possibly even the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme. In settings where there are character hooks baked into the setting - like Night's Black Agents with its Sources of Stability - there are other possibilities.

With that in mind, and using a Bookhounds scenario idea I've described in the past, let's do some brainstorming and see where the B and C plots might be.

Lucy Ainsworth is the second daughter of wealthy shipping magnate Peter Ainsworth. Her eldest sister is married to minor nobility, and lives in Kensington. She and her younger sister Elanor still live in the family home in Wimbledon; both parents are dead.

Years of simmering hatred and jealousy have turned Lucy into a werewolf. She sees herself as the guardian of the Ainsworth legacy, defending it - and the Wimbledon house she and her sister Elanor share - against intruders. So far her activities haven't attracted attention, but her restraint is slipping. Sooner or later something will happen that will shatter their peaceful home life for good.

So the A plot is Lucy, and what to do about the ravening werewolf she's become. We're now looking for B and C plots that can be tied into A.

B is meant to be the non-threatening plot. It may or may not be the cheerful plot. When Christie plots her B level romances, they don't always end well. C is the touch of evil plot, the character that draws focus away from the real villain. C may or may not be a threat, but C certainly looks like a threat.

Since this is Bookhounds, the store is in play. There may be other, character-related hooks that are equally viable, but when writing for a group not your own you can't guarantee those hooks are there or, if they are, whether they're useful.

So let's make the B plot store-relevant. If the store is actually in Wimbledon, even better, though again when writing for a group not your own you can't order things the way you'd like them.

The main plot is about jealousy and rage, so it would be good if the B plot could also be about jealousy and rage. This helps tie everything together, thematically, reinforcing the scenario's central concept.

So: one of the store's rivals, fed up at the store's perceived success, hires Chester Riley, an amateur actor down on his luck, to do them foul. Chester, who thinks he's a master of disguise, keeps coming back to the store again and again to cause trouble. Maybe this time he'll make himself obnoxious while customers are in the shop. Or loudly argue with the staff about the price of a book. Or say he wants to return a book, since it was damaged when he bought it and he wants his money back. Of course he's doing that in front of a crowd of would-be customers.

In order to deal with the B plot the characters need to work out who Chester is, and why he's doing what he's doing.

Note that the B plot has little relevance to the main plot. It's a distraction, a thing the characters don't have to worry about too much, but can't entirely ignore since it does affect their lives and livelihood.

It could have been different, of course. Given the relationship between Lucy, Elanor, and anyone who pays any kind of attention to Eloise, a romance B plot is doable. The difficulty is how to involve the characters. Either they have to be the object of someone's affection, or they have to willingly pursue it. Willingly pursue is fun, if a player can be persuaded, but the Keeper can't rely on that every time. Alternatively Elanor - or possibly Lucy - might develop a fixation, but then you run the risk of it being short-lived if the player decides to negate the idea.

That, and ideally you want to involve all the players, otherwise one character's getting a lot of spotlight time for no other reason than that the plot says they must. You want to avoid 'the plot says, therefore you must' as often as you can, whether for B plots or any other reason.

One further possibility is to have an NPC be the lover and an NPC - presumably Elanor - be the object of affection. However that means two NPCs are basically having their own plot with no player input. Again, this is something to be avoided if at all possible.

Onward to C.

The C plot is the touch of evil plot. It needs to feature someone, or thing, that seems to be a threat but in fact is not. Since this is a horror game, that C plot probably needs to feature something supernatural-ish - heavy on the ish.

It also needs to be relevant to the main plot, unlike the B plot. The B plot can afford to be a little oddball, and so long as it affects the characters it doesn't matter if it isn't 100% plot relevant. In the same sense, the romance between Jane Grey and Norman Gale isn't 100% plot relevant, though the reader becomes invested anyway.

So we need a touch of evil character who is related to the A plot but not a central part of it. We already have a maddened werewolf and her trapped sister. We also have another sister, married, who lives in Kensington. We haven't specified who the sister married.

Let's say that the sister married Algernon Parker, a no-good snake in the grass who married sister Helen for her money. Thanks to unwise speculation that money's almost gone, though you'd never know it to look at their lifestyle. Algernon knows that Lucy and Elanor are still sitting on the bulk of their trust funds, and thinks that, if they wrote wills at all, they probably left everything to their sibling. After all, why wouldn't they?

Algernon's scheme is to get rid of Lucy and Elanor, so Helen can inherit the lot. However he wasn't counting on Lucy's unique condition. He has become aware of it, thanks to an unlucky encounter with Lucy on the Common, and is secretly worried he too might be infected after Lucy bit him. So he's resorting to magical means, and reading every grimoire and tome he can get his hands on - in part to find a cure, and in part to get rid of Lucy once and for all.

This may or may not bring him into the players' orbit, as he's bound to need Bookhounds. However so long as he keeps lurking in the background, possibly arranging fiendish traps to get rid of the Ainsworth sisters or chaining himself up at night to prevent disaster when he transforms, the players are bound to suspect him.

Which means they may not suspect Lucy - until it's too late.


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