Baroque Music and Multiple Endings

Multiple-ending stories are a kind of fiction in which the reader decides which plot path to pursue. The concept for the first wave of interactive fiction books, Choose Your Own Adventure children’s books, which were hugely popular during the 1980s and 1990s, was developed by Edward Packard in 1976.

The Choose Your Own Adventure stories had plots that branched out in several different directions. Think of a branching-plot novel as one in which the reader climbs up the main trunk of a tree, then chooses a branch to follow. And from that branch, another branch. And so on. In order for a branching story to move forward, the reader has to make choices very soon after the story starts. Each decision leads to further decisions, and this continues until the chain of decisions leads to an ending (or sometimes not!). In some of the books, 40 different endings were possible, and the ways to reach those endings varied. In other words, if on page four the reader chooses Option C, that doesn’t mean that Option C will always lead to Ending #15. Depending on the choices after C, a reader could end up with a different ending. Ending #24, say.

The Choose Your Own Adventure books were so popular that at least twenty other similar series were published. (Nothing inspires imitation like success.)

In a tree, branches do not double back on themselves and end up where they began. In a book or a game (as computer gaming, role-playing with action and consequences), though, readers/players may end up back where they started. This isn’t ideal, and it isn’t common — but it is possible, depending on the fiendishness of the branching-plot constructor.

Back in the early 1980s, I was asked to write a series of computer stories with branching story lines. These were for first- and second-graders learning English as a Second Language. At that time there were no books or articles I could find that explained how to write branching stories, so in order to understand what I needed to do, I read seven or eight Choose Your Own Adventure books.


Armed with an understanding of how these books worked, I spread many 3×5 notecards out on my dining room table. What I wrote on one notecard would serve as one computer-screen worth of text. I also had pens in different colors of ink, plus a paper tablet and blank paper. Knowing that classical music, particularly Baroque, affects brain waves and analytical abilities, I put several Bach CDs on. Then I began work on the first of many stories (I think the work-for-hire assignment consisted of twelve branching stories).

The Baroque music did stimulate my brain. The first thing I did was create the first two computer frames of the story. On my diagram, these are frames A and B. The story is about Crandall, a hermit crab, outgrowing his shell and looking for a new home.


Then I considered various ways Crandall’s search could end, and I wrote four endings. These have squares around them on the diagram. They are R, 0, M, and Y.

Next, I put the diagram aside and began writing individual “frames” (parts of the story) for the results of the C choice. That branched further into a choice between F and G. The F choice ended the story at R. The G choice, however, led to another branch, a choice between J and K.

The J choice eventually led to a choice between O and P. O ended the story. But P did not — P actually took the story all the way back to the second step of the D choice. If you study the diagram, you can see that some of the choices lead to unexpected results. That was fun.

Here’s what my notecards looked like. Each notecard is one computer frame’s worth of story.


I remember that it took me two eight-hour sessions to develop the first of these branching stories. It was indeed a lot of fun, but also a lot of very hard work. In some ways, this branching-story assignment was the most complex writing assignment I’ve ever had. I had to be able to think of different plot possibilities. Instead of choosing one possibility over the others and following the story to its cause-and-effect conclusion, I had to juggle the plot possibilities and keep each and every one alive. And make certain that each led to a cause-and-effect ending.

And these were very small stories for first- and second-graders. Imagine all the possibilities that a game creator must juggle!


Barbara Gregorich suggests you listen to Baroque music while reading her Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Outline: The Black Camel

I’ve been teaching a lot of writing classes lately, and when I teach fiction I recommend to students that they choose a novel they like and outline it, in order to determine its bare-bones construction. Then I confess to them that I have never done so.

Today I’m remedying that situation by posting my outline of Earl Derr Biggers’ fourth Charlie Chan novel, The Black Camel. The outline below lists only the pertinent plot points — the statements and incidents which lead Charlie and the reader forward, toward the solution of the mystery. Such an outline reveals the novel’s skeleton only — it in no way shows the wit, the humor, the character differences, the setting, the dialogue, the subplots, or any other of the muscle, sinew, and tone which help create a delightful reading experience.

In my next blog I’ll analyze the novel. Until then, you can use your own judgement to figure out why certain things are bold-faced or italicized.

Spoiler Alert: If you read the outline, you will know who committed the crime and how and why.

Shelah Fane — Hollywood actress
Alan Jaynes — man who has recently proposed to Shelah
Jimmy Bradshaw — young reporter working for the Hawaii Tourist Bureau
Julie O’Neill — secretary to Shelah Fane
Diana Dixon — Hollywood actress
Huntley Van Horn — Hollywood actor, Shelah’s leading man
Anna Rodderick — Shelah’s maid/dresser
Tarneverro the Great — fortune-teller to Hollywood stars
Val Martino — director of the Shelah’s current film
Charlie Chan — Inspector in the Honolulu Police Department
Jessop — Shelah Fane’s butler
Robert Fyfe — actor, ex-husband of Shelah Fane
Rita Ballou — former actress
Wilkie Ballou — wealthy Hawaiin who married Rita
Wu Kno-ching — cook at Shelah Fane’s house
Kashimo — a member of the police force who reports to Chan
Smith — a beach bum, former artist in landscapes
Chief of Police — Chan’s superior
Mr. and Mrs. MacMaster — retired Australians on vacation in Hawaii

Chapter 1  
• Shelah Fane, Alan Jaynes, Huntley Van Horn, Val Martino, Diana Dixon, and Anna Roderick arrive in Honolulu, coming from Tahiti.
• Waiting for them are Jimmy Bradshaw, Tarneverro the Great, and Julie O’Neill.
• Tarneverro meets Charlie Chan, who tells him he should use his psychic powers to aid the Los Angeles police with unsolved murders such as that of Denny Mayo, which occurred three years earlier.
• Shelah meets with Tarneverro to have her fortune read: she wants to know if she should accept Jaynes’ proposal of marriage.

unknownChapter 2
• Back in the house she has rented, Shelah Fane is distressed at the results of her session with Tarneverro.
• A box of orchids arrives from Robert Fyfe, her ex-husband. He’s performing on stage in Honolulu.
• Guests start arriving for a dinner party — Jimmy Bradshaw, Rita and Wilkie Ballou and her husband, Alan Jaynes.
• Shelah tells Alan that she cannot marry him. This infuriates Jaynes, who believes she is refusing his offer of marriage because Tarneverro advised her to do so.
• Jaynes leaves the house and walks back to the Grand Hotel, where he confronts Tarneverro
• Val Martino, also staying at the hotel, restrains Jaynes. With Martino is Huntley Van Horn.
• As the four men are in the lobby, Charlie Chan arrives
• Van Horn announces that he’s leaving in order to walk to Shelah’s for dinner. Martino and Jaynes also leave.
• Tarneverro tells Chan that he, too, is dining at Shelah’s later that evening, and that when the dinner is over, he may have a very important message for Chan. A message that requires Chan to arrest a murderer.

Chapter 3
• Arriving at Shelah’s house Van Horn strolls out onto the lawn toward the pavilion.
• Wu Kno-ching enters the room, demanding to know when dinner should be served.
• Jessop goes down to the beach to round up the guests. They all wonder where Shelah is.
• Julie and Jimmy volunteer to fetch Shelah, who must be in the pavilion. Together they enter — and find Shelah dead, her body on the floor.

Chapter 4
• Chan is called to investigate.
• On his way out of the hotel, he encounters Tarneverro and tells him that Shelah Fane has been murdered.
• The fortune teller is stunned. Chan invites him to ride with him to the investigation. Tarneverro laments that Shelah’s blood is on his head.
• Chan asks him to explain, and Tarneverro tells him that at Shelah’s fortune-telling yesterday, she confessed to him that she was hiding in another room when, three years ago, Denny Mayo was murdered.
Shelah told him that the murderer was at this moment in Honolulu. But she did not tell him the name of the murderer.
Tarneverro says he encouraged Shelah to write the name of the guilty person on a piece of paper and give it to him that evening, so that he could give it to Chan and so that justice could be done.
• Chan theorizes that the person who killed Shelah was the same person who murdered Mayo — but Chan can’t figure out how this person would have known that Shelah was about to reveal his name.
• Chan examines the body. He finds that there was a struggle, and that Shelah’s wristwatch was smashed, its crystal broken, and the hands stopped at 8:02.
• Tarneverro firmly reminds Charlie that at 8:02 he, Jaynes, Martino, and Van Horn were all standing together, with Chan, in the lounge of the Grand Hotel.
• A bouquet of flowers that had been pinned to Shelah’s dress was torn off and trampled under foot. But the pin with which the flowers were fastened is missing. “Strangely missing,” Chan observes.
• Chan also finds a fresh nick on the corner of a glass table inside the pavilion.
• Tarneverro looks in Shelah’s gold mesh bag, saying that maybe the note she promised to write to him was there. But it isn’t.
• When Chan and Tarneverro enter the house, Jessop hands Tarneverro an envelope from Shelah.
• Chan intercepts the envelope, stating that the police are now in charge.
• The others are called into the room. Charlie holds up the envelope — and then the lights go out.
• The thud of a body hitting the floor is heard. When the lights are turned back on, Charlie is lifting himself from the floor, rubbing his right cheek, which is bloody. All but a small fragment of the letter is gone.

Chapter 5
• Chan looks at the men standing around to see if any are wearing rings: he figures it was a ring that cut his cheek. None are wearing rings.
• Chan does not search anybody: he figures the person who swiped the letter immediately tucked it into a drawer, chair, or recess of some kind.
• During questioning, Chan ascertains that Wilkie and Rita have been married for three years, and that both lived in Hollywood three years ago.
• Julie O’Neill informs Chan that the orchids Shelah was wearing came from Robert Fyfe.
• Huntley Van Horn says that he arrived at Shelah’s around 8:15.
• Val Martino says he did not live in Hollywood three years ago, only two years ago.
• Alan Jaynes asks if Chan has fixed the time of death, and the detective acknowledges that it was 8:02. Jaynes says that he has never been to Hollywood.
• Diana Dixon says she left the house at 8:00 and walked down to the beach. She noticed a man leaving the pavilion. He wore a long overcoat, dress clothes, and his white shirt was stained with something red.

the-black-camel-movie-poster-1931-1010267452Chapter 6
• Jessop says he lived in Hollywood three years earlier.
Jessop states that at 8:02 he was in the kitchen with Wu and with Anna.
• He informs Chan that earlier in the day he saw Shelah in the library, weeping over a photograph of a man. The photo was mounted on a green mat.
Chan questions Wu in Cantonese as Jimmy, Julie, and Tarneverro look on.
• When the interview is finished, Jimmy asks Chan what was said, but Chan refuses to reveal it.
• Anna Rodderick has been Shelah’s maid for 18 months, from the day Anna first arrived in Hollywood.
• Anna describes the gold and diamond pin that Shelah used to fasten her orchids.
• Chan takes Anna into the pavilion and asks her to check to make certain that all of Shelah’s jewelry is still there.
• While Anna is searching, Kashimo discovers a set of footprints outside the pavilion window.
Anna tells Chan that the pin that fastened the orchids is missing — as is a large emerald ring that Shelah wore on her right hand.

Chapter 7
• Chan lists all those who were in Hollywood three years earlier, when Denny Mayo was murdered: Wilkie Ballou, Rita Ballou, Huntley Van Horn, and Jessop.
• Tarneverro informs Chan that Diana Dixon was also there at the time.
• So was Julie O’Neill.
• With Chan’s permission, Tarneverro examines the wristwatch, turning its stem: the minute hand instantly moves.
Tarneverro argues that this means the murderer adjusted the watch time to a certain setting — 8:02 — then forgot to re-adjust the stem.
Chan then points out that everyone’s alibi is gone — including Tarneverro’s. The fortune teller hints that he might have another alibi.
• Charlie finds the letter that was snatched from his hand: it was hidden under a rug. The letter does not name the murderer. Instead, in it Shelah begs Tarneverro to forget that their conversation ever took place.
• Kashimo returns from his search of the upstairs and produces a handful of torn bits of paper and heavy green cardboard: he found them buried in a potted plant.
• Chan spreads the pieces out on a table and sits down to put them together. In the room are Chan, Tarneverro, Van Horn, Martino, Jaynes, and Wilkie and Rita Ballou.
Chan informs them that everyone’s alibi for the 8:02 time has vanished.
• Kashimo thrusts open a French window and the bits of photograph blow everywhere.
• The guests start picking up the scattered pieces, as does Chan. When the collection is completed, Chan realizes he has less than half the amount he started with and thus won’t be able to reconstruct the photo. 
• The doorbell rings. The new guest introduces himself as Robert Fyfe, Shelah’s ex-husband. He is wearing an overcoat, and across his chest is a bright red splash: it is part of his costume.

Chapter 8
• Fyfe says he was not in Hollywood three years ago.
• When Chan asks whether Fyfe saw Shelah this evening, Fyfe replies that he did not.
• The guests leave for the dining room, where coffee is served. Fyfe and Chan remain and
Fyfe admits that he did see Shelah that evening. She met him in front of the pavilion and the two of them went inside and talked.
Fyfe left at 8:04 and arrived at the theater at 8:20. The stage manager was waiting for him at the door.
• A Honolulu police officer arrives: in his grip is a beach bum who claims his name is Smith. Chan takes Smith into the living room, where Fyfe waits.
The footprints under the window match Smith’s exactly. Chan demands an explanation. Smith insists that he never entered the pavilion, simply listened underneath the window.
• Smith identifies Fyfe as the man he saw inside the pavilion.
• Just as Smith is about to tell Chan what he heard Shelah tell Fyfe, Fyfe himself leaps up and confesses that he killed Shelah.
• Chan asks why. Fyfe replies that he wanted Shelah to return to him, but she wouldn’t.
• Chan refuses to accept the confession. Fyfe has an unshakeable alibi, having left the pavilion at 8:04 and arrived at the theater at 8:20.
Then Chan announces that Shelah Fane was alive and well at 8:12.

Chapter 9 
• Tarneverro wants to know how Chan knew that Shelah was alive at 8:12. Chan says that Wu told him this, when the two were speaking in Cantonese.
Wu stated that at 8:12 he went to the pavilion to speak to Shelah Fane: she was there, alive and well.
• Chan returns to interrogating Smith, who now claims that all he heard between Shelah and Fyfe was Fyfe’s pleas for her to return. Smith says Fyfe left and Shelah remained in the room, alive.
Chan knows that Fyfe is hiding something: something that came out in the conversation with Shelah, that Smith overheard, and that Fyfe wants repressed.
• Chan tells the guests that because Shelah was alive at 8:12 and dead by 8:30, he wants to know what each guest was doing during those crucial eighteen minutes.
• Four people in particular, who had alibis before, now need to explain where they were: Tarneverro, Val Martino, Alan Jaynes, and Huntley Van Horn.
• Tarneverro says that he spent the time talking with an old couple who are friends of his from Australia.
• Jaynes says that he has no alibi, he was wandering the beach.
• Van Horn says that after he arrived at the house, he went down to the beach, where he spoke to Rita Ballou.
• Val Martino says he was sitting outside the hotel, thinking.
• Tarneverro calls Chan’s attention to a bleeding cut on the director’s brow and tells Charlie that Martino just placed a bloody handkerchief in his pocket.
• Chan examines the handkerchief with a magnifying glass and finds a few splinters of glass in it: splinters which may have come from the glass top in the pavilion.
• Martino denies that it’s his handkerchief. He has no idea how it ended up in his pocket.
• Martino points out to Chan that there’s a laundry mark on the silk handkerchief: the letter B.

Chapter 10
• Martino says that as the guests were leaving the dining room, he felt a little tug at his pocket. But he has no idea who was around him at the time . . . except, he says, Tarneverro was nearby.
• The director and the fortune teller get into a heated argument.
• Chan stops the argument by announcing to all the guests that they are free to go home.
• Chan searches the bedrooms, then questions Anna again.
• Producing an emerald ring from his pocket, he asks her if it’s the one that was missing from Shelah Fane’s hand. She affirms that it is.
• Chan then turns to Julie and asks her what the ring was doing in the drawer of her dressing-table.
• Julie says that Shelah was always hard up for money and that the actress asked Julie to sell the ring for her.
• According to Julie, Shelah gave her the ring at 8:00 a.m.
• Chan looks at the ring through his magnifying glass. It’s inscribed: “Shelah from Denny.”
• Julie bursts into tears.
• When Chan gives Jimmy a ride back to the newspaper office, Jimmy asks if he can have his handkerchief back: it was his silk handkerchief, with B for Bradshaw, that somebody lifted and palmed off onto Martino.
• Chan refuses to return the handkerchief.

Chapter 11
• At the police station Charlie reports to the Chief all that has transpired.
• The Chief tells Chan that they fingerprinted Smith and let him go.
• They discuss Tarneverro and how he might seem a bit too eager to assist Charlie.
• Outside the police station, Chan sees Smith.
• Chan follows him. Smith goes to the Waioli Hotel, looks into the lobby, hesitates, then leaves. Chan knows that the Waioli Hotel is where Robert Fyfe resides.

Chapter 12
• The next morning Smith awakens on the beach. He visits Robert Fyfe, who says he has been waiting for Smith to arrive and blackmail him.
• Fyfe gives the beach bum a $50 advance on $250.
• Smith then goes to the seedy Nippon Hotel and rents the room he always rents when he has a bit of money.

Chapter 13
• After Chan arises he drives to the Waioli Hotel, where he is informed that Mr. Fyfe left earlier, with a man. By the description, Charlie ascertains that the man was Smith.
• At the theater Chan finds Fyfe rehearsing. He questions the stage manager, who verifies Fyfe’s time alibi for the previous evening.
• Chan speaks to Fyfe privately, imploring him to speak the truth about what Shelah said to him. Fyfe claims he forgot what she said to him.
Chan argues that Fyfe is hampering the police investigation, but Fyfe won’t budge.
• At the Honolulu library, Charlie asks for the Los Angeles newspapers of three years ago. The librarian tells him that the particular volume he wants is in use at the moment.
Chan looks to see who is reading the volume. It is Huntley Van Horn.

unknown-5Chapter 14
• At the Grand Hotel Charlie speaks to Mr. and Mrs. MacMaster of Australia: the old couple who provide Tarneverro’s alibi for the now-established time of murder.
• As Chan begins to speak to the couple, Tarneverro himself approaches.
• Chan asks specifically about the time Tarneverro departed, and MacMaster says it was 8:32 when the fortune teller left them.
• Ten years ago, Tarneverro was a sheepman on the MacMaster ranch.
• As Mrs. MacMaster starts to say something, Tarneverro interrupts her to continue his story.
Tarneverro suggests that Chan consider Wilkie Ballou as a suspect.
• “There is also Martino,” Chan replies. Tarneverro agrees.
• As Chan and Tarneverro walk through the hotel, the head bellman speaks to Tarneverro in Cantonese. Tarneverro asks what the bellman said, and Chan replies that the bellman made a respectful inquiry about Tarneverro’s health.
• At Shelah’s house Chan strolls to the pavilion and, outside the window, where Smith had been standing, he finds a small cigar — of the type that Alan Jaynes smokes.

Chapter 15
• On the inside of the pavilion windowsill are the prints of a man’s fingers and thumb.
• Chan asks the police department’s fingerprint expert to photograph the prints.
• Chan goes to the Grand Hotel to talk to Alan Jaynes about the cigar. While waiting for Jaynes, Chan improvises a way to capture his fingerprints without Jaynes’ knowledge.
• Jaynes denies that he was near the pavilion.
• According to the fingerprint expert, Jaynes’ fingerprints do not match those on the windowsill.
The prints on the sill match those of Smith, the beach bum.

Chapter 16
• Chan asks the Chief to have Smith found and brought into the station.
Jessop swears that Shelah was wearing the emerald ring at 7 p.m. the previous evening.
• Chan asks Julie why she lied to him about the ring. She denies that she lied.
She informs Chan that there’s an old grudge between her and Jessop and that he lied.
• Chan asks why Van Horn was in the library reading the Los Angeles papers from three years ago, and the actor hands Charlie an unsigned typewritten note.
The note tells Van Horn to go to the library and remove from the bound volumes any references that damage him (Van Horn).
• Van Horn says that whoever did this, did so to throw suspicion on him. Chan suggests that Van Horn could have written the letter himself.
• Back at the library Chan finds the volume of Los Angeles newspapers on the very table where he had seen Van Horn examining it. When Chan opens the volume, he is astonished to see that every picture of Denny Mayo has been cut from the newspaper.

Chapter 17
• The photos are gone, but the articles remain, so Chan reads them. He learns that Mayo came to Hollywood directly from the English stage.
• His servant had the night off and went out: when he returned at midnight, Mayo was dead, shot at close range with his own revolver.
• Little was known of Mayo’s past, though it was rumored he had a wife back in England. Yet no family member came forward.
• Mayo had been working in a picture with actress Rita Montaine — now Rita Ballou.
• A witness testified that he had heard a quarrel between Wilkie Ballou and Denny.
• But on the night of the murder Wilkie had an alibi: he was with Rita from 6:00 until midnight.
Van Horn swears that he left the volume on the table around 9:30 in the morning, and it was in perfect condition at the time.
• The Chief says he wants to interview the MacMasters himself, to determine if they are lying.
• Kashimo returns to the station, dejected: he hasn’t found Smith.
Rita Ballou says that Shelah Fane was wearing the emerald ring the previous evening. Rita remembers Shelah wearing the same ring in Hollywood.

Chapter 18
• Chan once again confronts Julie. He drags out of her the following information:
• (1) Shelah Fane did give her the ring in the morning and asked her to sell it.
• (2) After she returned from her late-morning interview with Tarneverro, Shelah took the ring back.
• (3) When Jimmy and Julie found Shelah dead, Julie knelt down and removed the ring from Shelah’s hand.
• Chan says he knows that Shelah was in Denny’s house the night he was murdered and, consequently, she knew the name of the killer.
• Julie says that the night of Denny’s murder, Shelah came home in a state of hysteria and wasn’t herself for weeks.
• After she returned from seeing Tarneverro, Shelah asked for the ring back because it had Denny’s name in it and she didn’t want any mention of that name now. “He’ll come back to disgrace me yet,” Shelah said of Denny Mayo.
• Julie says she took the ring in order to keep Denny’s name from disgracing Shelah, and Julie ripped the photo of Denny to shreds and buried the pieces in a potted plant for the same reason.
• When Chan asks her if she gathered up many of the photo pieces that were scattered all over the living room and kept them to herself, Julie says that was not her. She reminds Charlie that she wasn’t in the room when that happened.
• Chan puzzles over who doesn’t want him to see a photo of Denny Mayo — and why.
The bellman who had spoken to Tarneverro in Cantonese tells Chan that Tarneverro understands Cantonese.
• Chan thinks about this and concludes that Tarneverro understood what Wu said about seeing Shelah alive at 8:12, and so Tarneverro made a point of “discovering” that the murderer had deliberately set the broken wristwatch to 8:02.
• Chan concludes that Tarneverro is not as true a “helper” as he pretends to be.

unknown-1Chapter 19

• Martino urges Chan to solve the case soon. Charlie confesses that he is “opposed in this matter by some person of extreme cleverness.”
• Martino states that Tarneverro is very clever. Chan counters that Martino himself is clever.
• Martino thanks Charlie for the observation, then says he is convinced that the way Tarneverro gets Hollywood stars in his clutches is that he has spies working for him.
• Chan reminds Martino that Tarneverro has an unshakable alibi for the time of the murder.
• Chan asks Alan Jaynes how the cigar stub ended up outside the pavilion window if, in fact, Jaynes had never been there.
• Jaynes says that he saw Tarneverro take a couple of cigars from his (Jaynes’) cigar box and put them in his pocket.
• Jaynes concludes that Tarneverro used the cigar to plant a false clue.
• The Chief wants to break Tarneverro’s alibi: he informs Charlie that he has asked the old Australian couple, the MacMasters, to come into his office later.
• The Chief, Chan, and a house detective search Tarneverro’s room, where they find a locked trunk.
• They open the trunk: it contains a portable typewriter and a ring.
• Chan types a few words and compares them to the anonymous letter Van Horn received: both were written on the same machine, the one in Tarneverro’s trunk.
• Charlie thinks the ring is the very one that cut his face when somebody snatched the envelope from his hand in Shelah’s house the night of the murder.

Chapter 20
• The librarian describes a second man who was in the library that morning. From the description Chan is convinced it’s Tarneverro.
• Chan sits in on the Chief’s interview of the MacMasters. Reluctantly, the Chief agrees that they are speaking the truth: Tarneverro has an unshakeable alibi for the eighteen minutes in question.
• Chan asks the couple if Tarneverro is the man’s real name. The couple says that Tarneverro has asked them to not reveal his real name.
• Chan explains that if they give his real name, they will not harm Tarneverro, who has an alibi, but they will help solve the murder of Shelah Fane.
Mrs. MacMaster tells Charlie that Tarneverro’s real name is Arthur Mayo. He is Denny Mayo’s brother.

Chapter 21
• Chan requests that the fortune teller come to the police station immediately.
• Chan proposes to the Chief that they say nothing of Tarneverro’s obstacles (hitting Charlie, snatching the letter, stealing Jaynes’ cigar, planting it as a false clue, and so on), but rather tell him they know he is Denny’s brother, and see what he says.
• When confronted with their knowledge that he is Denny Mayo’s brother, Tarneverro says he will explain. He says that because the police didn’t solve the case, he went to Hollywood in disguise as Tarneverro and began prying into the secrets of those who knew Denny — to determine who murdered him.
Tarneverro believes that the same person who killed Denny also killed Shelah, to keep her from revealing his name.
• After Tarneverro leaves, the Chief and Chan agree that Tarneverro’s story was not true: that it in no way explains why he created false clues at every turn.
• Chan finds Smith and brings him to the station house.
• The Chief unleashes on Smith, asking him why his fingerprints are on the windowsill of the room in which Shelah Fane was murdered.
• Realizing he is in a tight spot and may be accused of murder, Smith confesses that he did climb the windowsill and looked inside and spotted a diamond pin. Stooping from the sill, he picked up the pin — and then he noticed the murdered woman on the floor.
• Smith reaches into his pocket and hands the broken pin to Chan.
• The Chief says that unless Smith reveals what Shelah said to Fyfe, he will be sent to prison for theft of the diamond pin.
• Smith says he will tell them. Chan says that he wants Fyfe to be present.

Chapter 22
• Fyfe arrives at the police station.
Smith announces that what he heard Shelah Fane tell Fyfe was that three years ago in Hollywood, she murdered Denny Mayo.
• Fyfe then explains that Shelah told him that she had fallen in love with Denny, but on that night three years ago, he told her his wife in London had had an accident and was no longer able to work: he was going to ask her to join him in Hollywood.
• Shelah went crazy, pulled a revolver out of Denny’s desk, and pointed it at him. He struggled with her and the gun went off, killing him.
• Against her will, Shelah somehow found herself confessing this crime to Tarneverro.
• Immediately afterward, she regretted having confessed.  In fact, she was afraid, which is why she called her ex-husband and asked him to see her.
• After her murder, Fyfe found he couldn’t tell the police the truth because it would forever tarnish Shelah’s name.
• Chan asks if Fyfe is sure that Shelah did indeed confess to Tarneverro that she killed Denny Mayo. Fyfe says he is certain she did.
• The Chief wants to arrest Tarneverro for the murder of Shelah Fane. Chan disagrees, stating that the fortune teller’s alibi is unshakeable.
Chan produces the broken diamond pin and says it will help him solve the case. When they find the missing half, they will know who the murderer is. The murderer, he believes, tore off the orchids and trampled them underfoot, breaking the pin and imbedding part of it in his/her shoe.

Chapter 23
• In the dining room of Shelah’s house Chan asks Jessop to place the chairs in the same position they were the previous evening, when the guests were served coffee.
• With a magnifying glass Chan examines the floor, then asks Jessop which guest sat where. Chan stands behind a particular chair and asks who sat there. Jessop can’t remember.
• Chan makes numerous calls, asking people to return to the house.
• He tells the Chief that there are scratches in front of one (and only one) chair in the dining room, and that Shelah Fane’s murderer sat in that chair.
• Everyone files into the dining room and recreates where they sat the previous evening. It is Tarneverro who sits in the murderer’s seat.
• Again the Chief wants to arrest Tarneverro. Again Chan protests that the man’s alibi is unbreakable.
• Chan asks Jessop if, after the guests left, anybody else sat at the table. Jessop admits that he and Anna sat there. He indicates that Anna sat in the chair Chan is most interested in.
• Chan calls for Anna. He asks her to remove her right shoe. She is wearing a brace on her right ankle, which she injured three years ago. She removes the shoe.
• In the presence of all, Chan slits the rubber heel with his penknife — embedded in the heel is the other half of the gold pin.
• Chan accuses Anna of murdering Shelah Fane. He realizes that she is the wife of Denny Mayo — the one he intended to return to before Shelah murdered him.

Chapter 24  
• Chan accuses Tarneverro of having used Anna as his spy in Hollywood: the person who relayed to him various things about the stars, so that he could pretend to “see” these things in his crystal ball.
Chan states that as soon as Tarneverro heard of Shelah’s murder, he instinctively knew who did it and sought to protect her, inventing lies along the way, planting false clues.
Anna confesses that she killed Shelah. She remembered a watch alibi from a play she was in, and she used it to set the time of the wristwatch to 8:02, when she was in the kitchen having tea with Jessop.


Barbara Gregorich provides clues and suggestions to mystery writing in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies, available through brick-and-mortar booksellers and online booksellers.

Summary: Telling the Story

In my previous blog, Scene: Centered on Conflict, I gave examples of how even scenes with minor conflicts help move the plot forward and reveal character. Scenes help a story come alive. But just as night balances day, so summary must balance scene. Scenes occur in “real time” in a novel, and so, even though scenes can be intense and absorbing, they can, if there are too many of them, increase the length of a novel. Because scenes take place in “real time,” they occupy more space on the page and in the book.

Enter summary (also called narrative or narrative summary): a condensed description of what happened. Unlike scene, which shows character and actions, summary describes them. Summary is telling rather than showing. Some books on writing define summary as “everything that isn’t dialogue.” Not a bad way to remember it. Scenes almost always contain dialogue, along with the “he said” or “she said” attributions. Just about everything else is summary.

Writers are always making decisions, conscious or subconscious, about what to present to the reader in scene and what to present in summary. The decision about what should be presented as scene and what as summary is up to each individual novelist, and so much of the decision depends on the story the writer wants to tell, and how she wants to tell it. All major conflicts in a novel, however, must be presented in scenes — that’s where the drama is, that’s what readers want, that’s what reveals character.

In my previous post I reprinted a small scene from Sound Proof. I’ll do the same in this post on Summary, but with a different excerpt. The paragraphs below are part of Chapter 11. The italicized parts are summary; the boldfaced parts are scene.SOUNDPROOF-Cover

    After lunch I went off to drum. Not going would offend Kofi, I rationalized. Not going would single me out as strange in a gathering where everybody played music. Admit the truth: I was here because I couldn’t resist the drums.
     I caressed the goatskin drum head, savoring its gritty texture. All of us stroked our drums in one way or another, practicing the patterns. I tried a few of the deep, satisfying booms. Left right left right. The volume filled my chest, the reverberations thrummed through my veins. Fingers flattened, I slapped the skin just past the outer edge, producing a higher pitched sound that wakened my brain.
     Attuned to life, and in this case death, Kofi taught us a pattern played during Ewe funerals. Only part of the pattern, he explained: the whole pattern was very long and complex. The mourning seemed appropriate, the pattern healing. We had been drumming for maybe fifteen minutes when I noticed Bliss. Like a barefoot waif she stood in the doorway of the pole barn, one foot curled over the toes of the other. Kofi signaled Stop on the drum. We all stopped except Lafayette, who did so only when he realized nobody else was playing.
     “Come in.” Kofi motioned to Bliss. “We are playing a song of mourning. You will feel better. Come.”
     Bliss hesitated, then selected a drum and sat near Cody. The drumming resumed.
     Yesterday I’d left the class feeling invigorated. Today it took prime energy to drag my ass out of the pole barn and up toward the main complex. I was tired and bad-tempered. My head hurt, I could barely keep my eyes open. I sniffed under my armpits. I stank. At the pigpen I stopped, leaned over the rail, and rested. I squinted up at the sun. If I tried to nap, I’d probably steam to death in the tent.
    Suzanne was standing outside the kitchen, talking to Aja Freeman. After a couple of minutes, she left Aja and marched my way, practicing her bones, a pair in each hand. One-TWO-three-FOUR, one-TWO-three-FOUR.
     “What’s wrong?” she asked, imitating my posture by leaning on the rail. She held the bones in front of her, clicking them softly.
     “What makes you think something’s wrong?”
     “Easy. You’re hanging with the pig instead of with me.”
     I didn’t reply.
     “What’s with all these cupolas?” she frowned, studying the one on the pig shed.
     “Over-decoration, if you ask me. I’m glad the barn doesn’t have one.” She did something quick with the bones, a series of fast clicks.
     “What’s that you’re doing?”
     “Triplets.” She smiled in satisfaction. “Not bad, huh?”
     “Yeah, I guess Best Bones West of the Mississippi would approve.”
     The triplets stopped a moment, then started up again. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked.
     “Did you know that Raven had been married to Shelby Stubbs?”
     She snapped the bones loud enough to register three counties away. “I don’t like it when you talk to me in that tone, Frank.”
     “What tone?”
     “As if I’m holding out on you, as if I’m a suspect you’re trying to extract information from!” She scowled at me.
     “I need that kind of information to do the job I was hired to do.”
     “Did you know?” I persisted.
     “No!” she snapped, “I didn’t know. I don’t know these people like you think I do. Mary’s the only one I know. What do I care who’s married to who — you know how I feel about marriage anyway.”
     Right. Suzanne didn’t believe in marriage, only in living together.
     Except that she still wasn’t living with me.
     “You need a shower.” She walked away, her body stiff.
     “No, I don’t,” I retorted out of pure orneriness.
     She turned and threw a bone at me. I caught it in my right hand. She threw another, I caught it in my left, barely. I thought she was going to throw the last two bones, but she turned and marched toward the farmhouse.
     I looked at the bones in my hands: gray corners and sky-blue streaks winked back at me.



In Sound Proof this excerpt comes to twenty-two lines of summary and thirty-seven lines of scene. I started this particular chapter with summary but moved into scene quickly. The scene isn’t large, but it is a scene: it takes place in real time, contains conflict, contains dialogue. So there’s variety in the opening of my eleventh chapter: some summary, some scene.

I’m not saying that I regularly write twenty-two lines of summary followed by thirty-even lines of scene. What I do is alternate scene and summary, pacing the book in a way that feels good to me: that is, it feels to me that this is the way my private eye would experience and report the story. And it feels to me that this is the way a reader would enjoy the telling of the story.


For more information on scene and summary as well as other aspects of writing fiction, see Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. Although aimed at mystery writers, the book offers basic advice and examples on writing fiction in general.

Scene: Centered on Conflict

People who write novels are always making decisions, conscious or subconscious, about what to present to the reader in scene and what to present in summary. In previous centuries readers enjoyed long paragraphs or even long pages of summary. And much of today’s literary fiction is written mostly in summary (narrative). But best-sellers are usually written in a back-and-forth of scene and summary that emphasizes the importance of scene.

A scene is an event that occurs in real time, with no interruptions such as a change of setting or a change of time. A scene is actually happening on the page rather than being summarized as having happened. Almost all scenes contain dialogue and almost all involve two or more characters.

creative-conflict-01All scenes, without exception, must contain conflict. If the conflict is missing, the scene is a failure — it doesn’t accomplish its double purpose of moving the plot forward and revealing character. If a scene contains no conflict, the writer should rewrite the scene so that there is conflict. And through the conflict, character is further developed and revealed. The conflict need not be huge. Some conflicts are small. But something is at stake in each conflict.

Below are two scenes depicting the same event. The first scene is taken word for word from Sound Proof. The second scene I wrote to illustrate my point about scenes without conflict. In both cases, a murder occurred just a few hours earlier. Because few attendees know about the murder, the festival events are continuing as usual. Private detective Frank Dragovic, along with everybody else, is eating breakfast in the communal dining area. With him is his love interest, Suzanne Quering, and Nola Grayson, the person who runs Midwest Music Madness.

Scene 1
    Nola Grayson, sitting with Suzanne and me, added sugar and cream to her coffee, stirred it, and settled the spoon alongside the cup. “Mary and I have talked about Shelby’s death,” she said, “and while it is tragic that somebody has died at Midwest Music Madness, it’s important for the festival to continue in the spirit intended. A spirit of fun, relaxation, friendship. And good music.”
    I nodded absentmindedly, wondering if I had missed any clue . . . Bliss smelling of cigarette smoke, Edric English fully dressed, the cut strings twisted around the red fiddle. . . .
    “. . . do you agree?” Nola asked.
    Suzanne prodded my thigh.
    “Huh? Agree with what?”
    “That we want the festival to be a positive experience for everybody, so we should proceed like we usually do.”
    “Sure,” I said.
    Nola nodded. “Good. That’s what I told Aja, and so she wants to talk to you.”
    I stared blankly at Nola. “Aja Freeman?” I asked. “One of the cooks?”
    “Yes,” said Nola in exasperation.
    “What about?” I asked.
    Nola smiled and leaned forward as if we were conspiring. “Aja really wants to win the cooking contest this year, and she’s got it into her head that more table space will help. Do you think you can build a table for the kitchen staff?”
    Build a table. I thought about it for a long minute.
    “Sure,” I said at last. “That’s what I’m here for,” I lied, wondering if Mary had carpentry work planned for me every day. “I’ll talk to Aja this morning.”

Scene 2
    Nola Grayson, sitting with Suzanne and me, added sugar and cream to her coffee, stirred it, and settled the spoon alongside the cup. “Mary and I have talked about Shelby’s death,” she said, “and while it is tragic that somebody has died at Midwest Music Madness, it’s important for the festival to continue in the spirit intended. A spirt of fun, relaxation friendship. And good music.”
    “Yes,” I replied.
    “We want the festival to be a positive experience for everybody, so we should proceed like we usually do,” Nola continued.
    “That makes sense,” I said.
    Nola nodded. “Good. That’s what I told Aja, and so she wants to talk to you.”
    “What about?” I asked.
    Nola smiled and leaned forward as if we were conspiring. “Aja really wants to win the cooking contest this year, and she’s got it into her head that more table space will help. Do you think you can build a table for the kitchen staff?”
    “Sure,” I said. “I’ll talk to Aja right after breakfast.”

The second scene, which, I repeat, does not appear in Sound Proof, illustrates what a scene that contains no conflict looks like.

It looks ho-hum. Uninteresting. Dead.

In the first scene, which is the way it appears in Sound Proof, there are several levels of minor conflict occurring. Nola wants Frank to continue in his undercover role as festival carpenter, and as part of that role she asks him to build a table for the kitchen staff. Frank wants to concentrate on the murder (which the sheriff has warned him against trying to solve — but no private eye worth his salt is going to stand back from a case he has a personal or professional interest in). Nola’s want and Frank’s want are in conflict with one another. This is a minor conflict, for sure, but it gives the scene life.

In addition, the scene helps develop and reveal character. What it shows about Frank is that he takes his job seriously: both his job as a professional investigator and his job as an undercover investigator. It shows that he takes murder seriously, too, because although he has been warned off the case, he’s determined to solve it. It shows he’s not a hothead: he thinks about what the best response to Nola’s request is.

The scene also reveals something of Nola’s character. She, too, is professional: a lawyer, and Mary’s festival organizer. She and Mary have thought about what’s best for the festival and the festival participants. As the person in charge, Nola wants Frank to proceed in a certain way, and she requests him to do what she deems best.

And something is also revealed about Suzanne. She prods Frank when he’s not paying attention to the conversation. She could have spoken, said something like, “Frank, Nola is talking to you,” or “Earth to Frank” or something else. But all those would call attention to the fact that Frank is not “there” at the moment. Suzanne does the more subtle thing, prodding him, in a move that Nola probably wouldn’t see. Suzanne knows enough about Frank to know that a prod from her will snap him back to attention. And she cares enough that she wants him to look good.

In the second example, the example without conflict, there is no revelation of character at all.(Except that the scene might make Frank sound like a goody-goody idiot.)

Conflict is the heart of drama, and the heart of scenes. Small conflicts, middle-sized ones, and major ones — each kind can be employed in a scene. Conflict will bring your scenes to life, move your plot forward, and please your readers.


Sound Proof is full of conflicts of many different kinds, from musical to personal.

Plot: The Steps of Struggle

In fiction writing there’s an endless debate over which is more important when you’re coming up with a story: character or plot. Personally, I don’t believe that one comes before the other, but that’s because when I’m planning a story, character and plot (as well as setting) come to me at the same time. I can’t create characters without at the same time creating their struggles — and their struggles and actions are the plot.

More than 2,000 years ago Aristotle, in his Poetics, explained what plot was: a series of causally related events. Aristotle considered plot the single most important element of drama, and he believed that it was plot which had the ability to arouse emotion in the audience.

Strictly speaking, it’s the characters’ actions (their taking steps that become elements of the plot: A, B, C, D, etc.) which arouse emotion. Characters alone, doing nothing, do not arouse emotion. But characters acting do.

Plot is a series of events that constitute a chain: each event is linked to another through cause and effect. In a linear novel, Event A causes Event B, which causes Event C, which causes Event D, and so on down the line.

But even though plot events need to be understood in linear order, they need not be presented to the reader in that order. For example, in my novel She’s on First, the first event is baseball scout Timothy Michael Curry sitting on the bleachers in a college stadium in Pennsylvania, watching the Liberty Bells play a game. That could be considered Event A . . . except that the story gives an immediate flashback to a Little League game several years earlier. This event (let’s call it Event B), appears to be the cause of Event A. But about two-thirds of the way into She’s on First there are more flashbacks, revealing that Event B was not the precipitating event. It, in turn, was caused by previous events.

No matter how complex the order of telling a story (and She’s on First is of very minor complexity — there are some super-complex novels out there!), the chain of events that form the plot can be reconstructed in linear order, joined by cause and effect.

master_mediumI highly recommend Robert Kernen’s book, Building Better Plots. He defines plot in this way: “The arrangement of events in a story to elicit a desired effect on the audience. A series of events organized to progress from inciting incident through rising action to climax and finishing with the resolution.” Aristotle, who felt that drama should achieve an intended effect on the audience, would have agreed. Good writers create plot points that reveal who their characters are.

Another good book on plot is Ronald Tobias’s 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them. When I first encountered this book many years ago, I thought that a book which compressed all plots into one of twenty types couldn’t possible help me.

I was wrong. Writing a novel is a complicated business, one that requires rethinking, restructuring, and rewriting, and during that process it’s often necessary for the writer to remind herself what the story is about: What is the basic plot? During that complicated process, it often helps to question the basic nature of your plot. Are you writing a Quest plot? An Escape plot? A Rivals plot? A Riddle plot? Or maybe an Underdog plot? According to Tobias, each plot requires a certain structure. His book helps you understand that structure and develop it.

The fact that plot events are related by cause and effect gives a novel great continuity. The plot events, and the character choices based on plot events, help expound the novel’s theme: the observations the author is making about life.

Writers to whom plot comes first don’t necessarily neglect character. They trust to the plot to reveal character.

UnknownAn example of how good plotting can result in greater character development is the example of Earl Derr Biggers. Back n the 1910s Biggers was a very successful novelist of popular fiction. He was, as well, a playwright and collaborator on other plays. In 1920 he and his family took a long vacation from New York through Canada, down into California, and, finally, to Hawaii. There, lying on the beach at Waikiki one day, Biggers came up with the idea of “how to commit the perfect murder.” He was so excited by this that he wrote to his editor about it.

It would be four years before Biggers found the time to return to his “perfect murder” plot, but when he did, he of course created the characters who would carry out the plot. One of the characters Biggers created was Chinese-Hawaiian police detective, Charlie Chan. This character became popular around the world, from Sweden to China, and places between. The Chan novels were translated into 33 different languages.

From a plot, Biggers was able to create a character who became bigger than the plot.


Barbara Gregorich discusses different aspects of plot in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

The Strawberry Roan

Scan 1

From my earliest childhood days, I was a fan of cowboys. I wore Stetsons and toted cap-gun sixshooters and never traveled far from the ranch without a BB rifle slung over my shoulders. When I wasn’t rounding up the cattle or stringing barbed wire I strummed the banjo, one of those plastic windups that played one tune: “Home on the Range.” I would have preferred “The Old Chisholm Trail,” but cowboys don’t complain. By the time I was eight years old, I had selected the greatest cowboy song of all time and learned its lyrics. I can still recite them today.

That song was “The Strawberry Roan” as sung by Marty Robbins on Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. With lyrics by Curely Fletcher, the song has a few different versions — but a comparison clearly shows that the simplest, most memorable, and most dramatic version (cutting away all the clutter) is the Marty Robbins version.

220px-Gunfighter-Ballads-Robbins-CDSomewhere around the age of ten I abandoned my cowboy gear. But I never abandoned “The Strawberry Roan,” and now, decades later, I recognize that, had anybody been placing bets on what I would become when I grew up, they would not have bet “cowgirl.” The wisest among them would have bet “writer.”

They would have bet that way because the song I was attached to like a burr to a saddle blanket was a song with a strong, clear dramatic structure , much like the structure of a novel, play, or movie. In five eight-line stanzas, the lyrics take us from defeat to seeming victory to defeat-with-knowledge. A complete story cycle, with dramatic rising action.

In the first stanza we learn that a bronc fighter, out of a job, is approached by a stranger who needs a horse tamer. But the stranger warns the cowboy that the horse in question has had a lot of luck throwing good riders.

This warning only inflames the cowboy, who “gets all het up”,” speaks ill of the “nag” in question, and brags that he can beat any horse alive. By the end of the second stanza we’re out at the ranch, where the cowboy hero will get a look at the horse he has been hired to tame.

Seven of the eight lines of the third stanza describe the strawberry roan in great detail. He sounds like a wreck: old, his hocks swollen, pigeon-toed, u-necked. The listener is amused and lulled by this highly descriptive information which makes the roan seem no threat at all. And then comes the eighth line, the reversal, when the cowboy, wise in the ways of horses, reveals that Strawberry is “a regular outlaw.”

So three-fifths of the way into the story we have met the protagonist and antagonist and we understand the conflict. One of these two will win, Cowboy or Strawberry. The confrontation will be neither pleasant nor easy.

Frederic Remington Bronze, Bronco Buster

Frederic Remington Bronze, Bronco Buster

In the fourth stanza we’re let in on the fact that the cowboy, mounting the strawberry roan, recognizes the severity of what he faces. The instant the cowboy steps in the saddle and releases the blind, Strawberry reacts, frog-walking, twisting, bucking, heaving, and, at the end of the stanza, turning his belly toward the sun. (Putting his head low between his front legs while kicking his hind legs as high as he can.) Horse and rider, as well as listener/reader, are left suspended in the air as the fourth stanza ends.

Strawberry comes back to earth hard. Then up he bucks again, this time dislodging the defeated cowboy, who hyperbolically spins twice before hitting the ground. The final stanza is followed by a three-line summary in which the cowboy admits defeat and argues that no man alive could ride the strawberry roan.

As a kid, I loved that ending, mainly because I wanted Strawberry to win the contest. But I also loved the ending because I recognized that the cowboy was, throughout the song, engaging in humor at his own expense. The humor served to make the cowboy a mere mortal while elevating Strawberry to a higher level: The Horse That Couldn’t Be Broken.

There, in one short song, are the main elements of story — setting, challenge, protagonist and antagonist, conflict, rising action (literal as well as figurative!), climax, and change. No wonder I unsaddled my pony, hung up my sixshooters, kicked off my spurs, and became a writer.