Warning: The following contains some opinion stated as fact, which doesn’t mean it isn’t open to reasonable discussion.
It has been three decades last year since I began my journey into crime fiction and it taught me, and is still teaching me, many things. One of them is that the genre is diverse, not only in terms of subgenres, but of approaches – every writer has their own, regardless of the school they identify with. There is no such thing as a « pure » classical, hardboiled, noir or suspense writer except maybe for the rare ones thoroughly lacking in individuality. Nowhere is it more apparent than with regard to plotting technique. Younger me thought there was only one way to plot – that of the classical masters such as Christie and Carr, not being aware of the vast differences between the two. I became aware of other techniques as my readings and consequently my tastes widened, so that I can now identify at least four main plotting techniques used in crime fiction, which I will detail henceforth. I have no doubt you can and will think of others; that’s what the comments section is for.
The first I’m calling Straight Plotting and is probably the oldest and still most frequent one. As its name implies, it goes straight from A (problem) to Z (solution) following the alphabetical order of evidence, testimonies and investigation, with nothing or very little hindering its inexorable progress. It is the template of most – but not all – classical detective fiction, from Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie to P.D. James. It is also the one kind of plotting that genre skeptics most focus on, as in unskilled hands it can easily become boring. This approach I think is better suited to short stories (where it originated) than novels but can work in the latter format nevertheless provided the problem is interesting enough and the narration lively. (It can be done, Agatha’s continuing success is proof of that)
The second which is the diametral opposite of the first I have called Pinball Plotting. The narrative is still concerned with a problem and its solution but is no longer linear. The detective or main protagonist has no idea where they’re going (and neither has the reader) as the investigation leads them rather than the other way round. One testimony leads them on a track which in turn leads to another, etc. There is no longer certainty or inevitability as to the outcome of the case. This way of plotting was introduced by the American school and was/is mostly used by the local varieties that are hardboiled, suspense and maybe above all police procedurals. It makes for more exciting reading than Straight Plotting but is also harder to master as despite the apparent lack of it it needs greater cohesion as the risk is for the story to appear improvised and arbitrary. The truth is, not all Pinball plotters are good at the game as the cases of Raymond Chandler or James Crumley show, though they often have other gifts to (partially) make up for it, Pinball Plotting being more open to literary flourishes than the Straight one.
The third which is separate from the first two but has elements of both is Matryoshka Plotting. Basically it can be said to mostly retain Straight structure but with Pinball uncertainty. Like its name implies, Matryoshka Plotting starts with a problem but discovers multiple others over the course of the narrative. It is once again an American invention most famously incarnated by Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. To the amateur this approach is the most rewarding one, but only when handled well as it can easily become confusing, leaving thus the reader astray. There is also a risk for the writer to overreach and going too far, mistaking gratuitous complication for genuine complexity. Finally it requires from the writer supreme storytelling skills as to make the whole thing believable as Matryoshka Plotting is the one most dependent on suspension of disbelief. I wouldn’t recommend it to the newcomer, be them reader or writer.
Finally there is Snowball Plotting which is different from others as it doesn’t necessarily require the presence of a problem to solve and is almost exclusively the province of suspense and noir fiction. Snowball Plotting doesn’t go from one question to its answer but from an action to its result. One minor event is seen to evolve into something increasingly bigger and threatening, with how it will end being the focus of the narrative. Charlotte Armstrong was perhaps the greatest proponent of this approach which she may even have invented. Most of her novels and stories begin with a seemingly innocuous event that turns out to have disastrous consequences; sometimes there is not even criminal intent behind it. Snowball Plotting may appear to be the simplest of all four approaches, since you don’t have to bother with things like clues or solutions, but it is actually one of the hardest to carry out for like with Matryoshka you have to keep it probable, if not likely. It has its own rewards though, as no other gives more room to characterization – the characters, their thoughts and their behaviour are more than a mere aspect of the story, they are its very raison d’être. Just ask Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell.
All four techniques are equal in merit and have produced books that I like and even love, though I admit a personal fondness for Pinball and Matryoshka. What about you? Do you find this classification satisfying?