Friday, April 18, 2014

The Murder Mystery: Black Box and White Box

Another post? Well, I found my inspiration again. Turns out it was laying on dust under my bed... nah, actually, lying around in a hospital bed with nothing to do gives you a lot of time to get bored. Also, reading all the crime novels and thrillers got me thinking about my own ideas. This, in turn, got me thinking about the very thing I kept getting stuck on: The murder mystery itself. Who did it, why did they do it, and how the hell do the cops find them?

This post is about two basic ways of finding that out.

Thinking in Boxes

The terms I use here are something I unabashedly pulled from software testing. There, a White Box test refers to testing the product with knowledge of its inner working and free look at the source code itself. A Black Box test, on the other hand, gives you none of that, leaving you to test it under the same conditions as the eventual user. The same principle can be applied to the murder mystery.


White Box Plot
As with the software testing example above, you have all the information. You have plans on who did it, why they did it, who lies and who tells the truth. You follow the murderer, so you know where the evidence is, why they did it, and so on and so forth.

Black Box Plot
The Black Box Plot is best described as "follow the cops". You start out with just the things the cops see at the crime scene and basically do the same thing in your story planning as the cops do in their investigation.


Of course, both Black and White Box have their advantages and disadvantages. Also, not everybody can pull off both things equally well.

White Box Plot
The biggest pro of the White Box Plot is that you start out knowing who did it in the end. You don't pull things out of thin air as you go along, since you already have a fixed set of characters, pieces of evidence and other things where you want to end up. It's hard to get stuck when you already know something that's going to happen.
The biggest con of the White Box Plot is actually the downside of its biggest pro. You know who did it. It's easy to have your investigators jump to conclusions that sound a bit farfetched or have them find things by accident a few times too often. It's possible to ignore that extra knowledge you have, but it's harder than it seems.

Black Box Plot
The Black Box Plot basically writes your story for you. As I wrote above, you follow the cops, who are most likely going to be your main point of view characters. Sure, there's enough stories that include the culprit's point of view, too, but the main focus is still on solving the crime. So you're basically swimming with the stream here.
And again, looking at this from the other side reveals the problems. Following the cops will lead you the same problems as them. You'll find yourself endlessly meandering until you figure out what your next step is. Sometimes, you need to take leaps of faith and see if the story works out the way you want it to.

Plot and Story

Up until now, I've always talked about a something something plot. That was because I was talking about the raw "what is going on" of the story, not necessarily what is written down. Just because you develop the plot white box, that doesn't mean that you have any culprit POV segments in it, and vice versa. Because once you have your plot, you can write your story around it, and that doesn't need to have the same structure as your internal plot notes.
Of course, I'm not telling anyone how to make their murder mysteries, but I think I've done a decent job outlining black/white box differences for writing here. Because I'm preeetty sure you can apply this to other types of plots, too. Make of that what you will.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Writing Icebergs

Yes, I'm still alive. I spent my time working, in hospital and forcibly not doing anything (in that order). During the second period, my only source of entertainment was books. I found out that there seems to be an upper limit as to how much Jack Reacher someone can take, but luckily, my grandma brought me another book from the family crime novel stash (Yes, that's totally a thing.). That book did a few things wrong, mostly with its characters. One of these things is where my inspiration for this post comes from.

Oh god, I'm rambling again.

Iceberg ahead!

Icebergs (I love loanwords) are funny things. The reason I'm using them as a metaphor here is the way they swim. The largest part of an iceberg is, invisible to the common Titanic passenger, hidden under water. But it can still influence its surroundings, as the common Titanic passenger had to realize.

 Yes, and?

And now let's apply this to writing. Many concepts in storytelling should, if done well, be icebergs. How exactly that looks depends on the element, though.

One of the most common mistakes I've seen with people who want to present their game idea to the common public is way too much worldbuilding in the pitch. I already talked about plot in relation to the setting, so go read that post for more details. The bottom line is that the plot is what drives things forward, not the world it's set in.
Sure, you shouldn't completely ignore your setting. It exists for a reason, and not referencing it at all makes it interchangeable. But the other extreme, endlessly wallowing in the setting with hardly any plot, isn't much better. Make the setting matter, show things that need explaining, but don't cram every detail you have into it.

This is where my original inspiration for this post comes in. The book I read almost constantly threw its main characters' backstory at me, to the point where I started identifying them by what happened before the plot. As with the world, having actual backgrounds for your characters is a good thing. The things that happened in a character's past influence their decisions in the present. But that doesn't mean that these things should be elaborated every time they influence that character. Also, backstory is not an excuse for everything and characters should have at least some development over the course of the story.

Yes, even the plot can be iceberged to an extent. This refers mostly to overly detailed subplots that don't really add that much to the grand scheme of things. Alternatively, there's people who want to tell you every little thing that happens between important scene A and B, no matter how insignificant or matter-of-fact it is. This is like toilets in video games. Just because they're not in the game that doesn't mean that nobody poops. It's just not shown because it's irrelevant.

The Bottom Line

It all comes down to, well, paring down the things that are visible. I have the feeling that too many people feel that their audiences are morons and will not get things if they're not waved in front of their faces. Things can be left out. Things can be abstracted. We don't need to know that Bobby McJohnson's dislike of the color pink comes from the embarrassing hat he wore at his first day of school.

Also, this is one of these topics that's a highly uneducated opinion, so if I'm talking garbage, feel free to tell me. But include the non-garbage interpretation, too. Now, if you're looking for me, I'm in my tomato shelter.