Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Murderer's Ladder

Erle Stanley Gardner, author and creator of Perry Mason along with many other mystery novels, spent much of his writing career creating methods of plotting. On November 30, 2011, I posted on The Writer's Lens his theory of The Fluid or Unstatic Theory of Plots. To create the Fluid or Unstatic Plot and explore the plotting of his mystery novels, Gardner created for himself The Murderer's Ladder. The Murderer's Ladder explores the steps that a criminal takes in committing a crime. In fact this ladder can be modified for any writer to fit any act of villainy in which you are writing. However since we are looking at Erle Stanley Gardner and his plot method, I will focus strictly on his Murderer's Ladder and then explain how Gardner actually developed his plots and then wrote them from a different point of view.

The Murderer's Ladder has ten steps that the murderer follows.  Starting on the bottom rung and moving up to the top, the steps are:
1. Motivation
2. Temptation
3. The Plan
4. The Opportunity
5. The First Irrevocable Step
6. The Act of Killing [my note to the readers: you could insert any act of villainy that you wish to use, other than murder, at this step]
7. The Flight
8. The Cover Up
9. The False Suspect
10. The Necessity for Eliminating the Little Overlooked Clues and Loose Threads

Gardner placed his emphasis, or his heart of the story, on the situational issues at step five (The First Irrevocable Step), step six, during the commission of the foul deed things have to occur, and step ten, when it becomes necessary for the murderer to deal with unexpected eventualities. What is extremely interesting about the way Erle Stanley Gardner plotted is that he actually plotted his novels from the point of view of the villain.

Many authors that I am aware of usually start off with a hero or protagonist as their main focus of the plot, including all the trials and tribulations, and the acts of the villain or antagonist to this story. Gardner didn't plot this method instead Gardner plotted out his mystery novels first from the point of view of the murderer.  How did the murder occur?  What caused the person to actually move into the act?

While people can argue the psychological aspects of any character or any living person regarding the age old debate of nature versus nurture on human motivation, the motivation for the act of crime has been clearly identified. Any police officer, especially a detective, or criminal attorney, could tell you they have a list of easily identifiable motivations for any act of crime, especially homicide.  Human motivation for homicide is rooted within our needs or desire for sex, travel, wealth, human friendship and contact, food, self-improvement (mental, physical, and financial), security, advancement, and justice. You can easily go back to psychology 101 and see these motivations identified or a version of them can be seen on any behavioral chart of psychological need. For example: Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

While Gardner plotted his novels from the point of view of the murderer, he wrote the novel from a different point of view.  He wrote the point of view of the actual detective sorting out what the murderer did. To quote Gartner, "When a detective story is stripped to its bare essentials the murder is, after all, a simple matter. A kills B and does it by a knife or gunshots at a time when he is supposed by all parties to the story to be elsewhere, or by telling a story, such as seeing a man running away, at whom he shot, etc., divert suspicion. It is the contact with the resulting incidents which makes the story. A murderer tries to conceal his crime by false alibis, false clues, misdirected suspicions, convincing falsehoods.

"Each of these subterfuges must at some point or other contact known facts and apparently coincide with them. As a matter of fact, if all of the minor facts were known, the synthetic truth would break down, since every fact is inseparably matched with other facts, like the cogwheels of clockwork. It is in the failure to assimilate minor facts that detective work falls down.

"For story purposes it lies in showing the failure of some one minor fact to mesh. Therefore, the plot a mystery, plot more and more carefully in greater detail the avenues of escape sought by the real perpetrator, which may combine any and all of the basic methods of deception such as false motive and perjured alibi combined with planted clues, etc." 

Looking back over at what was written, the reader may be asking why not plot this strictly from the detective's point of view instead of focusing  from the murderer and then writing it from detective point of view. Gartner approached this same question and explained it, "The point is that any murderer, in killing a person, where the crime is not one of passion, enters upon a critical period as he climbs the ladder of motivation, temptation, opportunity, etc., to a point where he is irrevocably committed to the crime after he has taken one step which is such that he can't back up. If the murderer's plans go astray between the time of taking this first irrevocable step and the actual killing, the murderer must improvise; and when he starts improvising he does certain things which are quite logical to him but which would be exceedingly mysterious to a person who does not know the whole sequence of events."

It is from this point of view and from this method the Earl Stanley Gardner created his theory of the Fluid or Unstatic Plot, which I wrote about on November 30. In constructing a plot, Garner worked through nine steps:
1. The act of primary villainy;
2. Motivation for the act of villainy;
3. The villain's cover up;
4. Complications which arise during and after the cover-up;
5. The hero's contact with the act of villainy;
6.  Further complications and character conflicts;
7. Suspense through the hero's mistakes;
8. Villain's further attempt to escape;
9. Hero sets solution factors in motion or traps the villain.

Regardless if an author is writing a murder mystery, science fiction story, fantasy, regular drama, or any genre of fiction writing this method applies. Personally, I have used this method in creating stories of multiple genres. The nine questions that are posed in this and in The Theory of the Fluid or Unstatic Plot and through the use of the Murderer's Ladder can help anybody write a fictional story. 

What if The Murderer's Ladder is that applied to real life? In my next entry on The Writer's Lens, which will be posted on January 27, in a post dedicated to readers, I will post an interview with a fellow writer who is writing a true crime book and will ask them if The Murderer's Ladder applies in understanding the crime they are researching.

 Thank you for reading and please visit and Fiction is the world where the philosopher is the most free in our society to explore the human condition as he chooses.

1 comment:

  1. Keep them coming, David. I am learning so much from your analysis of Gardner's plotting techniques. I don't know how I could ever hope to repay you for this education.