You’ve tuned into Dragnet. The opening music begins, da da dum dum, and the narrator sets the stage with the introduction:
“Ladies and gentlemen, the story you’re about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.”
After the introduction, Sgt. Joe Friday jumps right into the scene with that wonderful deadpan monologue.
“This is the city. Los Angeles, California. I work here. I’m a cop. It was Tuesday, April 7th. It was cold in Los Angeles. We were working the day watch out of accident investigation division, hit and run felony unit. My partner is Frank Smith . . .”
Television, more than any other medium, has created expectations for viewers and readers of mysteries. Dragnet viewers know exactly what’s going to happen next because the structure of the story and how it unfolds never change. Writing a mystery for young children isn’t very different when it boils down to plot. A children’s mystery is generally going to follow the tried and true formula used in adult mysteries.
Plot is the roadmap of your story. It’s the events that take place and the order in which they occur. As a mystery writer, your goal is to guide your junior investigators onto a path that will help them crack the case. To do so, you need to plan out your story from beginning to end. Often, in adult mystery novels, a classic 12-chapter approach is used. If you’re writing a transitional reader or early chapter book, this needs to be condensed into six to eight short chapters.
 Dragnet 1951 (posted on YouTube by Mill Creek Entertainment).
Introduction and Chapter 1
Open up a Case File
At the outset, introduce your investigators and establish the crime. Who are your investigators? Are they hardboiled mouse detectives? Or, are they more like Nate the Great or Jack and Annie from The Magic Tree House? What’s their relationship? As you delve into the story, you’ll develop your investigators’ roles and characters.
Likewise, from the get-go you need to find out what happened at the crime scene. “Get the facts and just the facts . . . . ” For example:
“Wilcox, here. Headquarters.”
“Hello, this is Miss Rabbit.”
“How can I help you?” I asked.
“My cake is gone.”
“What cake?” I asked.
“The cake I baked for my party tomorrow!”
“Stay calm, ma’am. We’ll be right there,” I said, “Captain, we’ve got a Code 12—a missing cake!”
 The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake, A Wilcox & Griswold Mystery, Robin Newman and illustrated by Deborah Zemke (Creston Books, 2015), Ch. 1, at 2.
The Crime Scene
Your investigators arrive pronto at the scene of the crime.
“Detective Wilcox and Captain Griswold, MFIs” I said, flashing my badge, “Can you please tell us what happened?”
While questioning the victim and examining the crime scene, your detectives will start figuring out the who, what, where, when, and how. At the top of their to-do list is identifying potential suspects. In an early chapter book, you only need three or four suspects at the most. You don’t want to overcomplicate the plot, but at the same time, the story needs to be challenging enough to make your readers want to read more.
In The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake, I have three prime suspects: Fowler, Porcini, and Hot Dog. Each suspect accuses someone else of being the culprit. By setting up the plot this way, it makes it easy for the detectives to go from one suspect to the next, and move the story forward. But the same technique can be used by having each suspect highlight a clue for the detectives to focus on as the story progresses.
At this time, the detectives also begin the task of collecting physical evidence. They tape off the crime scene area, dust for prints, and take photos. As a writer, you need to leave a crumb trail of easy clues, as well as some red herrings to keep your savvy investigators on their toes.
Chapters 3 and 4
Suspects and Clues
This is the meat of the story. This is where your detectives learn who had the motive, means, and opportunity to carry out the crime. They talk to witnesses, interrogate suspects, gather more evidence, and follow up on clues that will lead them straight to a brick wall and back to square 1. But when all hope seems lost, this is a major opportunity for your detectives and readers to reexamine the evidence. It’s a chance for your junior detectives to take note of facts that they may have missed earlier on in the investigation. Not to mention, an opportunity for them to re-strategize and develop Plan B.
One way to slow down the reader to take note of an important fact or to emphasize a clue is by having one character repeat or slightly modify what another character has said. For instance:
“And then she took a walk in her pajamas.”
“In her pajamas?” I asked. “That’s odd. Where did she go?”
“But she sure was acting like a funny bunny.”
“Funny ha ha or funny odd?” I asked.
“She didn’t say a word—not even a peep when I asked if she wanted a nice hot cup of slop! And she was still wearing her pajamas. . . .”
Even a comment by an investigator can slow down the reader to take note of an important fact.
“Where were you when the cake was taken?”
“I was taking a quick catnap.”
Hmm. . . a catnap. Such an odd thing for a bunny to do.
Repetition is a pacing device that can help slow down the plot. In comedy writing, this is a technique that’s frequently used. But you should always think of plot in terms of elements that will move your story forward. The one exception would be red herrings, which are intentional story diversions.
 Id. Ch. 3, at 13.
 Id. Ch. 3, at 16.
 Id. Ch. 2, at 9.
Plan B and the Big Reveal
The investigation’s taken a new direction. Using what new information your detectives have found, they rush to catch the culprit before he or she strikes again. And when that big moment is about to happen, you want to slow down the text. Don’t give the big moment away too quickly. You want your characters, not to mention your readers, sitting on the edge of their seats waiting to find out whodunit.
In The Case of The Missing Carrot Cake, Detectives Wilcox and Captain Griswold try to catch their cake thief red handed, or frosting handed as the case may be, with a good old-fashioned stakeout and video surveillance. When it’s finally time to view the two videotapes, the first tape doesn’t work. But when they show the second video tape . . . .
The room was silent.
“There’s nothing on this tape,” cried Miss Rabbit.
“Patience. It’s still rolling,” I said, when the tape picked up the presence of a shadow.
“I can’t watch!” screamed Porcini.
“Me, neither!” cried Hot Dog.
“Who?!” hooted Fowler.
“Quiet!” I shouted.
The captain shot everyone his “or else” look.
And then the blurry image of a figure appeared.
“Is it over?” screamed Porcini.
“I’m scared!” cried Hot Dog. “Who?!” hooted Fowler.
“Shush!” I shouted.
The captain glared his “be quiet” look.
The figure slowly came into focus.
A mishap or two right before the big reveal adds tension to the scene and makes the big aha moment really stand out.
 Id. Ch. 5, at 30.
At long last, the case is solved. It was a piece of cake after all. It’s an opportunity for the detectives to recap, clarify, and explain how they figured out how the crime was committed. But just as in writing a picture book, you want to leave something extra that will spice up the last scene in the book. A twist at the end or touch of humor is a great way to do this. In The Case of the Missing Carrot Cake, Hot Dog saves the day. He made an extra cake for Miss Rabbit’s party, but once everyone takes a bite, they realize the cake is crunchy. Nobody’s ever had crunchy carrot cake. That’s because it’s Hot Dog’s secret ingredient: dog biscuits. And sure enough, everyone loses their appetite and the only ones eating are Porcini and Hot Dog. They finish every last crumb, and that’s how you make a cake disappear.
If you follow the tried and true formula of plotting a mystery, you’re bound to come up with a winner of a transitional reader or early chapter book. Remember to also pay attention to the age of your reader, vocabulary, word counts, the complexity of your story, and last but never least, have fun!
Raised in New York and Paris, Robin Newman is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the City University of New York School of Law. She’s been a practicing attorney and legal editor, but she prefers to write about witches, mice, pigs, and peacocks. She lives in New York with her husband, son, goldfish, and English Cocker Spaniel, who happens to have been born on the Fourth of July. Stop by her website www.robinnewmanbooks.com, visit her blog, or follow @robinnewmanbook on Twitter. You can also find her on FACEBOOK.
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