Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Hard Part

When I start a mystery, I know who the murderer is, and I know how and why s/he did it.  I also have an idea how the killer went about trying to cover up the crime.  I’m pretty good about doling out clues at appropriate intervals throughout the story.  But here’s the hard part: Alafair, my protagonist, has to figure out who did the deed.  

What’s the problem, you ask?  Just have your sleuth sort through the clues, make the right connections, and Bob’s your uncle.  

As anyone who has ever written a mystery can attest, it’s not that easy, my friend, because you have to do it in such a way that is realistic and makes sense.

Alafair is very much an amateur sleuth. She is not a law enforcement professional or a private investigator.  She doesn’t do this for a living, nor does she have any official authority to compel people to answer her questions. She also lives in an era when people are constrained by fairly rigid gender roles. So, question number one is: what is she doing trying to solve a murder, anyway?  The first thing I have to do is give her a really compelling reason to get involved.

Then I have to give her the means and the opportunities to uncover information and make connections, and I can’t force the action to fit the outcome I want.  In other words, I can’t have Alafair doing things that a woman with the resources she has couldn’t do.  I can’t have her act against her own nature, either, just to advance the plot or create tension in an artificial way.  

This is the reason I’ve been known to stare at the screen for an hour when I’m at a critical juncture, thinking “how can I get Alafair off the farm and into that office in town to search for the gun, before sundown, when she has ten kids who want dinner?”

I could just have her up and leave, or I could contrive to have all the kids and the husband go out to eat at whatever the 1915 equivalent of McDonald’s was.  But that wouldn’t be realistic.  Sometimes I just can’t come up with a plausible way to do it, and I have to go at it from a totally different angle or rework the scene altogether.

Forcing the action is a common mistake for a beginning writer.  I often see it done in one of two ways. One is the “Idiot College Student Syndrome”. This is when the character has been brilliant throughout the book, but suddenly does something stupid just so you can put her in danger and increase the tension.  One by one, five college students went into that dark room alone and were massacred by an ax murderer.  In the name of all that’s holy, Number Six, don’t go in there! Call the police, you idiot! 

Second is the “Wildly Unbelievable Coincidence”, in which the author hands the sleuth the vital clue in the most implausible fashion.  The detective didn’t detect.  He just happened to be in the right place.  He just happened to stumble across an object.  The killer suddenly leaped up out of his chair and confessed.  I have to be sure that my sleuth honestly found the answer using the information provided in the story.  

This is one of the things I like about an amateur sleuth - she has to be sneaky, persistent, smart, and clever in order to find her answers.   In fact, there have been occasions where Alafair came upon a clue that I was not aware of myself until it appeared on the page.  Toward the end of my last book, The Sky Took Him, Alafair was sitting in a hospital corridor, having a nice, normal, conversation with the family, when she noticed something at exactly the same time I did, an observation which provided both of us with a vital piece of information.  It surprised the heck out of me, but it was plausible, very much in character for Alafair, and worked like a charm. Moments like this are why writing a mystery can be such fun.


NL Gassert said...

I love you, Donis. And I mean this in the most adoring, platonic fashion possible. Brilliant post.

I hate coincidences. Yeah, okay, every now and again, I’ll let you get away with it, especially if it’s a minor issue, and, let’s face it, there are coincidences in life. But solving a crime requires “detection.” Don’t even get me started on the idiot college students. No, no, go ahead, go into the dark room – at least the book will be done and over with.


Thanks for pointing out that it’s not all about clever clues and complicated plots. It’s about how to believably move your characters through the story and wrecking your brain for real reasons to get Alafair out of the house.

Donis Casey said...

Heavens to Betsy, M. Gassert, thank you. I'm always afraid the reader is going to stop in the middle of the action and say, "Oh, come on, now." In fact, I'm sure I've not always avoided the improbable occurrence. It's hard work to make it work!

LABANAN said...

Great post, Donis. And so helpful right now where I'm at. And where is that you ask? Sneaking up on the ending of my book which comes much too fast and needs a ton of revision. arggghh! And it is as you say! I know who and how and why but that doesn't help my detective. She has to put the pieces together in her own way. And she did - now I have to lengthen the pace. I think I was so surprised and delighted when I figured it out with her that I just blurted it all on the page.
Thanks for your take!