Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Olympics and crime fiction

After reading Charlotte's and Aline's posts on fuzzy endings and playing fair, I got to thinking about what is so compelling about crime novels. I've asked myself this question many times, of course, and use the answers to guide my writing all the time, but this time, because of the Olympics, I'm coming at it from a different angle. Like much of the world, I've been immersed in the Olympics and caught up not only in the sports I always love like figure skating and hockey, but also in those I've barely heard of, like snowboard slopestyle and skeleton (no, not that kind). Suspense, risk, the unknown, the twist, the battle of heroes - the Olympics has it all.


When I give writing workshops, I start off with what I consider the four key elements of any good story:
1. A character worth caring about
2. A question worth answering
3. Three hundred pages of complications (in a novel)
4. An answer that satisfies.

Every word in this list is carefully chosen, and I think if you hit all these points, you have the core of a great story. Which brings me back to the Olympics. Take the first point - a character worth caring about. Almost all the Olympians (except the dopers) are worthy, just by the nature of their long, passionate struggle to get there. But those I cared about the most were those whose struggle had been personalized in some way so that I understood the meaning of that moment for them. Ice dancers Virtue and Moir striving to end their glorious twenty-year career with one final Olympic medal; snowboarder Mark McMorris striving to come back from a catastrophic crash only months earlier that nearly cost him his life. On the sidelines, as readers and watchers, we identify with these characters and care deeply about whether they succeed or fail.

The second point has two key words - worth and answering. The question has to be important and life-challenging enough for us to want to find out the answer. Not only the asking is important, but the answering - a subtle distinction brought into focus with the Olympics example again. It's worth asking whether Mark McMorris will win a medal (or indeed in his case, even get down the course without crashing), but it's not enough. We need to know the answer. It is that drive to know the answer that keeps us glued to the TV through all the other competitors and the endless commercials.


In crime fiction, the question is usually whodunit or whydunit or howdunit. Because crime fiction deals with the most heinous act one human can do to another– with human nature stripped to the bone– that question is almost always worth asking. But even in that, there are some questions that grab the reader more than others, that make us identify and care more deeply. They have to do with character (hero, villain, and victim) and motive, which is why novels that deal with primal human emotions like jealousy, betrayal, and fear are more powerful than greed alone (unless paired with the above).

If Olympic triumph was just about the medal around one's neck or the prize money or the lucrative endorsements, it would be far less compelling to watch, but for all the athletes, I believe it is the personal achievement that is most important. That sense of triumph at overcoming the odds, doing their best, and coming out on top. It is the ultimate goal they've been striving for, of which the medal is just a symbol. You can tell by the tears and smiles at the finish line, by the respect they have for their fellow athletes, by the gratitude they express for their families and colleagues, that this has been a deeply personal journey and a profound personal affirmation.

The three hundred pages of complications refers to the obstacles and detours along the way - the lost competitions, the injuries, the disappointments - each one serving to heighten the suspense and make the quest more personal, meaningful, and uncertain. Will he make it? Can he recover? And on the day of the competition itself, can he beat the incredible score laid down by the athlete just before him? In crime fiction, the obstacles must be meaningful and not mere page-stuffing, serving to deepen the mystery, make alternative solutions more believable, and leave the resolution in doubt.

The fourth point addresses what both Charlotte and Aline raised. Nothing is worse than watching an entire competition, with suspense at its height and the winner about to be revealed, only to have the cable or Wi-Fi die. If a writer has posed a question and tantalized the reader through three hundred pages of ramped-up expectations, trepidation and hope, it is the height of cruelty not to give them an answer. It would be like writing a story about climbing Mount Everest and ending it a hundred feet from the summit. Every story, whether crime fiction or not, deserves an end.

I'm okay with a lot of grey. I don't need all the loose ends tied up, or perfect justice dispensed, or even the bad guys necessarily caught, as long as I know the answer to the question and the writer gives me a compelling reason for letting the bad guy go (as in they're about to meet their nemesis in some other way, or their actions were righteous, etc.) The reader needs to feel satisfied that the solution fits the story. In the case of the Olympics, where winning can hinge on flukes and hundredths of a second, an athlete who gives their all and beats their personal best, even if they don't medal, can leave us deeply happy for and proud of them. As they are of themselves. Mark McMorris got a bronze medal. Gold would have been nice, but what he achieved, coming back from near death, was just a great. Deeply satisfying. 

1 comment:

Jean Steffens said...

Really liked your comparison.