Wednesday, December 06, 2023

Timing and the Big Reveal

 Last week, Sybil posted about the importance of pulling the various threads and subplots of the book together at the same time at the end of the book, and it made me smile because I think this is one of the most challenging and stressful aspects of writing a mystery. Perhaps more than in any other type of fiction, a mystery has to pull together in exactly the right way at the right moment. The climax, the big reveal. This is no time to wander off on some sidetrack or whimsical flashback, or to introduce a random new subplot. In the classic mystery, at least, no matter whether it's amateur sleuth or detective, cosy or edgy, the writer is playing a game with the reader of guess it if you can, drawing the reader through the mystery to try to solve it along with the protagonist. The quest to be solved can be whodunit, whodunit, or even howdunit, but there is usually some puzzle that the detective and the reader is trying to solve.

It's an element of story building that I really enjoy but also find the most challenging. I am not a plotter, so I don't know ahead of time whodunit it and how the sleuth will solve it. The story evolves as I write and introduce a variety of suspects with credible motives. Since it's a guessing game for me until quite near the end, I figure it will be one for the reader as well. But there comes a time in the story that I realize who makes the most exciting and meaningful perpetrator and then I have to figure out how the detective solves it. Gone are the days when the detective gathered everyone together in the library and accused them one after another. I like a more dramatic climax with suspense and danger. 

But there are some rules that mystery readers expect, or they may well throw the book against the wall in frustration. First of all, I have to answer the central  questions of the story– who, how, and why. I don't have to spell everything out and tie it all up with a neat bow, but, I must give enough of a hint that the reader can  figure out the answers and feel a sense of satisfaction as they close the book. I like a book that leaves me slightly bewildered and thinking about the story long after I've closed it, but I don't like feeling cheated or frustrated.

Secondly, I have to play fair with the readers who're engaged in the guessing game along with the sleuth. None of this "butler did it" or some previously unknown twin who's parachuted in at the last minute. The "villain" has to be fleshed out and participate in at least part of the story. There have to be clues, cleverly slipped in, that an alert reader can piece together. There have to be red herrings that lead readers astray, because that too is part of the enjoyment and suspense.

For me, anyway, the detective has to be as much in the dark about the villain as the reader is, which means that they can't figure it out until the climax either. I know it's not uncommon for writers to cheat a little and have the detective learn some crucial piece of information that he doesn't share with the reader before he goes off to confront the suspect. This is a device that gives the writer an easy out but I have never done that. I've always kept my detective in the dark until the big reveal, often suspecting the wrong person or not knowing which of two possible suspects it is. It puts the sleuth in added danger and ratchets up the suspense.

It also adds an extra challenge to the writing. How to keep everyone guessing until the crucial big scene, how to reveal just enough but not too much, but also how to avoid the sleuth looking like an idiot for not figuring it out earlier. 

But I've always loved a challenge. None of this is solved in the first draft. That's what rewrites are for. That's the time when clues are planted, removed, or better disguised; when characters' motives and actions are enriched and massaged to fit the story; and when subplots or scenes are inserted to clarify or distract.

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