Thursday, November 30, 2017

One Of You... Is A Murderer

            Sorry for the blast of posts this week.  Feel free to blame it on my love of storytelling—my own and other peoples.  Or rampant consumerism.  Or on me wanting to pay rent in January.  Any one of these answers is true.
            But now... let’s get back to some plain old writing advice.
            Readers tend to love a good mystery.  It’s kind of like the original VR game, where we get to see all the same clues and evidence as the protagonists and try to piece them together first.  We do it with books. We do it with TV shows.  Hell, there are some fantastic comic books you can do it with.  Alan Moore made a compelling argument once that comics are the perfect medium for mystery stories.
            But...
            As writers, let’s be honest.  Mysteries are tough.  They need to be in that perfect sweet spot—not so tough they’re impossible, but not so easy that my reader solves it before my character does (and then my character looks stupid for the next 150 pages for not figuring this out yet).
            Plus, there’s so much to keep track of.  Who saw what.  Where they saw it.  When they saw it.  These are all super-important, because readers hate it when they get to the end of a mystery and find a gaping hole there.  It’s probably the second-most annoying thing I can do when I’m writing a mystery.
            (And now I’ve got you all wondering, don’t I...?)
            At the Writers Coffeehouse a few weeks back, one of our regulars, Hal Bodner, offered a brilliant tip for writing mysteries. It eliminates this issue almost altogether.  Honestly, it’s so clever... it’s the whole point of this little rant.
            If you’ve ever seen or read an older mystery, they almost always have a chapter near the end when our fearless detective (or sleuths or investigators or what have you) bring all the suspects together and walk them through the crime.  They’ll go over the evidince, the clues, the alibais.  They’ll explain what each one means, which ones were red herrings, which ones they immediately discounted, and which ones pointed to...you, Widow Humphries!  Or should we call you, Isabella, the Viscount’s estranged sister!!
            You know this scene, right?  I’ve heard it called the parlor scene, the tea room room speech, the summation gathering, and other titles along those lines.  Hal called it the detective's speech.  You might still catch it today on shows like Elementary, although it’s often pared down to just the detective and the guilty party.
            So... here’s the tip.
            Write that scene.  Even if my hard-boiled action story doesn’t really call for it, I should spend a day or three and write it out before I get going.  Have my investigator pace the room and point at people and say how he noticed this and saw those and learned about this.  Explain how this theory was discarded and where that idea came from.  And then point that finger right at the guilty party and scream “J’ACCUSE!!
            Or maybe your detective plays it cooler than mine and just stands there with her hands in her trenchcoat.  Maybe she gives a little nod and a faint smile when the murderer gets hauled away. And then she pulls out her flask and crawls deep inside until she can re-bury all those memories about Jenna that this case dragged up again...
            Anyway...
            I don’t need to keep this scene, mind you.  Very likely this will just be one of those things I write that doesn’t get used.  Probably best if it isn’t.  Like I mentioned above, it’s kind of an archaic, cliche scene, and on the off chance it shows up it’s really pared down and tight.
            But once I have it written out, I have a mini-outline for how the mystery is revealed in my story.  Literally, who knows what when.  When they met the suspects.  What they see.  When they see it. When they make which connections.  It’s all right there in that speech—what my investigator needs to solve the crime.
            So gather your suspects—yes, even the butler—get them all seated in the parlor, and tell us about the first thing you noticed when you saw the crime scene.
            Next time, I wanted to talk about Luke’s father.
            Until then, go write.

3 comments:

  1. This is a ridiculously good idea, i'm definitely going to start using this. Last time i tried writing a mystery i kept getting over-excited and trying to reveal the murderer in the middle of the story, so writing this scene first might keep me from doing that. :)

    Do you think it'd work for other genres too? Like if you wrote out the Super-Villian's monologue or the Evil MegaCorporation's manifesto for world domination?

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    1. To be honest, I think this might be kind of single-purpose.

      The manifesto or monologue would have some mystery aspects to it, yeah, but also just a lot of generic goals. It also wouldn't follow through--if my villain's monologue is accurate, wouldn't it probably mean they achieve world domination through their fiendish plan and get to kill the hero as a bonus...?

      So those are cases where there is a speech, but it usually doesn't end up being an accurate speech. It might partially work, but that could end up more confusing than helpful.

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  2. Capital idea.

    Plotting isn't my strongest game, and typically I reach a point where I'm clueless about how things are going to happen, until I get characters talking (to each other or in a monologue). Might not keep the speech, but it helps.

    (And that's just with regular plotting. Although I've sold a couple of crime stories, have not yet attempted a stone-cold mystery.)

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