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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Premature E-- (You Know) in Mystery Writing

I'm working on the second Frankie Chandler, Pet Psychic, mystery, and I have a pretty good outline. I always outline first. Mysteries need clues, suspects, revelations, and resolutions, and I don't believe those can be properly placed by jumping in and letting the story take over. (More on the organic, ever-changing outline in a future post.)

I made it halfway through the manuscript, cruising along at a pretty good speed, when it all came to a screeching, horn-blasting halt. I realized that my type-A obsession with conquering yet another checklist had taken over and turned revelations into blathering bits of fact telling. Instead of a build-up of tension and clues,  I practically told the reader what to think

This is easier to do than you might think. Let's say you want Laurel to discover that Hardy lost his job.

The type-A approach is to have your sleuth walk into the place where Hardy works and ask for him. "He doesn't work here anymore. I heard he got a job at XYZ Bowling," the lovely receptionist helpfully offers.  Now what? "Um, thanks. That was easy."

Instead, Laurel walks into Hardy's workplace. He isn't there. The receptionist (who is secretly in love with Hardy) lies about his whereabouts so that he doesn't lose face. It's only when Laurel pops into the local bowling alley to play an exciting 10 frames does he discover his old friend deodorizing shoes behind the counter.

In the latter example, there's a setup and payoff, with several scenes in between them.

When you give away answers too quickly or easily, there's no satisfaction for the reader. It's like handing my dog, Buster, a big plate of meat instead of making him earn each bite. The latter helps his self confidence, gives him a little workout, and makes him much more appreciative of the tasty treats. So will your reader thank you when they work at the clues along with your sleuth to solve the mystery.

You have to play fair. Laurel needs a pretty good reason to drop by the bowling alley. No sudden childhood urges, unless that's been a problem for the character all along.

So now it's back to reread my story and pinpoint the places where I spoon fed the reader.