I haven't forgotten my promise! Things were just a bit hectic last week. Here's some more notes, now from SIWC 2013.
I didn't go to as many classes as usual at the conference this time around, but this one was definitely useful. As the author notes, all books have some kind of question we're trying to answer. Thinking about how to seed clues in a story is an important technique no matter what the genre, so I was very happy to hear what he had to say.
* * *
Sleight of Hand
How does a skilled mystery author manage that perfect reveal, plant the clues along the way without spoiling that ending? Mystery and SFF author Don DeBrant, AKA D.D. Barant, Don Cortez, and Dixie Lyle, has a few tips and tricks to help you find that balance.
Weaving a mystery
- First: Tap into the momentum, write the story as it comes, but when that initial rush is over, go back and look at what you wrote.
- Figure out where to put the clue, where to set something up.
- Have much in the story do double and triple duty. Characterization, someone’s hobby, whatever it is, you have to make it something else as well, part of the plot.
- Don’t create coincidences; use elements of the plot as an opportunity to do more than one thing. If you need a character to be at a particular place, don’t just use that as an excuse to go there. Something else should be at work as well.
Audience Question: Whose mysteries made you want to write mysteries?
- Agatha Christie – Hercule Poirot
- The Three Investigators – boys who solved crime with help of Alfred Hitchcock
How do you seed clues?
- Try to find a way to integrate it with other aspects mood, pacing, characterization, someone to be at a place, set up description, clues you could only find in particular places.
- This all depends on sort of mystery you’re writing.
- Mysteries are no longer straightforward. These days, there are many subgenres.
- Classic mysteries these days are often divided into novels of place, about where the mystery takes place; characterization based; florid; gothic, spooky, etc.
- There are many ways and means for how you plant clues.
Types of Mysteries:
- Geographical: where the character goes from place to place
- Forensic: which is like a police procedural but with concentration on science rather than police work (he writes this) – plants clues by designing crime and crime scene first. It’s a puzzle deconstructed backwards, step by step they have to figure out how they got there, who put them there, why they were killed, and start at the end and goes backwards, and piece the story together bit by bit.
- Police procedural: similar to forensic, it’s about the nuts and bolts of police work, closer to nonfiction to capture an investigator going through the crime scene bit by bit.
- Everyman mysteries: This is where you pick a profession or hobby and the specific POV of an ordinary person, and tell how they get involved in so many mysteries. In those, you need to integrate what makes that character essential. Everyone has a specialized set of skills, has knowledge that is unique to them and their profession. These mysteries are aimed at a very specific audience, so you have to understand who you’re writing for.
- Thrillers: Technically this is a different genre, but there’s lots of crossover. It’s important to come up with a memorable reason for the story, something that holds your attention. Hannibal Lecter sticks in our heads.
Playing with Expectations (or, how to trick your reader without cheating)
- The most important thing when writing a mystery is the subject. You are setting up particular assumptions in your reader’s minds and whenever possible you’re trying to figure out what the reader’s assumptions are ahead of time. That way, you can play with them. E.g. the expectation that the character will do something off.
- Use standards set and recognized in our culture. Tropes and archetypes. Then play with it. Like the comic sidekick, the goofball. Make them the killer.
- Set it up in a particular way – that’s the best payoff. William Golding (author of The Princess Bride) does this wonderfully in his thrillers. He leads you down the garden path thinking one thing, then yanking the rug out from under your reader. E.g. in No Way to Treat a Lady, he sets up two opposing point of views, and one is about a crazed killer stalking new York, the other told about an angry women-hating guy. The two story lines are completely unrelated, though the way it’s presented leads the reader to assume that the woman-hating guy is the killer, until the surprise twist. It’s resolved at the end. He only did it once, though. This is not necessarily recommended.
- If you get away with the twist, you’re golden. If you don’t, it’s not good.
- One good instinct to have in a mystery is playing on reader’s assumptions: if you have a character say or do something, the reader will assume things about that character. That’s an opportunity, a terrific point to exploit, to make things completely wrong. Don’t confirm it, just have little clues that imply it.
- Another good way to trick readers: the unreliable narrator (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where we eventually learn the narrator is the killer, sets up the idea that just because someone is telling you something doesn’t mean it’s true.). Or have the main character in a position to do something wrong and they don’t, little markers you put in where the reader will think things about the character, ways to make sure that what you’re telling them isn’t what they think it is. Not outright lying (that’s changing the rules, which is cheating). Don’t let the reader feel cheated, just craftily tricked.
Lots of Info
- Have an overabundance of information. Bury an important clue in a number of other clues. If you need an item to be discovered, surround it with a bunch of other things, even things that appear more interesting. Minds get overloaded with info and won’t be able to tell which one is important. Sensory overload to obscure the facts is slightly cheating. But there are really no cheap tricks, just things that work and things that don’t.
- Structure: Have parallel storylines, things happening side by side, which may confuse the reader as to which storyline is important. Include not so much info that the reader is confused, but enough that it draws their attention to keep them guessing. Have enough balls in the air and they don’t know where to keep their eye. The character-driven, the humourous, the serious – e.g. Hill Street Blues. The author swapped stuff around.
- Readers are sharp.
- Subtle red herrings can play with readers’ assumptions.
- If played subtly enough, they assume a red herring has more importance than it actually does.
- You can plant one subtle clue that leads nowhere, and one that seems related but isn’t – readers assume, string that together – a trail of visible bread crumbs that lead to a brick wall. And that can be strangely satisfying.
- If you’re careful and have a devious mind, you can pull it off.
- The technique: doubling back on a plot
- When you have a number of suspects, but one’s been written off because they’ve alibied out, and just happens to be fake, or some other detail makes it seem like they wouldn’t likely be the culprit.
- Come up with a reasonable explanation for why an alibi doesn’t hold water.
- A good way to fake an alibi is a good way to fake a murder.
- You can double back more than once, and that makes it even harder to figure out who the real killer is.
- Even worse, do it a third time.
- If the killer is caught too early in the story, the reader assumes that the real killer will be caught, until you double back and show how.
Using details to trick the reader
- The story is never just about the one mystery, it’s about all the things along the way.
- Put something so obviously in plain view, the reader assumes it’s not important, and so the detail gets missed.
- Using diary entries (if using an unreliable narrator) – everyone assumes that no one lies in a diary, that it must be true.
- Always make sure you have a big pool of suspects. If it’s too small, reader will pick and narrow it down, especially if there’s a secondary character that seems vaguely menacing.
- If you’re worried it’s too obvious, it’s good to get some feedback from beta readers and close friends.
- People who know you can know your patterns, and pick out any flaws.
Layer bits of characterization to reveal more of the character.
- If the character is behaving one way, you can surprise the reader when they behave differently.
- Generally if you can surprise the reader, that’s a good thing.
- Sometimes the plot forces a character to act in a different way.
- If they don’t usually act that way, but did somehow, then ask yourself, why did they do it? This leads to epiphanies about the character.
- All people are contradictory, and we all have opposites in ourselves.
- This makes the character more three-dimensional in your mind. It will help to make them more three-dimensional on the page.
Writing mystery in Science Fiction and Fantasy
- Establish what the rules are first off. Then stick to those rules.
- Particularly establish what you can’t do (with magic and the paranormal). That’s most important. Otherwise people will accuse you of cheating.
- For example: establish early on that vampires burn in sunlight, so readers will expect you to stick with that. It keeps readers happy.
- All books are some kind of mystery. Some kind of question you’re trying to answer. A question of character, who did something, why did they do it, how did they do it. Figure out which one do you want to concentrate on.
How to establish memorable characters - Examples from his own work:
- The Bloodhound Files (his alternate-universe series): In a world completely dominated by the supernatural, humanity is an endangered species. The world is normal, looks like everyday life, but with subtle changes. The “monsters” weren’t the monsters, they were the norm. And the human main character has to deal with that. This world has no firearms, because of a spell cast centuries ago that made everyone thinks it’s a dumb, silly idea. If you think about it, you’ll forget it. Jace Valchek, the main character from our world, brings her gun, and no one takes it seriously, but it gives her a superpower as a result. This isn’t the only thing that made her an interesting character. She’s human in a world with few other humans. She has a gun. Even her weaknesses are her strengths, because she can throw herself into situations and get out of them. Her sarcasm means she has snappy dialogue, and he gun puts her in tough situations. Make your character distinctive and unusual. Make their weaknesses their strengths.
- Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot series (his brand new series, starting with A Taste Fur Murder): The number 1 job for women is Adminstrative Assistant. One of the people who run around behind the scenes and get stuff done for their boss. This position title also describes mothers. Women are still the people who organize things, work behind the scenes, don’t get acknowledged for it. The main character is the assistant to someone distinctive (a billionaire). What’s important about her is that she’s professional, optimistic, and nothing fazes her. She keeps a cheerful cool head when things get crazy. The twist here is that the assistant is the hero.
Audience Question: Do clues sometimes surprise you, and you have to figure out what it means?
- Not so much the clues. They’re usually a structural thing.
- You need to figure out how they fit together because it’s a puzzle.
- Characterization and plot can surprise him, but mystery is usually about careful planning. Architecture. Mystery is very outline-dependent. He’s a plotter. Pantsing can lend itself to some types of writing, but often the ending is dissatisfying. Stops, feels forced. (E.g. Stephen King.) Mysteries are not a good place for pantsing.
- Dialogue itself can be made up on the spot, but the mystery itself needs to be plotted.
Audience Question: Are there useful tools for keeping track of who knows what when?- Some writers, such as him, use index cards.
- The mosaic approach: 3x5 index cards and post-it notes.
- Think about mystery, characters, symbols, elements of the story.
- When you feel you have a full idea and who the main character is, think of specific scenes.
- Sit down and write each bit on a card.
- Lay out the cards in front of you.
- Set out the earliest as how the novel starts.
- Put the ending at the end.
- This provides a visual representation of a plot.
- After awhile, you find a visceral sense of how it appears, how it will be paced.
- Suddenly extra connections are made, gaps are filled in.
- Then you can play with it, see how it works.
- Then numbers cards in order, and writes them out like an outline.
- Then flush out the story.
- He writes an outline. This is a good way to plot.
- A skeleton, fleshed out, becomes an outline.
- Outlines are just a tool. A roadmap. Don’t feel handicapped or handcuffed by an outline; you can definitely go a different way with the lot if you want to. They don’t cheat you of the joy of discovery. That freshness can still come from characterization, plot, crafting a good line, discovering things about the characters as you go along.
Audience question: Is it worthwhile finding a different way to end a mystery than the typical ones? (eg killer is caught, murdered, or accidentally killed at end) - Rules exist for a reason.
- Break a rule as long as you break it well.
- Don’t just break a rule because you don’t want to do what everyone else does.
- It’s important to understand why that rule exists. The killer caught equals justice, a sense of order, closure.
Is there a way for a main character to withhold info from the reader without the reader getting annoyed by it?
- Don’t do it too often.
- Don’t drag it out for too long.
- Reveal it to the reader within a few pages, because it does tend to be annoying.
- If it make the reader make an assumption, it can be useful, but as a rule of thumb, don’t drag it out.
Audience Question: How do you write a mystery in first person? It’s a limited POV – how do you seed clues, info?
- There are always techniques, tips that can be used.
- Have witnesses, others who were there who can relay the information
- Remote electronic, video surveillance, recordings, cell phone conversations
- Psychic phenomena
- Mystery is about main character solving the crime, so what she knows is what the reader knows, so if there’s an essential piece that she has no way of knowing, either it’s not important or you should give the character a way to learn it, figure it out.
- The challenge forces you to think. If they can’t know it, what then?
- It may take you some time to figure it out, but it will work.
- Trust your subconscious. It will often figure problems like this out. Go away and let it percolate. After a time it will often seem obvious.
- Best writing can happen on a subconscious level. Think about this stuff in the background. Let your imagination chew on stuff.
Audience Question: What's your writing practice?
- Aims for a word count (1500 words per day, 5 days a week), and can write a novel in four months.
- Having a small child has affected things, as he now also shares parenting roles. He may complain about decreased output, but he wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Audience Question: About the CSI Books (written as Don Cortez) – What is it like playing in other people’s sandboxes?
- Fun, because they’re other people’s toys that you have to put back later.
- When writing for a media tie-in, people aren’t buying it for you, but for the line.
- David Caruso – our generation’s Shatner – gave interviews about the character that helped Don figure him out.
- It was also fun because a lot of the work’s already been done for him.
- In this sort of situation, you can’t break the rules, but can explore.
- It’s a strength if you’re good at capturing character’s voices.
What's the difference between mystery and suspense?
- Mystery’s more of a puzzle, more cerebral
- Suspense has a lot more tension.