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The Writing Life
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by Stephen D. Rogers
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Most mysteries have three distinct possible points of entry: the precipitating event that sets everything in motion, the actual commission of the crime, and during the investigation.
Some sub-genres will help you decide where to start. A caper usually begins with the planning or commission of the crime. A police procedural usually begins with the investigation or the commission if multiple viewpoints will be present. Other stories provide more leeway.
The Precipitating Event
Most crimes have a genesis. A crime of passion is prompted by jealousy or rage. A methodical murder may be planned after discovering adultery or a possible solution to financial problems. A heist is prompted by the appearance of an opportunity which then calls for the development of a plan. Even senseless crimes may have their root in childhood abuse or escalating troubles. Starting with the precipitating event allows you to create sympathy for the perpetrator.
Compare these two openings. A man knocks a senior citizen to the ground while stealing her purse. A daughter tells her father that unless he can give her fifty dollars to pay for a traffic violation, she and her boyfriend are going to knock over a liquor store. After the second opening, a different response is produced when the father knocks a senior citizen to the ground.
There are three dangers to starting with precipitating events. One, the beginning may appear too separate from the rest of the story. If that's the case, drop the beginning and include the information later. Two, the precipitating event might not appear to justify what happens next because it was only one in a long line of events. If that's the case, drop the beginning and sprinkle the events throughout the story. Three, the perpetrator may become so sympathetic that the reader doesn't not want to see justice prevail. If that's the case, either let the person get away with murder or build a greater sympathy for the victim and investigators.
The Commission of the Crime
The crime -- even in stories where it happens off-stage -- is the dynamic center of virtually any mystery. Everything either leads up to or derives from that event. Starting with the crime immediately involves the reader by introducing tension, conflict, and drama.
There are two dangers to starting with the commission of the crime. One, the beginning may not fit if the story is told from the detective's point of view. Two, the beginning may produce a level of violence which isn't suitable for the story or the audience. In both cases, simply drop the beginning and craft a new one.
In a mystery of detection, the story is intricately tied to the investigation. The crime may even appear to be little more than a plot device, there to give the detective something to investigate.
Starting with the investigation involves readers by pitting them against the detective to see who reaches the solution first.
The main danger to starting with the investigation is choosing an entry point that is too early. If your main character is a amateur sleuth who becomes involved after a friend is arrested, you probably don't want to open with a radio call sending the first patrol officer to the scene. Beyond that, the introductory scene should be an instance of heightened emotion.
Instead of the police detective being told to report to a homicide, open with the detective at the scene or viewing the body. Instead of a private investigator weighing whether he or she will take a case, open with the first dramatic piece of the investigation.
Hooks, Lines and Sinkers
Many people suggest starting with a hook, an opening that grabs the reader and forces the unsuspecting victim to continue reading. To work, a hook must not seem a mere contrivance, trick, or joke. Remember too that anyone who plopped down twenty-odd dollars for a book or arranged for enough time to read a magazine is not going to suddenly decide to wash the dishes after finishing one sentence.
Some people say that you shouldn't start with a line of dialogue because the readers don't know the character. A good line of dialogue, however, may do more to expose the character than several paragraphs of description. Dialogue has the potential to provide an effective hook if it intrigues the reader, creating a desire to learn more about the person who just said that.
Few things sink a story faster than an opening stuffed with expository description. Time and place might be pivotal and mood a driving force but these elements should be introduced alongside a scene of drama. A mystery is not a travelogue and readers rarely want to wade through pages or even paragraphs of setting to get to the real story.
Another quick way to sink a story is to suddenly reveal that the opening was just a dream. Now the reader is angry. Washing the dishes doesn't appear nearly as attractive as hunting you down.
In the Middle of Things
You've created a beginning that draws readers in. Now you have to make certain that readers don't find your middle tough going or else they'll push your story away.
One of the classic story structures involves three attempts to resolve a problem, the first two attempts not only failing but actually making the situation worse, the third finally succeeding.
The structure works for several reasons. First, the protagonist is seen as active and determined, two heroic qualities. Second, failed attempts raise the question of whether the protagonist will ever overcome, increasing suspense. Third, the response of readers alternates between tension and relaxation, keeping readers from growing complacent and thus bored.
If the protagonist makes only two attempts before succeeding, the protagonist may simply have been lucky. If the protagonist has to make four or five attempts proving victorious, the protagonist starts to seem unworthy of any respect and the story become monotonous if not ridiculous.
Words of caution: Don't slip into delay mode, which resembles escalating conflict but does not produce the same effect. In delay mode, the protagonist also makes three attempts to resolve a problem but is unable to complete the task the first two times. For example, the investigator goes to an office to ask questions of a potential witness but the person is unavailable. The investigator comes back later but the person is now out of the office. Finally, the investigator reaches the potential witness.
The problem with this structure is that it produces the wrong response in the reader. Periods of frustrating non-activity may happen in real life but they don't make great fiction. Compare the previous example to the one that follows. The investigator goes to an office to ask questions of a potential witness but the person refuses to cooperate. The investigator comes back later but the person is dead and the investigator appears to be responsible.
Twists and Turns
Readers don't stop reading when the pages almost turn by themselves and one way to achieve this impression is to introduce twists.
When you're writing the middle of your story, examine your first thoughts on how every scene will resolve. Can you turn those expectations on their heads? For example, what else can happen when an investigator goes to an office to ask questions of a potential witness? The person, suspect in another crime, bolts and draws the investigator into a suspenseful chase. The person is someone from the investigator's past, an unresolved relationship which makes both people uncomfortable at best. The person confesses to the crime for a reason that isn't at first apparent.
Words of caution: There is a limit to the number of twists you can introduce before readers roll their eyes. This number varies depending on genre and the length of your story. You want the story to appear organic and not simply a series of events contrived by an author. Read stories similar to your own to see how much of a rollercoaster the reader expects and then meet those expectations.
Another mistake to watch for is too many twists of a certain type. If your first twist is an case of mistaken identity, you shouldn't repeat that pattern unless you're writing comedy. Related to this concept is the timing of the twists. If the first twist happens as soon as the investigator finds a potential witness, future twists should appear at different plot points.
Surprise the reader with your surprises.
In the example where the investigator discovers a possible witness is in fact sought for a previous crime, this secondary story is a subplot if you keep weaving it back in.
The subplot can be a reflection of the main action. A story focused on someone becoming wealthy may contain a subplot with the same arc where subtle differences prove some point. A subplot can be the inverse of the main action. In the same story, the subplot could involve someone losing everything. A subplot can be used to prepare the reader. If the protagonist seems indecisive, a subplot where the person is decisive allows the reader to accept when the protagonist finally shifts into gear. A subplot can be used to expose character. What is the significance of the similarities and differences in how an investigator question suspects in two different crimes? How does age, gender, or race of various suspects come into play?
Words of caution: Don't allow the subplot to overshadow the main action. The subplot has to be interesting but not too interesting. The subplot must be memorable enough that the reader is not confused when it reappears. At the same time, the subplot should not be the only thing the reader later remembers. Chose your points of entry carefully. You don't want the reader to be left frustrated every time you pull away from the main story. The subplot should seem a natural extension of your plot or the reader will start skipping ahead.
Bringing It to an End
Deciding where to stop can often prove just as difficult a decision as knowing where to start.
Most mysteries have three distinct possible points of exit: the point of inevitability when the ending seems certain, the moment just after resolution, and the return to normalcy.
Some sub-genres will help you determine which exit is best. Noir stories often end in the midst of failure. Classic stories of detection often end after the detective delivers the solution. Other detective stories wait until the surviving characters can once again look forward.
The Point of Inevitability
Imagine a police detective producing the button that the husband lost the day his wife disappeared and then informing him that the button was discovered in his wife's stomach during the autopsy.
The conclusion seems obvious that wife was trying to implicate her husband. It also seems obvious that the detective will arrest the husband. It also seems obvious that the husband will eventually stand trial for the crime and some verdict will be reached.
If there are no major surprises planned during these events, don't make your reader slog through them. End at the moment of dramatic climax. It goes without saying that if it goes without saying, don't say it.
One thing to watch for with this type of ending is the conclusion that seems inevitable only to the writer. Perhaps the button was found in the wife's car and the writer assumes that this proves the husband used the car to transport his dead wife. Ending at this point is a problem when the average reader attaches no such significance to the button's location.
Just After Resolution
Once a crime is completed or a solution to a crime presented, the questions raised by the story have been answered. The reader's expectations have been satisfied and now is the time to exit before the writer becomes the guest who doesn't know when to leave.
It goes without saying...
One thing to watch for with this type of ending is a lack of emotional closure. If the killer is unmasked, arrested, and then that's it, the reader can be left in a state of heightened emotion: tension, worry, or outrage. There needs to be some period (no more than a paragraph in a short story or a page in a novel) when the reader is allowed to flush emotions raised by the story.
Return to Normalcy
Some stories are not complete until the survivors have time to pick up the pieces and assimilate what has occurred. While classic puzzle mysteries took place in an emotional vacuum, many writers wish to explore the residual damage of crimes that are anything but victimless. Variations include the detective who applies solving the crime to some outstanding personal problem and responses to the eventual legal outcome.
One thing to watch for in this type of ending is knowing when to exit gracefully. Whatever moment is chosen must feel like the appropriate time to end. The reader must not be allowed to wonder either why the story went on so long after the climax was reached or why the story stops here in particular.
Arcs, Circles and Lines
Typically, the structure of mystery stories resembles an arc. A question is raised. Efforts to solve the question result in heightened tensions. Finally, the question is answered and equilibrium is restored. Readers are comfortable with this shape and often demand the standard emotional/intellectual payoff.
Oftentimes, a story can be shaped into a circle with an ending which brings one back to the beginning. This can be done with setting, dialogue, or cast of characters. A circular story leaves the reader with the impression that the writer had complete mastery over the material.
Stories may also create a sense of merely being a single segment of a never-ending line. While an amateur detective may solve the one crime with a personal impact, no such exclusivity applies to the professional detective for whom finding a solution only makes room for the next mystery.
It is not uncommon for a solution to raise more questions than it answers. Even if we know who committed the crime, how, and why, knowing those things can make us re-examine the story.
If the partner is proved the killer and we suspected the wife because she lied, we now want to know why she lied. "Because the writer wanted to create a red herring" is not a valid answer, not if the writer expects to work in this town again.
How thoroughly do you need to explain each discrepancy? This depends on size and weight. Was the lie little or big? Did the lie raise questions or cause the reader to assume guilt? Does the lie, in retrospect, seem artificial?
Misdirection is somewhat a misnomer because those logical missteps must not simply exist for the convenience of the writer. If the reader is expected to misunderstand the action of the character, the reader should eventually see that the action made sense for reasons not apparent at the time.
If the wife lied about where she was at the time of the murder, she can be lying because she was with a lover and feared that admitting the truth would only give her a greater motive for the crime. In this instance, once the reader learns the truth, pieces should fall into place and missed clues recognized for what they were.
As the writer, you don't have the last word. The reader forms a final opinion only after completing your mystery. That's when the reader decides whether to seek or avoid your future work.
Make sure it's the former.
For More Information:
Study published openings in the sub-genre you're writing, in other sub-genres of mystery, and even in non-mysteries. Note which ones feel the most compelling. To see examples of poor openings, join a writing/critique group since published work should be free of those errors.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Stephen D. Rogers has published mysteries in magazines ranging from Plots With Guns to Woman's World, multiple anthologies, and several non-mystery markets. He is a graduate of the Framingham Police Department's Citizen Policy Academy and a member of Mystery Writers of America, Private Eye Writers of America, and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. Visit his website at http://www.stephendrogers.com).