Here C.E. shares invaluable tips about writing mystery and suspense fiction that will make an impact on readers.
You probably know the answer to the question, “What’s the most important thing in real estate?” (Answer: location, location, location.) Okay, what’s the most important thing in crime or mystery writing? Answer: plot, plot, plot.
Anyone who says they find writing plots easy is either a liar or a fool. It’s gritty, sweaty work, and it’s what separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls, and the professionals from the wannabes. It goes by other names – structure, story, narrative throughline, storyline – but it is the single most important element in the commercial (and often critical) success of a book in the crime genre. (Remember The DaVinci Code?) To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, plot is not the most important thing, it’s the only thing. All the pretty prose, marvelous metaphors, and captivating characters in the world will not make up for the lack of a good story.
So what makes for a good plot, and how do you get one? If that answer were easy, we’d all have as much money as Dan Brown and Michael Crichton combined. (When asked where he got his ideas, Harlan Ellison used to answer, “Schenectady. There's a swell Idea Service in Schenectady; and every week I send ‘em twenty-five bucks; and every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas.”)
A really good premise helps – a lot. But a great premise is only a small part of the battle. Even a great premise can be ruined by bad execution, and a mediocre premise can be transformed into a brilliant story. If you have both, of course, you’ve hit the Story Jackpot.
He Who Suffers
Every story must have a main character, or protagonist – which, by the way, is Greek for “he who suffers the most.” Ignore this linguistic hint at your peril. By all means, make your protagonist suffer – and if others suffer along with him, so much the better. It has been said that we long to read stories about things happening to people that we would never, ever want to happen to us or the people we care about. The irony, of course, is that stories only work if we do come to care about the characters – especially the long-suffering protagonist.
Some stories have what is called a “group protagonist” – a group of people acting as one, wanting the same thing, working toward the same goal. A good example of this is Caleb Carr’s intriguing historical thriller, The Alienist, as well as its sequel, Angel of Darkness. Both books have a small band of folks who work together to identify and capture the serial killer prowling the streets of 19th century New York City. No one person stands out in either book as being the central character, even though both books have a first person narrator who is close to the action. Of course, a potential drawback of using a group protagonist is that the reader can end up bonding rather weakly with several characters instead of bonding strongly with one – thus decreasing his emotional involvement. (This is true in both of Carr’s books, in my opinion, but no worries: the real star in both books is the setting, which Carr brings to life masterfully.)
And emotional involvement is a key element in any genre. The word “emotion” means “movement,” and when people read stories, they want to be moved. So it’s our job to deliver not only thrills but chills – not only to engage our readers, but to move them. So give your protagonist something worth struggling for, and then, by god, make him struggle.
In the old fashioned version of the classic murder mystery, there may not be a terrific amount of emotional involvement on the part of the reader, but that lack of emotion is replaced by the pleasure of trying to solve the puzzle. This would be especially true of the so-called “cozies,” which engage the reader not by terrifying or moving them, but by presenting them with charming characters, picturesque settings, and a jolly good puzzle to solve. Though P.D. James is a novelist of terrific intellect and keen insight, some of her Inspector Dalgleish novels teeter toward the cozy end of the spectrum. In Death Holy Orders, for example, Dalgleish travels to a quaint seaside theological college to uncover the mystery behind the death of a student. The reader is given a lot of historical detail about the area, the setting is both picturesque and appropriately spooky, the characters are eccentric in the way only the British can be, and eventually the criminal is brought to justice. But it is a “closed society” killer – the threat never widens out into society in general, and Dalgleish himself is never truly in danger. It’s a good ride, but it’s not an edge-of-your-seat page turner.
Please, Sir, May I Have Some More?
When young Oliver approached the dour cook in Oliver Twist, he really wanted some more porridge – no, he needed it, because he was starving. Who among us can’t relate to the plight of a starving orphan? He’s starving, for god’s sake, and he’s an orphan! Give the kid some more gruel! That’s one of the many ways Dickens draws us into the plight of his characters – the stakes are high, the situation dire, and his poor characters are in terrible, life or death situations. In his day, he was the equivalent of J.K. Rowling – people lined up at the docks of New York to wait for the ship bringing the next installment of The Old Curiosity Shop to see if poor Nell lived or died (I hate to break it to you, but she died.)
In order to have a story, you need a character who wants something – no, who needs something. In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade really needs to know who killed his partner, Miles. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov at first needs to kill the landlady (or feels he does, which is the same thing from his perspective), and later he needs to evade the police (until he feels the need to confess, which is another brilliant twist in Dostoevsky’s masterpiece of a novel).
And then you have to put as many obstacles in his way as you possibly can – the more, the merrier. Janet Burroway has a neat little formula: Drama = Desire + Danger. And the greater the desire, or need, the greater the possibilities for drama. But to make the story work, you have to add the key element of danger.
Danger, Will Robinson
I have my own mantra to spur me on to gripping storylines: the greater the danger, the more you interest a stranger. In other words, your readership is in direct proportion to how much you make your characters struggle to get what they want. The kicker, of course, is how do you do that?
Well, first of all, it is key to create a situation in which the character has something to lose if he or she fails. In other words, raise the stakes. And, as I mentioned in the first lecture, the more there is to lose – the more people who might be affected if your protagonist fails – the better.
In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade will lose both his self-respect and his professional reputation if he fails to find the killer. There is also a good chance whoever killed Miles will come to kill him. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov’s sanity and self-image are at stake before he murders the landlady – afterwards, his liberty and perhaps even his life are at stake.
This is wonderfully clear in the premise of The Andromeda Strain. What is at stake is simply the survival of mankind. Either the virus wins, or we do; it’s as simple as that. Okay, you may not think we’re the greatest thing that ever happened to this planet, but if contemplating our total annihilation doesn’t send a chill up your spine, you’re probably too thick-skinned to be a writer. And defeated by a virus? Crichton makes his scientists struggle mightily against not Nature herself – and, as we all know, you can’t fool her . . .
Nature makes a pretty good villain in a lot of genres – certainly in most medical thrillers she is an accomplice at the very least, if not the main threat. Of course you have to pile human drama on top of that – people struggling with and against each other, but more about that later.
This Time, It’s Personal
So how do you make the reader care? Well, the most obvious way is to make the struggle matter greatly to the protagonist – in other words, make it deeply personal. Unfortunately, this can be clumsily done, and can come across as painting-backstory-by-numbers. In The Princess Bride, William Goldman lampoons this story cliché in the Mandy Patinkin character, who, in scene after scene, intones “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” in an overdone Spanish accent. Comedy trades in clichés, of course – without them, it would be a thin world for comedy writers.
But clichés become common because there was once something vital and true about them; otherwise, they wouldn’t have caught on in the first place. The trick to breathing life into any well-worn device is to make it fresh, give it a twist – or, best of all, imbue it with emotional truth. What exactly is emotional truth? Well, perhaps it is a little like pornography, in the famous definition given by the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who, while admitting he couldn’t define it, insisted that “I know it when I see it.”
Emotional truth comes about when you write from within yourself, forging the protagonist’s struggles from elements in your own life or character or (dare I say) soul. If you sit down to give your protagonist a backstory of say, a dead wife, and you can’t relate personally to this, having never been married or never experienced such a thing, or if you lack the imagination to experience it vicariously, then your choice will ring hollow. You can’t just pluck a plot point out of the air because you decide you need “something,” so this will do. If you do, the reader will smell a rat.
But since imagination is one of the prerequisites for being a writer, you can give your protagonist that backstory, even if you’ve never been married or suffered such a loss, but only if you can put yourself in his shoes and experience the loss as fully as possible. It is no coincidence that most playwrights were once actors. The skill set is similar: imagination, sympathy, the desire to live a character’s emotional life vicariously. It is also no accident that many writers have one or two themes they pursue obsessively, working out the problem again and again, much as Monet was drawn to painting the Sacre Coeur over and over.
You often don’t have to dig very deep to find the origins of a writer’s obsession. For instance, Conrad Aiken wrote story after story about the loss of a child, his most famous being “Secret Snow, Silent Snow,” in which a little boy is lost to madness. It all makes sense when you know that he lost his little sisters at the age of five and never recovered – though I prefer to think he recovered a little with each story he wrote.
James Elroy’s mother was murdered when he was a boy, and it colored his entire life. His career as a crime writer no doubt came about in part because of this loss – he even wrote a fascinating memoir about her death, My Dark Places.
Plotting – or Plodding?
Okay, you say, enough of the touchy-feely aspect of writing: I already know how to create believable characters: tell me about plot.
First of all, every protagonist needs an antagonist – something or someone to defeat, to struggle with. The antagonist is not always a person, nor even a thing – it may even be inside the protagonist’s own head (a famous example is Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Is the narrator crazy, or are there really ghosts in the house? No one has ever answered that question definitively.) For this reason, we can also refer to anything that gets in between the protagonist and his goal as the Forces of Opposition. Depending on the genre, the forces of opposition can be anything from a serial killer to a super spy to a super virus (in Crichton’s techno-thriller Prey, it’s rogue nano-robots). The important thing is that it’s dangerous. Any really good premise I can think of has a powerful, nearly unstoppable antagonist – one that challenges the protagonist to display ever greater resourcefulness and courage in the struggle to achieve victory.
So what constitutes a good premise? A really strong premise in crime fiction is one that potentially involves the greatest number of characters (high stakes, universality), but concerns one character (your protagonist) in an intensely personal way. Most often in mystery and crime fiction, the protagonist is the detective/profiler/spy catcher, so the personal involvement is professional as well. (More later about how to combine the personal and the professional to raise the stakes even higher.)
If you can come up with a threat of some kind in which no one is safe, you will automatically have a story with high stakes. That was one of Thomas Harris’s brilliant strokes in Red Dragon, the book which introduced Hannibal Lector to the world and set the standard for stories about serial killers. Lector was brilliant, ruthless, and a cannibal. He didn’t kill his victims and then eat them, like Jeffrey Dahmer – he gnawed chunks out of them while they were alive . . .There is something so primal and terrifying about the notion of being eaten alive that Hannibal the Cannibal was the fictional equivalent of fear itself. And, to top it off, Harris made Lector smarter than most people – he was not only a cannibal, but a brilliant one – like a zombie with a brain. In other words, he was nearly unstoppable.
Then, in Silence of the Lambs, instead of pitting Lector against the FBI’s most experienced profiler, Harris makes his protagonist a raw rookie – and, to top it off, a woman! (Remember what I said about the vulnerability of women and children – that would go double for a serial killer, whose motivation is so often psycho-sexual). Harris has been criticized by people who claim that the FBI would never have sent an inexperienced young profiler to go up against someone like Lector – and no doubt, they are right. And Harris no doubt knew that. But, having done his research, he picked the places where he felt the story demanded a non-realistic choice. And then he had the balls to make that choice. Because he knew something every successful writer knows sooner or later:
Story trumps everything.
By all means, do your research, check your facts, know the world you’re writing about inside out, and then, if your story truly demands it, make a choice that will stretch the facts as you know them. Work your ass off to justify it, and then just take the flack when it hits. And, like Harris, cry all the way to the bank. (Lector isn’t even the killer in Silence of the Lambs, but he’s the character everyone remembers – and his scenes with Clarice are creepy and terrifying and memorable.)
When I say work to justify your choice, take for example what Crichton did in Jurassic Park. Science has not yet come up with a way to clone dinosaur DNA, of course, but, having come up with a truly awesome premise, Crichton created a whole scene to justify that premise, as well as knock off a bit of exposition at the same time, thus killing two pterodactyls with one . . . Anyway, you know the scene I mean, whether you read the book or saw the movie – it’s the one where the two paleontologists (played by Sam Neal and Laura Dern in the film) are taken through the cloning procedure in the billionaire’s lab, complete with cool graphics, etc. As they get an education about what’s been going on this remote island, so does the reader – and we’re being indoctrinated as surely as they are. After all, it would be churlish to deny Crichton his premise after he worked so hard to convince us, wouldn’t it?
When An Unstoppable Force Meets…
So you have a nearly unstoppable antagonist, then what happens? A story is like a baseball game. Nobody wants to watch a game in which the outcome is guaranteed. What makes a game exciting is the suspense of not knowing who will triumph. (Or, as Gwendolyn says in The Importance of Being Earnest, “This suspense is terrible – I hope it will last!”) Baseball fans pour out in droves to see the New York Yankees face the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series. They don’t come to the Yanks play the New Jersey Beef Jerkies, the co-ed pickup team that meets every Saturday morning for slow pitch softball. The outcome would be guaranteed, and no one would care.
So your antagonist, or forces of opposition, must be as strong as possible. That means your protagonist must be – Superman? Well, even Superman had his Kryptonite. And every protagonist has an Achilles heel of some kind – a weakness, a soft spot, a vulnerability that the antagonist will be able to capitalize on. So your protagonist is not quite an immovable object – any more than your antagonist is truly an unstoppable force. But you must hurtle them at each other with all the tools at your disposal. You must keep the reader guessing at every turn what the outcome will be. And that takes patience, skill, and ingenuity.
Try to match them up. You can pit like against like – there is something delicious about the idea of Sherlock Holmes locking horns with Professor Moriarty. You have perhaps the two smartest men in London, one on the side of good, the other on the side of evil. Or, in the case of Hannibal Lector and Clarice Starling, you have the unity of opposites: brilliant, manipulative serial killer against raw, unseasoned FBI rookie. So the story becomes a coming of age tale – of course, Clarice isn’t quite as innocent as we thought at first, and she is forced to find inner resources she didn’t know she had.
Okay, you have your premise – it’s original and intriguing, and you know both your protagonist and antagonist. Now what? The meat and potatoes of creating story is coming up with enough twists and turns in your plot to hold the reader’s interest. This can make your want to tear your hair out and chew off every one of your fingernails before moving on to your toenails. Because it is difficult – as I said earlier, it’s dirty and gritty and sweaty work. So roll up your sleeves and dig in, because there aren’t any shortcuts.
A plot twist is essentially a change of direction in the story – some event or realization that forces the protagonist to make an adjustment of some kind. An example would be something like the prime suspect being murdered halfway through the story. That shy woman turns out to be the long-lost daughter of the victim. The dead person isn’t really dead after all – that kind of thing. Readers of crime fiction depend upon these twists to hold their interest – they expect them, in fact.
People are lazy – they don’t like change, and they don’t like to have to rethink their actions. Your protagonist is no different. He wants to slog through every day the same as the day before, following the same rituals and habits he’s always followed.
You can’t let him. You are the brutal task master who yanks the rug out from under his cozy life, tosses him into a situation he never wanted in the first place, and then torments him until your breathless reader eagerly turns the last page of your novel.
You have to be cruel to be kind. Throw everything you can think of at your protagonist – surprise him in every chapter with an unforeseen event, an unexpected twist, an unsolvable puzzle. He may hate you for it, but your readers will love you. And they’re the ones buying your book, not your poor protagonist.
Forces of opposition can come in many forms. There is, of course, the dangerous and nearly unstoppable antagonist – but there is also the unexpected love affair, the lost child or ailing parent, the lingering self-doubt, the long-standing family feud, and of course, that staple in detective stories, that pesky old drinking problem.
Even “good” events in a character’s life can be used to complicate the plot and torment them. Your detective falls in love (good), but the woman he loves is the sister of the criminal he’s pursuing (bad). She agrees to help him trap her brother (good), but her brother kidnaps her and holds her hostage (bad). One of the keys to good storytelling, as shown rather crudely here, is to turn the story as much and as often as you can, flipping the protagonist like a pancake on a hot griddle. You can think of plot as a rollercoaster ride – your story zooms along on its track, from valley to peak and back again. As soon as the reader catches his breath when you dip into a valley, you are ready again to slide up the track to another peak – even higher than the last.
Because a story must build; each crisis, or turning point must be higher than the last, spiraling ever upward, demanding greater effort and struggle from your protagonist. This is the challenge you must rise to if you are serious about writing in any of the action genres. Even so-called “literary fiction” benefits from this kind of storytelling discipline, even if the “events” or turning points are more internal and psychological than they might be in an action genre such as a mystery or detective story. (I seem to recall that even “literary fiction” is not above the occasional dead body or psychopathic killer . . . )
But don’t make your turning points arbitrary, flipping the story just for the sake of it. As always, you have to believe what you write. You are essentially telling the reader that, in the world of you story, this is how life is. And you can’t really do that well unless you believe it. Readers don’t like to be lied to about the important things – they will smell a rat every time. They don’t mind buying that dinosaurs can be cloned, or that a young FBI agent could be pitted against a cunning serial killer – or even that Mary Magdalene married Jesus and had his baby. But they don’t want to be lied to about the truth – the deep philosophical and spiritual truth – of your story. In other words, be true to your own vision. It will stand you in good stead. Don’t “write to the market,” or borrow someone else’s vision because you think it’s trendy – stick with your own. Trends come and go, but truth is eternal. So tell the truth about the important things, and as to the rest, just remember:
Story trumps everything.