Juggling Balls

More than any other genre, mystery writing involves deliberate craft. Mystery readers want to be fooled, and a mystery writer has to employ layers of deception in order to pull that off. The successful mystery engages in this process on a chapter-by-chapter basis, and every chapter ending provides a new clue. So how does the fledgling mystery or thriller writer manage to stage a novel so that it contains so much complexity?

The main technique is to provide a variety of suspects at all times. I have a term I use with authors: juggling balls. The “balls” in question are the suspects, and the juggling refers to the need for an author to keep a certain number of them revolving through the book so that the reader cannot settle on any one of them. I believe at least three suspects should remain active all the way up to the denouement. That is a large enough number that a reader cannot start picking the odds of one against the other.

Usually, one character is what I call the obvious suspect. That is the one that has opportunity and motive, and often one who is near and dear to the victim. This suspect is raised early on, and continues to be nasty or obnoxious until the end. Yet it is also the suspect that the reader hopes isn’t “it,” because he’s so obvious. That’s not how a twisty game is played.

What fledgling authors find harder is sustaining the secondary suspects. Appearing in a regular rotation of scenes is paramount in order to keep a suspect compelling in the reader’s mind. Yet that isn’t good enough. New revelations have to keep on turning up that give the secondary suspects true relevance. Considering how easy these are to fabricate—it turns out Caroline was lying about where she was that night (because she is trying to cover up an assignation)—I’m surprised that authors don’t have a ready store of tricks up their sleeve.

The list of suspects does not have to remain constant over the course of the novel. An early possibility can be shown positively to be innocent by halfway through. Plus, new suspects can be introduced in roughly the first third of the novel, and these can gain increasing prominence. If three balls are still being juggled up to the point that the climax sequence starts, you’re ready for the show.

Exercise: Draw up a list of circumstances surrounding the murder. A suspect’s relationship to the victim is paramount: when do you reveal what that truly is? The days leading up to the murder are another rich source of confusion, particularly if the victim was not well liked. The financial dealings with the victim can be another lode. Keep writing down different factors until you have filled up a page. Now assign those links to 3-4 main suspects so they compose a logical association. You now can plug in those clues at every chapter ending.

“If I didn't know the ending of a story, I wouldn't begin. I always write my last line, my last paragraph, my last page first.”
—Katherine Anne Porter

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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