Rejecting Recaps

The mystery genre is filled with literary devices, and one of the more common is the recapitulation scene, in which the protagonist and often a sidekick add up the clues they have at the present time. When used the right way, such a scene can provide a new insight to the reader. The thinking goes: because we know those factors, we can deduce this result.

In my editing practice, I often suggest that such scenes be cut from the manuscript. Why is that? The answer turns on another component of mysteries: each scene should contain an element that moves the plot forward. Writers make a mistake when they think that talking about what happened represents a new plot turn. That’s not true. Usually the reader experienced the past plot action when it happened. So there’s no point in talking about an event we already know.

This mistake can be compounded when other characters who didn’t know about the plot event are told about it. The protagonist can tell A, B, and C about the same thing, with the only difference being how the new character reacts. In the meantime, the reader grows more and more sick of the plot spinning its wheels.

In a number of cases, I will propose that the conversation result in a new finding. If it is learned that the watchman was missing not only on that Tuesday night, but every Tuesday night of the past month, that represents a plot advance. Now the reader has to learn why that pattern was set up and, more to the point, with whom on the outside? I would turn the page to learn the answer to that. But I’m not as motivated if Jennie responds, “It seems suspicious that the watchman was missing Tuesday night.” I may like Jennie a ton as a person, but she is not producing anything new by saying stuff like that.

The charisma of the characters is a mitigating factor. In many talk-filled mysteries, such as those by Janet Evanovich, the reader is having such a good time that plot advances become less important. We just want to find out more about the crazy mixed-up family. But in that case, I would advise cutting recap scenes just so we can focus on the funny conversations.

You need new tricks up your sleeve. Inventing new steps in a mystery isn’t hard. But you can’t rely on characters to do a plot job for you. You need further bread crumbs in your scheme.

Exercise: The main reason for excessive recap scenes is the lack of good suspects. You should try to have three in play at any given time. That allows you the scope to plot out three intersecting lines. Each of the suspects has different steps in his trajectory, and when you mix and match them, you’ll have plenty of plot advances.

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
—Arthur Conan Doyle

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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