6.20.2019

Fresh

In the course of writing a long manuscript, an author can be pardoned for occasionally going back to the same well. A number of times the same or similar choice reflects the writer’s bent, or outlook on such matters. We try to be consistent in our everyday routines, so why not within the pages of a book?

In fiction, variety is the spice of life. That’s because a reader doesn’t want to have the same experiences, but a constantly unfolding series of new ones. Reading the same stuff over and over is boring, no matter how exciting the event. If Bilbo in The Hobbit, for instance, disappeared the same way time after time, he would lose that ingenuous quality that makes him so endearing.

One plot event in particular can start to feel the same: a murder in a mystery novel. When the killer’s M.O. is established, such as slashing a person’s neck, the investigating characters have to go through the same procedure with the corpses. Same smell in the cold morgue, same wisecracks from the medical examiner about chickens, etc. Even a second murder committed the same way can have a reader reaching for the sleeping pills.

What a waste. A murder is such a terrific tool for an author. If a book-opening murder is followed shortly by a second one, which is a tried-and-true method, why do the slayings have to be alike? Most killers are not trained assassins, which affords an author the chance for experimentation. This time when the murderous urge came on . . . If you are really clever, the second murder can be committed by someone else entirely.

If the murders do have to be similar, as in a serial murder case, you have to devise how to vary other aspects of the crimes. You can plot out how the conclusions that the investigators draw from each one are different. You can go the sequential route, in which each murder adds something else to the knowledge a detective has about the killer. Any aspects of a crime scene that have been covered in an earlier scene, skim over that stuff with passing remarks.

Drawing differences is easier when personalities are more flamboyant. Realistically, good detectives are predictable, but those aren’t the ones readers like. The one that can take a counterintuitive approach poses a puzzle to a reader: how can that inference be supported? If you think about it, that was Sherlock Holmes’s “method”: keep Dr. Watson guessing about his inscrutable remarks. Why should you settle for any less?

Exercise: Because similar scenes can be separated by numerous pages, you may not be aware of your tics. You can be more exacting. Separate out those scenes and read them in isolation, back-to-back (-to-back). What do you spot is similar? While you’re changing those out, keep asking yourself: could this new element play a long-range role in the developing mystery?

“The essence of the beautiful is unity in variety.”
—W. Somerset Maugham

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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