Using Multiple Guessers

For those who are not gifted at plotting mysteries, other strategies for laying crumbs for readers have to be employed. One that works well relies on multiplying the number of characters involved in investigating a crime. The advantages stem from having different opinions about the same number of clues.

In order to make it work, you first should get in the habit of “thinking” from different characters’ points of view. Let’s say Cal is intuitive but impractical. His partner in sleuthing is Lenora, who is rational and down-to-earth. Maybe a third member of the crew, Lee, is good at intellectual puzzles. Now pick out a clue: say, a red rose pinned to a victim’s lapel. You can plot out three different interpretations of one clue, and until more clues are available, all of them will seem valid to the reader. 

The next step is relating the clue to known suspects. Let’s say Malcolm is strung up on a balcony rail overlooking the foyer. Cal may guess that the murderer must be the homeowner Sandy, since he heard a violent argument between them recently. Yet Lenora points out that whoever strung up Malcolm must be strong, and Sandy weighs only 110 pounds, 50 pounds lighter than her supposed victim. At the same time, Lee weighs in with the observation that the rope is a special nylon type associated with sailing, and Malcolm’s good friend Trent is always bragging about his boat. How is the reader supposed to settle, for sure, on any of these choices?

Even better, you may choose a suspect that has a personal relationship with one or more of your sleuths. If Cal intensely dislikes May, he may slant his interpretations of the clues so they fit May. Yet Lenora may sensibly point out the faults in Cal’s reasoning, knowing full well his dislike. You can then calibrate a third response because Lee views May more of a psychological specimen than a person. Depending on who is the protagonist, you can assign more weight of suspicion to May, but the other characters’ objections still need to be noted by the guessing reader. 

As the book progresses, you can then play off one character’s worth in guessing against another. Because Cal seems to use his heart rather than his head, the pendulum may swing toward Lenora, who is always so logical in her conclusions. Lee may start to fall by the wayside because the intellectual nattering doesn’t really address a motive behind the clues. Now their opinions are weighted by how you have developed the novel—and still, any of the three of them might be right.

Exercise: Repetition is the curse of any novel. When you are judging each clue, bear in mind that you want a character’s take on it to be fresh. So maybe mix it up: Cal comes up with an intellectual interpretation, or Lenora uses logic to make an intuitive leap. As long as the character can explain the deviation to the reader, you won’t repeat yourself.

“People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of character.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Characters Taken from Real Life

Being true to life is a principle that will spark some of your most original writing. As in any field, nothing beats hands-on experience for knowing the nuances of how a relationship or a plot event evolved. Yet adhering to real life does not work so well in the larger scheme of a novel. Life has so many nuances that you could write a thousand pages about a single week. The process of writing a novel leads almost immediately to compression. You need to relate just the interesting stuff. The compressed nature of a novel in turn shapes its characters into exaggerated, larger-than-life figures. True to life, yes, but within a novel’s inherent distortions of life. 

Trying to write from experience causes a common failing among novice writers: not separating their characters from their real-life models. People you know can be extremely limiting when building a novel. You need the freedom to discover where a character wants to take a plot thread. When the character is your sister, however, she will bend your plot to go in the direction that you know she would demand. That may be fine in some instances, but you can see the problem. The character has placed shackles on your imagination. You’re on the outside looking in at that other person, not inhabiting the character from the inside out. In many cases, an even worse outcome ensues. Your sister, because what she wants is so realistic, makes your novel ordinary. You come back a few days later to a piece of dialogue you’ve written and think, “OMG, this is so terrible. Even my sister is more interesting that this!”

You can use both approaches. Before you start the novel, write a character sketch that includes the realistic attributes you want a character to have. But once you start writing, listen to what the character wants. Let your fingers do the walking until you see where the next scene ends up. What frees a good character of his shackles is when he goes where he wants to go—not because that is what the real-life model would do, but because he is reacting to the events inside your book. 

Exercise: Pick a character and track how she is developing in any scene. When she talks, are you thinking of a specific person in your life? If so, dig deeper. What point has the character’s developmental arc reached at that point? What should she be doing for the plot at that point? Immerse yourself in what your fictional situation calls for, and pretty soon you’ll find that she is telling you what she wants.  She has become a player in your drama.

“The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.” —Umberto Eco


A Position, Not a Theme

More politically minded novelists like to use popular themes of the day in order to make points pro or con. In the charged atmosphere of America today, when almost anything is a cause calling for blind fervor, a writer can feel that a hot-button issue will inject drama into the proceedings. Yet when an issue such as abortion becomes a major character’s crusade, an author may be dismayed by how flat the scenes are. How could that happen, when neighbors in real life are ready to tear out each other’s lawn?

The first step in answering that question lies in the spillover from the real world into fiction. Since novels tend to be realistic in order to allay a reader’s disbelief, the views of a flag-waving character may borrow largely from what a reader has learned, possibly ad nauseam, on the news. As the phrase goes, familiarity breeds contempt. As soon as I, as an example, recognize a certain line of cant, I start skimming immediately. I read novels to get away from that stuff.

Equally as important is recognizing that the power of any theme correlates with its progressive development. If an issue does not change over the course of the book, there is no dramatic movement. If a character keeps saying the same stuff in every scene, no matter what the content is, a reader will become bored. Yes, we know how you feel, so when is that going to become more interesting? 

As with any story element, a character needs to begin at Point A and progress to Point Z with a theme. If you wish to write about abortion, for example, you should figure out a starting point and an ending point during the initial outline stage. How do the events inside the novel impact the character’s thinking about the issue? That is the only way a novelist can be original on such a well-worn topic.

Framing the matter this way leads to a final and most decisive step: making the issue personal. Only when you focus hard enough on one individual’s travails during the heart-rending course of what to do with an unborn child will you make the reader care. The snap answers you see on the screen will pale to their usual political banality, and you will discover for real why the issue is so contentious. It’s because the experience is so painful. That’s what you should be writing about.

Exercise: Contrary to real life, where men arrogate the right to somehow know what an expectant mother is feeling, a male novelist has to work a lot harder. You should read a variety of works, even if you don’t agree with their viewpoints. You should talk to women—your relatives, professional counselors, and/or young teenagers. Then come back and tell us what your heart learned.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” ―Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.