The Alignment of Beads

A smart author provides multiple suspects in a mystery so that the reader can enjoy guessing whodunit. Not only do you need to keep three or so suspects revolving in the reader's mind, you need to allot increasing importance to each of their clues. In other words, they cannot merely show up, although that is a useful practice. It also entails planting the clues in such a way that they add progressively toward the book’s climax.

That formula seems easy enough to follow. After all, you already have a list of clues that you have dreamed up. Let’s say that Henry was involved in an illicit real estate deal with the murder victim, Shawn. The question is, once we know that, where will he go from there? Are you going to provide some numbers related to the deal? Does learning about that lead to a construction-related person who is sinister? In other words, a clue not only has an intrinsic value in and of itself. It also forms part of a continuum of clues. The more the book goes on, the more you have to raise the stakes of the game. Clues nearer to the climax need to count for more, because in this realm you are playing a game of Top That. For example, after Henry’s revelation of chicanery you insert a lesser clue, that Henry does not have an alibi for several hours during the night of the murder. How is the reader going to react? They’re probably going to feel let down, because an alibi for the time of murder is one of the most common issues in mysteries. 

That is why a good mystery is so heavily plotted. I commonly tell authors that scenes in a plot line are like ever larger beads on a string. Let’s say you are assigning five clues to to each major suspect. You need to devise five clues that build from the first bead. Not only that, but you have at least three strings, a total of fifteen beads. Plus, you don’t want a clue for suspect #1 to be minor relative to the clues given to suspect #2 in the previous chapter. The net result would be that we are less interested in #1, because her clue wasn’t so hot. You do that several times, and #1 is becoming a long shot in the race, so you better have a pretty good twist to explain what she didn’t match up during the course of the building clues. 

The difficulty of adjusting these increasingly heavier beads explains why family relations so often plays a leading role in mysteries. You do not have to work as hard to explain why a wife was embittered by her cheating husband. A son’s caustic views of his mother may set up a pattern in which a minor clue suddenly makes him look very suspicious. The clues may be more minor, but they intrinsically possess more emotional weight. So if you are fiendishly devising how your mystery is going to bedevil readers, you might want to throw a close relationship to relieve your burden.

Exercise: Create a chart with multiple columns. Two vertical columns apiece are assigned to each major suspect, one narrow and one wide. In the narrow column you are going to insert the number of the chapter in which a clue falls, and in the wide column you are going to briefly specify which clue is being used. The horizontal columns are your timeline for the book. Enter each clue you have for a character where you think it should go. That way you’ll be able to see (1) the intervals between the clues for each character; (2) if each clue for that one character builds from the last one; and (3) how the progressive weight of clues matches up among the characters.

“Mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing.” 
—Donald Hall

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.