Swapping In

The guessing game in fiction, especially in the mystery and thriller categories, proceeds through a series of twists. The impact of each one depends on the reader’s deepening involvement of the story, to be sure, but also on the amount of attention paid to targeted characters. That is hardly surprising, since the depth of characterization determines how much a reader cares about any character in any novel.

Many authors start out with only a dim notion of who will become the main characters. The story is usually more important, not least since it is often based on real-life events and the characters are only balloon figures filling out different known parts. The villain(s) emerges soon enough, if only to provide opposition in a given scene. More complications are inserted as the author becomes more immersed in the circumstances. Only by the end of the draft may it become apparent that all the suspects are obvious. Where are the twists, particularly the be-all ending twist? 

As an editor, I may suggest picking a character who, as written, is one of the leading good guys. That pick is based on two key considerations. First, the character must be important. Second, the character’s true motives must remain hidden. A leading good character fits these perfectly. If the protagonist has interacted frequently with the new chosen villain—say, a significant other—a lot of attention has been paid to them, increasing depth. The motives are hidden, of course, because you never wrote any in the first place.

As in so much in rewriting fiction, you can pick an end point and work backward. Your first task to write in new signals. After all, the reader must slap themselves in the forehead for not guessing correctly. You have to provide some basis for that. Examining the scenes already written can yield possible double entendres. You had the villain say something innocent, but in this new context, it could also point in your new direction. Or, you may create a double meaning by changing just a few words.

The present situations can also be converted to new uses. It might be that the former flame was kidnapped by the chief obvious villain. With a few changes, such as inserting a few articles of clothing that the hero finds in the villain’s house, the flame can become the chief villain’s lover. When the two show up in the climax both intending to kill the protagonist, no one can say they weren’t warned.

Exercise: The more obvious clues can be placed early on. If they are glancing enough, the reader then has hundreds of pages in which to forget them. The stage of getting to know you can be colored by, say, the protagonist’s romantic interest in the flame, and in that mix you drop a few clues that, in retrospect, the reader should definitely have seen.

“I don't mind a narrator who's self-deceiving, but the clues for their truth have to be there for the reader to see.”  —Sarah Pinborough 

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.