11.17.2020

Oblique Angle

Authors who want to write a mystery or a thriller cannot start from a blank sheet and let the story wend where it will. Nor can they decide in midstream that actually what they want to write (or what they hear will sell) is a thriller. That’s because these genres rely on deceiving the reader at key steps along the way. You will do a poor job of that if you don’t know the trapdoors yourself before you come upon them.

The idea of devising a grand scheme can seem well nigh impossible until you grasp a vital starting point. A main character only knows the information you provide. The protagonist can be placed within a larger scheme that is hidden from them at the beginning. Forget about characterization at this stage. Anyone can be duped if they are swept off their feet by unexpected events. 

One straightforward scheme involves romantic partners. That makes a protagonist—let’s call her Paula—inclined to believe in the one she loves. While the gender doesn’t matter, we’ll give Paula a husband, Rick, since that is the typical arrangement. Also give Rick a lover, Geraldine, with whom he’s having an affair. 

The next step is: leave Paula out of your thinking entirely. What is going on in that affair? You want a unique arrangement, because you’re trying to use fresh elements that readers haven’t seen. At the same time, you can use age-old developments. One partner in an affair commonly comes to want more than just sex out of the relationship. Disrupting the marriage, with whatever combination of resistance by one lover you devise, then becomes an imperative very early in the book. 

Paula is made aware that something is untoward, whether through an attempted murder on her or a murder of one of the affair’s lovers or someone who learns of the lovers. This last point is important, because the only way you can create a series of trapdoors is through new information that is revealed to Paula. An affair, to extend this example, does not occur in a vacuum. Other people have seen the lovers. A colleague at Rick’s job could divulge info to Paula. Geraldine’s husband could make contact with Paula. The detectives investigating the murder could reveal to Paula past financial transactions involving Rick through their uncovering of evidence. That’s not to mention his unsavory childhood years, quite different from the story that Paula has believed for so many years.

When you populate the landscape around Paula with people that know only their angle of the truth, you can then assign what she learns to each of those characters. The ones who have more skin in the game will appear more often. Now deception doesn’t seem so impossible, does it?

Exercise: An important factor is the agenda of the characters who impart information. Slanting the truth is to the advantage of a person who needs to hide from Paula. You can break down that “truth” into a series of revelations that then are parceled out in a series of scenes. The true agenda is revealed when you decide to finish off that character.

“I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.”  ― Friedrich Nietzsche

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.