Follow Your Nose

When an author is writing a mystery, the full extent of the plot may not be clear until later or at the end of a draft. This incomplete knowledge exists on one plane, that of the writer overlooking the story. Another plane entirely belongs to the protagonist, or whoever is investigating the crime(s) within the story. Of necessity, the lead character starts with incomplete knowledge, because that is how a mystery is built: pulling away successive veils until the denouement. 

One cardinal mistake an author can make is conflating the two planes. This error occurs because the writer is trying so hard to merge with the character’s thoughts in order to draw the reader into the fictional world. Yet mystery is a genre that often pits what the author (and sometimes the clued-in reader) knows against what the character knows.

A common strategy by a skilled author is to train the hero’s sights on local targets. The crime is framed by the partial window they can see. This approach also has the benefit of feeling logical. If a kidnapping, for example, occurs in Evanston, just north of Chicago, the notion that the criminals live in the area makes eminent sense. 

You can then provide several on-site clues, such as an attack on the campus of Northwestern University (located in Evanston), an incident on the El train heading south into Chicago, or whatever else could be related to local actors . . . and other actors who have traveled to the local scene. 

Because the protagonist starts from the limited point of view, the initial inquiries can be curtailed simply by the lack of comprehension that an outside force would want to invade what, to the protagonist, is a private space. We were just going to the playground! is one variation. Yet this advantage concerns not only plotting. An author can use this first phase of investigation to build a core cast of characters that can then travel with the protagonist, either in person or remotely, to other locales as the clues direct them. It is likely by that point in the book that you have already begun featuring scenes of the abducted victim in a different location. That way you pit a hero’s knowledge against the reader’s to create nice layering.

Exercise: Building a ring of characters around the protagonist is basically your main job during the first third of a novel. While private scenes can be effective, the demands of the mystery genre press in the kitchen-table affairs. If you can use a local investigation to keep those key characters busy, you kill two birds with one stone.

“Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” —Jean Rhys

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.