First Off the Deck

Once a writer decides when the victims in a mystery should be killed, the next step is determining how the first one will be positioned to open up the plot. Being killed in an interesting way helps for its shock value, but the victim’s personal connections and their motives need to be thought out.  From there you can devise how to assign the clues.

To start, it is important to mask the trail leading to the perpetrator. If you feature an early scene of the killer acting weird, or overly interested in the death, the reader will mark them down on their suspect board—and there goes your twist. Instead, the friend-of-a-friend principle can be helpful. The victim was known to associate with a friend of the killer, and thus becomes a suspect who masks the actual villain. If the killer and the friend engaged in a number of similar activities, you can continue hiding the killer in the shadows in future scenes—because the reader is pointed toward the friend. So see if you lay out a string of shared activities and then stagger them throughout—i.e., a series of clues.

Also, characters who knew the victim can provide observations that hint about the motive without nailing down the specific act that led to the killing. Since murder, famously, is committed either for money or for love, you can pick out a general topic that relates to motive. For example, if the victim was known for lavish dinner parties but did not have much of an income, that hints at living beyond their means. Unless you specifically produce a loan shark, you can bruit news about that person with several unsavory associates, all of whom the reader must put up on the board. 

You can also provide different views of the victim from several characters. If you think through what those views are, then assign them to the characters who will voice those opinions, you are in a position to decide when each view will be given. For example, if a fellow office worker says the lavish-spending victim is guilty of embezzlement, that opens an avenue at the victim’s place of work. Maybe that is pursued first, in a string of scenes, and the embezzlement comes to seem less likely as a motive for murder. That’s when you drop in the second opinion: oh yeah, the vic was a sex hound, and here’s the number of one of the street walkers that serviced them. Another avenue is opened up, and this one really leads somewhere, because the loan shark also is or is linked to a pimp. 

By this point you may have already bumped off a second victim, and you then can start linking the two deaths. The two might have frequented the same bar, for instance. The same witness that knew about the sexual activity of vic 1 also has an opinion about vic 2. And now you’re off to the races.

“Life is nothing but a competition to be the criminal rather than the victim.”          —Bertrand Russell

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Applied Penetration

During a first draft an author is still trying to find out who the characters are. Forces in your subconscious move you in sometimes inexplicable directions. You may find yourself writing really well about a character you didn’t think at first would be that important. Or, you lose interest in a character that initially shone in your mind.

When you go about revising the manuscript, you do continue to respond to such unbidden ebbs and flows, but the process can be more deliberate. You can decide at the outset that you want Character A to have X as a signal element of his personality. Let’s say you want X to be: passive-aggressive. The character spends the entire book trying to please people, but at the same time he stores up all this resentment that people take advantage of him.

That’s a nice concept. Sure, passive-aggressive would work. But how, exactly, do you go about doing such a thing? 

Start by thinking about a person you know who is always trying to please people. What does she do? She might, while at your house, see an unmailed letter and offer to take it to the post office for you. She might offer, even though you interrupt her in the process of stamping prices, offer to take you to the exact item in the drugstore. In short, she embarrasses you by going the extra mile you never asked her to take. So write down a list of such generous acts. Better yet, keep in mind Character A as you’re writing, and tailor the list for that character.

Then review all of the scenes in which he appears. Is he constantly trying to please people? Does he offer to give the heroine a ride home even though she knows it’s out of his way? You are viewing each one of his actions through a specific prism—passive-aggressive. And guess what? The reader is going to think that he tries too hard to please people—because that’s what he keeps doing.

Now flip the coin: the aggressive side. How do you show that? Again, think about human nature. Such a person tends to grumble to Character B about how Character C is taking advantage of him. As the book goes on, the grumbling can become increasingly explosive. He lashes out, maybe two-thirds of the way through, at another character for always taking, taking, taking—I’m sick of it! Now the reader is disturbed. The development to the explosion feels natural, but you’ve been stage-managing every single scene to reach that result.

Exercise: When you’re drawing up the list, remember the cardinal rule: entertain the reader. Think of different ways to show a trait, but discard the pedestrian ways. The wilder the gesture (within bounds of plausibility), the more you increase the embarrassment factor. You want the reader to cringe, a little or a lot.

“They consider me to have sharp and penetrating vision because I see them through the mesh of a sieve.” —Khalil Gibran

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


When to Bump Them Off

Plotting a mystery entails schemes that operate both within and beyond the reader’s view, and a large part of figuring out how to do that involves picking the right victims. While you may kill off only one character, that is setting yourself a very hard task, since so much work must be put into laying out schemes for multiple suspects. A more hard-driving mystery will knock off maybe three victims. That way the perpetrator has to operate closer to the surface, creating potential linkages among victims and making more mistakes that can be investigated.

What are the considerations when choosing victims? That depends on when you want to kill them off. A mystery traditionally features a murder early on, often in the first chapter. That is what sets the clue-finding process in motion. What sort of character works best in this role? So early on, the victim is a stranger to the reader, so catharsis derives from the strangeness of the physical act. As an investigator explores, the victim serves the book best if they possess a range of unsavory attributes. Those can affect a number of suspects the character knew—for instance, the unhappy relatives in an Agatha Christie tale. More to the point, it opens up an array of options for your scheming.

The second victim (out of three) tends to be killed around the one-third mark. That placement serves several purposes. One, it reinvigorates the plot, since by that time an investigator may have exhausted the initial web of clues you have laid out. Two, it happens close enough to the first murder for linkages to be made between the two. 

An important factor in picking this victim is: you need more character depth to heighten the reader’s involvement. A random stranger seems shallow after you’ve spent 100 pages involving us in the main characters’ lives. We won’t know the character that well, but if you can make them count—say, a potential love interest for the main character—now you can write about what their loss means to the protagonist. 

The final victim usually expires around the two-thirds point. The killing functions best as a spur of emotion that kicks off the climax sequence. (If that sequence is shorter, maybe you’re at the three-quarters point.) How do you make the reader red-eyed, wanting revenge for the killing? It necessitates a fairly deep knowledge of the victim. That’s why a main suspect for the earlier killings is often used. Yes, you pull the rug out from under the reader, but you also have featured that character enough that we have gotten to know them. A wife of the protagonist creates powerful catharsis for the same reason—we know her and we like her by that time. 

The requirements for achieving these aims should govern your initial planning. The second and especially the third victim have to show up often for us to care about them. If they are taking up so much space, what assignments do you need to give them all along the way?

“Art evokes the mystery without which the world would not exist.”                      —Rene Magritte

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


A Sparkling Shell

Writing in a distinctive narrative voice is a decisive step that separates an author from the pack. Stories that are told in a linear fashion are more likely to seem like other books on the same topic. They also don’t generate the same excitement among book professionals, who are always looking for original works. 

Crafting such an approach, however, is not a substitute for a satisfying book. Narrative can be regarded, crudely, as a mechanism—a way to tell a story. Relegating such a stellar achievement to that status may sound demeaning, but in fact the best narrative is a supplement employed to fill out characterization. Huck Finn would not stand out as much if he didn’t have that inimitable dialect, but we are moved by what he did on the raft. 

Plotting is largely unaffected by polished prose. That does not matter as much in a literary novel, when being inside the protagonist’ fascinating mind is largely the point of the reading exercise. Yet unless you mean to create only an intellectual abstraction, a good plot enables a character to make meaningful changes during the course of the book. Plotting also places a character in greater jeopardy, because a character who acts upon their dissatisfaction is more forceful than one who merely grouses. Acting entails an element of danger, that a bet will be wagered and could go wrong out in the world. 

An author may feel that providing stylish narrative voices adds to characterization, and to an extent it does. A younger character can use more current idioms, for instance. If the chatter is focused on mundane subjects, however, or skirts around rather than explores a weighty matter, it amounts to no more than surface gloss. Worse, it may leave the reader feeling that the character is using smart talk to mask the pain they feel. In that case, what started off as fresh and entertaining devolves into a scintillating shield to hide real emotions.

Worse, the reader may come to feel that a character is merely running in place. Nothing happens to produce meaningful change, and so the book skates on the surface. Artifice in word play ends up making the character feel artificial. What is happening seems ordinary, only told in a different way. Gradually, the character loses their grip on the reader’s attention.

A stock piece of advice for a commercial novelist is: keep them turning pages. An author shooting for a higher plane need not worry as much about this dictum, but making sure that a character makes a plot advance by the end of their chapter will ensure the reader feels they are still making progress toward a future goal.

Exercise: The place in a novel where the go-nowhere feeling is most apparent is when you are setting up your characters early on. A good strategy to combat this is looking for a character’s future scenes. When you see plot movement, you should move that event forward. Mash the two scenes together and see you get.

“Art, whose honesty must work through artifice, cannot avoid cheating truth.”     —Adrienne Rich

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 


Take One More Step

We can grasp a concrete notion better than a general one. That’s why a well-told detail is specific. Let’s take a typical example of a lazy description: “The crowd hurried by, trying to get out of the rain.” Even if I know the place and time beforehand, do I really feel like I am participating in the action? 

Stop for a moment and describe one person hurrying. Is an older man cursing because his umbrella just flipped inside-out in the wind? Did a young woman clip the neck of the heroine with her umbrella spokes as she bulled past?  Does the hero look down at his front and see it all spattered, making him readjust how he is carrying his umbrella? Forget the crowd. Look for examples within the crowd. You don’t have to go crazy: each one of the examples I just supplied is merely one sentence apiece. 

The specific detail can also include a short burst of dialogue. For example, everyone in New York City knows it’s impossible to hail a cab when it’s raining. You can ratchet up tension if the heroine, flailing her arm uselessly, suddenly shouts: “Goddamn all the cabs in this city!” Everyone nearby turns to look at the madwoman—and we now know how hard it’s raining.

Where specifics really work is with repeated actions that are glossed over in passing. Sticking with the topic of city life, how about: “All the petty indignities of the daily commute were getting him down.” Now, how am I supposed to get inside that? 

Give us an example of the indignities. A lead character races over to a miraculously available ticket machine at a train station, only to find a taped piece of paper over its view window, reading: “Out of Order.” A woman alone in a two-seater hears the train doors close, and as she sighing in relief, an immensely fat man who just made it on walks down the aisle, nods slightly at her, and plops down with all that blubber beside her. 

As noted before, this sort of work can be as brief as you like. The key is, whenever you use a plural, consider whether you can turn it into a singular. Then you’ll find the example wonderfully lights up the rule.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye toward actions or events described in the plural. When you find one, determine if it’s consequential enough to deserve a fuller example. If so, sit back for a few moments and sort through the possible examples of that blanket statement. Write down a few, allowing your mind to continue to play with the idea. Once you stop and listen, so to speak, you’ll find that your mind contains a flood of terrific singular examples.

"There are two cardinal sins from which all others spring: Impatience and Laziness." — Franz Kafka 

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Is Implicit

The early phase of a novel features a good deal of what I call “setup” material. An author needs to put the reader’s feet on the ground in a fictional world. That includes establishing the settings and providing backgrounds for the major characters. For the story to have any richness, such work is vital. Yet authors can write these pieces as though their audience has never inhabited a similar setting or met a similar character type. The result can be yawns of recognition. How do you know what should go and what should stay?

A good rule of thumb is: use what is fresh. Does your setting have interesting or exotic features that set it apart? For instance, mention the swaying palm trees in a passing sentence, but dig in on the driftwood shelter a beach bum has built. With characters, use quick strokes to lay down a stormy relationship of the father and daughter over driving the family car. Get to the friend who has snuck into the car and pops out when they leave the driveway. 

What writers forget, in the dark of the lonely study, is that readers are bombarded with settings and character relationships all the time, from Sesame Street onward. Say, you want to lay down the setting of a high school. Do you think I know how tedious an oral book report is? You bet I do—and you can summarize the whole scene in one sentence. Go straight to the scene where the student pulls out the quart of Colt .45. 

If you want to establish a cool student browbeating a loser, do it in one scene or two. Past that you are merely trading on sympathy that is already running thin. The reader has probably read a dozen articles or stories on bullying. Instead, you should decide whether you are going to build the relationship during the course of the book, until the loser hopefully shoots the bully, or move on with either of the two to create new heights for them elsewhere. 

Burrowing down into a story objective is the only way to make the ordinary interesting. If you lay the groundwork for a relationship that will build over a series of 20 scenes, you can use reader recognition of certain plot turns or characteristics as ways to involve them more deeply. Even then, keep trying to surprise us with the endless complexity of the human species.

Exercise: You can test out whether a setup scene works by deleting it entirely. Wait two weeks and then read the 20 pages before it and after it. What missing ingredients do you feel are vital for the reader to know? Read over the scene and pick out the necessary pieces. Then place them in another scene. Wait two weeks and read that passage again. Do you still think you need the scene?

“Perhaps there is no agony worse than the tedium I experienced waiting for Something to Happen.” —Lance Loud

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Historical Determinants

Unless you would like to spend years writing your historical novel, you are advised to consider some cardinal points that will frame your concept. Starting from the ground up may work in history, according to Tolstoy, but that method can lead to dozens of pages you’ll later throw out. Here are some commonsense questions you should ask yourself:

First, why would a reader be interested in reading about a certain time period? Just because you are interested in the separation movement that ended with Kentucky becoming the 15th state doesn’t mean anyone else has any idea what that was. You can develop stirring characters and moving personal dramas, but don’t count on lines at the bookstore based on the concept.

Second, how much does the novel depend on the historical events that occurred during the time frame you have chosen? This genre has severe limitations on the imagination in the public sphere. If you start with the idea about how a family in the era fell apart due to historical circumstances, such as the father heading out west in the 1850s, you have to make sure that his participation in the Kansas border war does not lead the book so far astray that the family left behind is forgotten by the reader too. Otherwise, when he returns home, no one is going to care what happens.

Third, when mapping out the plot, how much research have you done into the historical figures and the events that will appear in the novel? You cannot narrate events that contravene what is known, and often a first pass through a general history of the era does not reveal the fine details you need to know. If you have a great idea about an African American counterfeiter in pre-Civil War New York City, a close look will inform you that blacks were not involved in that type of crime. Counterfeiting depended largely on how the “shover” presented himself to a merchant or banker, and you can’t dismiss the fact that, however wrongly, blacks were regarded in the city as second-class citizens. 

That leads to the question that any historical novelist favors: How well can you organize the novel’s plot around a historical event? To extend the prior example, the signal event for New York African Americans during this time period was the Draft Riots of 1863. So what does Kevin Baker do in Paradise Alley? He starts the novel with a black woman near the present-day Seaport who sees a gang of men marching and shouting in the streets about Abraham Lincoln’s new draft law. Historical and private events are entwined from the very start, and that makes the novel powerful.

“I was reading this book today, The History of Glue, and I couldn't put it down.”   —Tim Vine

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


What Crosses the Finish Line

Along the long march to completing a draft lie pods of material you’ve written. At one time a mini background for the protagonist’s friend’s mother, for instance, may have seemed worthwhile because it helped to explain the friend’s motivation for a plot event. Dozens of similar explanations can dot a novel, all of which had a cogent reason at the time. Yet as you’re reading over the draft after completion, you notice that the first third of the story moves very slowly. How do you decide how to accelerate the pacing?

A useful practice is isolating a single character at a time. You can use a chart with columns that track: on which pages they appear, how many pages for each appearance, and the subject matter of the scene. Finally, create a column for background material. The entries can consist of two types—narrative summaries and flashback scenes—so use letters like NS and FL to indicate the difference. 

Numbers don’t lie. If you study the column that records when someone appears, you can see if those scenes are clustered earlier or later. What can often happen is that you were interested in a character for a while, such as when they were useful for the plot. Later, the character may become more of an also-ran—still showing up but not performing action of any note. When regarded from a reader’s perspective, they fall by the wayside because they are not continuing to command attention.

Now look at the background column. How many pages have you devoted to setting up that character? If you see a total of 6-7 pages, you might not think it’s that big a deal. The problem comes in when you consider how many pages you have devoted to all of the other characters. If you create charts for each, you can cross-check them and identify on which pages they all get background work. Since many authors place background material within the first third of a book, when you’re trying to set up distinctive characters, you may have unintentionally created a logjam. 

That’s when examining each of the charts for appearances later in the novel can bear fruit. Those characters with major roles later should dominate in the realm of background material as well. They are the ones paying off for the time the reader spent reading about them. If you cut back the early material to reflect that emphasis, you’ll find that not only does your pacing increase, your major characters stand out more because you’ve cleared away unnecessary brush.

Exercise: Often a minor character’s background involves the protagonist. What you may be able to do is substitute a major character in their place. If it is a childhood prank, for example, could you merely change the names and produce the same effect? 

“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.” —Igor Stravinsky

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.