Monday, June 11, 2018

The Art of Suspense

Licensed Adobe Stock image

The Aspiring Author's Blog fantasy contributor Alexa McGinnis and I recently had a Twitter exchange that changed my plan for this first Mystery Monday post. When you surround yourself with great writers, working hard on their craft, this sort of thing is bound to happen.

The topic of our Twitter conversation was coy writing and how irksome I find it. And it's known to be a problem in many an otherwise brilliant mystery, so, let's talk about it and get it out of the way. 

First thing's first: What do I mean by coy writing?

Imagine, if you will, a striptease... 

(Don't look at me like that. I write noir mysteries set in New Orleans. I used to work for Nine Inch Nails. I've been to my fair share of strip clubs and Burlesques.)

Where was I? Oh, yes. The striptease. Unlike a Burlesque performer, when an author is being coy, they have no intention of showing you anything worth seeing. They are hiding information, using it as power and authority over the reader, until they finally drop their clothes, unzip their skin, and reveal that they're not a beautiful woman at all, they're a muskrat! Fooled you.

This kind of revelation usually has one of several appropriately annoyed responses:
"What the fuck, dude?" (That one might be just me) 
It's information that would have helped you understand a character's motivation better. It's information that would have helped you to understand how dangerous a situation really is or isn't. It's information that would have helped you to figure out the whodunit in a whodunit.

Coy writing not only removes these bits of critical information, it doesn't even hint at it. So, there you are, minding your own business, reading a novel that you think is being honest and building up to something, when WHAM!! You get a three-page information dump that ties everything into a neat little package with a flourish like the author has done you some kind of favor, and you exclaim (and rightly so), "What the actual fuck, dude?"

(And if you're me, you then have to pay your six-year-old resident blackmailer a quarter so he won't tattle on mommy for dropping f-bombs at breakfast.)

Agatha Christie. Amazon Author Page image
This is why Agatha Christie is so revered. That woman did not play coy with the reader, at all. She hid all the information in plain sight. It's all right there for you to figure it out if you're on the look-out for it; but to see it, you can't allow yourself to get so engrossed in the story that you forget you're supposed to be solving a murder. And good luck with that.

Because that's the real trick, you see. The trick to creating real suspense, not architecting a maze so random and complicated and full of blind alleyways that it's impossible for the reader to arrive at the correct solution. That's not suspense. That's cheating.

But it's hard. And this is where that striptease analogy comes into play.

(Y'all thought I forgot about that, didn't you?)

In a striptease, the performer hints at that reveal. They flash a shoulder here, a little too much thigh there. But they flash it nonetheless. And it can be slow or fast because pacing is critical to a good show, but - and this is the important part - everything must be revealed as a part of an honest buildup, otherwise you're wasting the audience's time and being coy.

Let's take the character backstory tease. I'm going to use one of my characters as an example, mainly because he's a raging narcissist who loves it when I talk about him, but also because his backstory is deep; so deep, that I've had spread it out over the course of five books.

Derek Sharp is introduced in Devil Take Me Down, the second book of the Clementine Toledano Mysteries. He's an egotistical rockstar and kind of a prick, but a lovable one. Because he's a suspect in that second book, we don't learn much about him. He's an annoying ancillary character that may or may not be trying to kill our heroine. Then comes his strange appearance in the next book, Chasing Those Devil Bones, where his personal demons attack him while recording an album with that main character, Q Toledano. We don't know what those demons are, but Q has an inkling. You see, Q has demons of her own and she recognizes his scars, no matter how hard he's trying to hide them. Just between you and me, Derek has also grown on Q like a fungus at this point and she kind of likes him, no matter what she says to the contrary.

In The Devil's Luck, we get to know Derek really well as he becomes more of a core character and at this point, three books into his development, I have now provided every single clue for the reader to figure out what happened to Derek to make him who he is. It's so obvious, in fact, that I actually thought my beta readers would yell at me about spoiling it for them. But they didn't. They didn't figure it out. They just liked that Derek was becoming more human, more real, and a bigger part of the overall story. 

Ain't I a stinker?

The Usual Suspects
Movie Poster
Now, if I've done my job when the big reveal comes in Book 7, anyone who's followed Derek from his first appearance in Devil Take Me Down will feel just like that cop at the end of The Usual Suspects as all the puzzle pieces fit neatly into place. (While The Usual Suspects isn't a book, every mystery writer should watch that movie at least three times in a row for a masterclass in hiding clues in plain sight). But there's no trickery here. That's important. The viewer and readers are presented with all the information. It just wasn't threaded together for them.

The risk, of course, in hiding all that delicious information right where any reader paying attention can pick it up and piece it together for themselves, is that someone might stumble across the solution to the riddle on their own. I think that's the reason why so many mystery writers have begun to play coy with information. The desire is to craft an unsolvable Murder on the Orient Express whodunit but the fear is that they don't have the chops.

And my response to this fear is so what?

So what if some of your readers solve the crime? How fun for them to get to the last page and the big reveal and triumphantly shout, "I knew it!"

Stumping 100% of your readers is just fascist, and it's plain old boring, especially once your readers realize that you had to trick them by hiding critical information to do it.

Your reader should never get to the end, learn some new tidbit, and think, "Sure, if I knew that, I would have solved it, too."

That's cheating.

I recently read The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters, and he handles these information revelations in a scandalously tricky way: by tricking his main character, too. When new information appears, new information that would ordinarily piss me off, his policeman slaps his head and says, "Palace, you dummy." Which made me slap my head and say the same about myself because both of us should have seen that coming, but we didn't because, well, you know, there's a big fucking asteroid on its way to destroy the planet and people are losing their minds right and left. But that's the trick. It's sleight of hand in its most devilishly clever form. You're so distracted by the chaos going on around everyone in the story that you don't notice the tiny little clue in the corner waving at you.

Murder On the Orient Express
Harper, reissue
Incidentally, this is also how Christie stumped so many people with Murder on the Orient Express. So many interesting characters. So much backstory. So many loose ends. And most poor readers didn't know which thread to pull to unravel the mystery, myself included. Actually, and this is a true story, bear with me, I did figure it out, I just didn't know it. You see, I loved mysteries when I was a kid, and I prided myself on being able to solve them, even Agatha Christie; so, my mom told me I should read Murder on the Orient Express. I check it out from the Bookmobile and over the course of the week that I was reading it, she'd ask me, "So, did you figure it out, yet?" And at one point I was so frustrated with the sheer volume of clues that I actually said, "No! They all could have done it."

That, my friends, is a real genius at work. Because the solution to the riddle is so improbable, so illogical, that even if you guess it, you won't believe you're right. Christie broke a rule to pull it off, though. A big rule: There can only be one killer, right?

And herein lies the crux of the problem and the solution. Yes, a mystery is a puzzle. Ultimately, that is all a mystery is. It's a riddle in search of a solution. But the really good ones are so much more than that. They have well-drawn characters and a complex story arc that gets from riddle to solution in such a way that you almost forget that you're supposed to be solving a crime. And the solution? Sometimes it's as improbable as the crime itself because rules can be bent, broken, or gleefully ignored and your reader will forgive you for it as long as you didn't lie to them along the way.

It's also what I hoped you've gleaned from this first Mystery Monday post. Write a good story. Draw well-developed characters with a rich backstory. Make your reader forget they're reading a mystery while hiding the solution in plain sight. Play with your readers' bias. Toy with their emotions. Confound their reasoning. Just don't be a coy little muskrat masquerading as a stripper... unless, of course, you've planted all the appropriate clues along the way; then go on, little muskrat, you do you.