Warm and cozy or gritty and dark?
In one of my blogs I discussed what novel writers can learn from screenwriters. Well, it hit a nerve with all writers and I got many comments. One comment referred to Broadchurch, the television series I mentioned as an example of good screen writing. The reader who commented agreed that the series was excellent but stopped watching it after three episodes because it was so dark.
This started me thinking about other TV series as well as mystery novels that fit into that “dark” category. And they are legion. Let me name a few you might be familiar with: Happy Valley, Hinterland, The Killing, The Missing, Dexter, The Escape Artist. Then there are those I haven’t seen, mainly being turned off by the title: Killer Couples, Murder on the Social Network, Married Single Dead, Slasher, I am Not a Serial Killer. (Really?)
So what is about today’s mysteries (many of these series were books first) that compels authors to write such grisly, black, and freaky-scary scenarios? I believe that the transition from book to film has demanded heightened “grimness” for dramatic effect. When a book becomes a movie, the dark elements are often played up. And the villains are getting meaner and nastier all the time.
Don’t get me wrong. The villains in novels can be just as rotten. However, when you actually see the character in the flesh, so to speak, the villainy is enhanced. Take a series called Happy Valley, a British psychological cop thriller. Excellent series. The villain, however, left such a lasting impression with me, that I have difficulty watching the actor in any other series. Believe it or not, he’s the priest in Grantchester and I now find him hard to believe (as a good guy) after seeing him in Happy Valley.
But back to point. There are still many series and books that have all the great attributes of a good mystery, both book and film, and are not as dark. See if you agree: Inspector Lewis, Sherlock, Endeavour, The Bletchley Circle, Foyle’s War, Bosch, Midsomer Murders (okay, a little fluffy here.) The Wallender mysteries and Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley. Agatha Christie’s stories are also in this category.
To be a good mystery, must it make you throw up, weep, shake in your boots, or cause insomnia? Or should it make you ponder, riddle-solve, and give you ingenious plot and character ideas for your next book?
I welcome your thoughts and ideas.
For me, outlining is extremely important. Mainly because a large part of the action in my mysteries take place in the past and have so darn many details, I can’t rely on my pea-brain to remember it all. I begin with my “jump-start” outline. Now, what the heck is that, you ask. I made up the term so I can’t refer you to any book or manual. Since there are two separate story lines in my books – past and present – I actually have two “jump-start” outlines. But since both are very similar I combined them for today’s blog.Modern (and Past) Story Line
- Broad overview of story, ie: Digital photographer searches for missing Van Gogh painting after her best friend is murdered (my last book.) The Past story line will be a bit different since this is where the story begins.
Expand this to a paragraph if you like, but no more for now.
- Characters: Snapshots of main characters, both protagonists and antagonists, to include physical description (so you can visualize them,) their likes, dislikes, what’s important to them . . . or not, education, occupation, you know, general stuff. Add in personality traits: stingy, obsessive, lazy, kooky. Use bullet points. They’ll grow organically as you write.
- Setting: Where does most of the plot take place? In my last book, Washington, D.C. and Paris, France. Ooh la la. Get it right – go visit, don’t just look at pictures.
- Major conflicts, ie: Is the main character getting divorced, in love with a loser, always fighting with her boss, her mother, her sister? Are her relationships getting in the way of her job success? These may only come up occasionally and in usually in sub-plots.
- Ending: You may not always know this at the beginning, but at some point — early on –you do need to know what the ending will be. As a caveat, I will say that I had the ending for one of my books and my editor suggested a completely different one. I loved his idea, changed it and in doing so, ruined my follow-up book. (You’ll have to read it and see. Ha!)
With my “jump-start” outline I write a quick and dirty first draft. At this point, I have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t as far as plot, characters, etc. Now, I get into serious outlining. More detail on all the above, and even a chapter by chapter outline. What will happen next, next, next.
I better define the characters in terms of personality and interactions with each other. I refine their conflicts. I add details to the settings.
Then I start again. Read the new draft out loud, cringe and re-write. Test the chapters out in my critique group, cringe and re-write. I don’t usually re-outline unless the book isn’t working as a whole.
Hopefully, that first “jump-start” is all I need. Ideas welcome.
I had a surprising experience recently when I received the following review on my book, Pure Lies: “False Deception – I thought it was historical fiction. It’s just a sex thriller. I stopped after the first chapter. No thank you!”
I actually had to go back and read the prologue (not the first chapter) to see what the reviewer meant. Sex thriller? Did I actually write a sex thriller? For those of you unfamiliar with this mystery, it is about greed and depravity as underlying motivation for the Salem witch trials. And, as in all my novels, it is unraveled by modern technology years or, in this case, centuries later.
The last two paragraphs of the prologue depict a church deacon and a young woman committing a “sin” but it is wholly in the context of the story and lays the foundation for one of the villains in the story to show their true character. Or so I thought.
Pure Lies was the winner of the San Diego Book Awards for Best Published Mystery, Sisters in Crime in 2014 and has excellent reviews. It is historical fiction on one hand, and modern crime-solving on the other. Is it a cozy? No. But a sex thriller?
Naturally, every reader is entitled to their opinion. I’ve read “real” sex thrillers, and this review seemed far off the mark. But then I’m biased.
As a writer, it reminds me how important those first few pages are . . . to each individual reader. We need to consider our readers, but we have to be true to our writing. Would this opening scene to my book have been better without the “sin?” I think not.
Your ideas are welcome.
Time Exposure was my first full-length novel. It was the great American novel, er, great American mystery novel. (Is there such a thing?) I had done my research, been to the places where I set my scenes, talked to the experts of the time. My writing was superb, just like a movie script. I figured I had a book contract cinched.
Was I ever surprised, when, after reading the first ten pages, the critique group leader, a college professor asked me this: “Do you write a lot of reports for work?”
“Excuse me?” I said. “What do you mean?”
“Your story has a great deal of potential . . . but it’s not a . . . story.”
I waited, blood thudding in my ears.
“It’s a report,” he said. “You tell, not show, you give us no way to visualize the characters, the action or the settings. You use too many adjectives and adverbs. The word ‘was” or ‘is’ shows up in every other sentence. And, there’s no emotion, no background, not much action–you give only the facts.” Ma’am.
I went home dumbfounded. Although I am proud to say I didn’t cry at the group session. That came later. Then I made a decision. Do I throw the manuscript in the trash or figure out how to fix it? How to write a good mystery, in other words? And that’s what I did. I took all the criticisms and read, researched, and re-wrote . . . again and again and again. Chapter by chapter, scene by scene, paragraph by paragraph.
Did I learn? I believed I finally made the grade from report writer to novelist, when my boss at the Science Museum said to me: “This sounds a bit flowery and dramatic for a report. Sounds more like a novel.”
Chapter endings are as important as beginnings. Read the endings of your chapters. Go ahead. Are they riveting? Are you anxious to turn the page? Will your readers be? Take a closer look at the ho hum ones and begin to focus on endings that would compel a reader to keep going.
I skimmed through some books to see how those authors ended their chapters. Here’s one from Deception Point by Dan Brown. “Rachel felt weightless for an instant, hovering over the multi-million-pound block of ice. Then they were riding the iceberg down – plummeting into the frigid sea.” The reader is not likely to put the book down at this point, at least until they find out what happened to Rachel and her friend. Brown could have ended with something like: “Rachel stood motionless on the block of ice and prayed the block wouldn’t fall into the sea.” Nah.
Here’s another. “Emergency Room. Code Blue. Susan ran for the elevator.” This is from Chelsea Cain’s The Night Season. What if Cain had stopped at Code Blue? Would it have the same impact as her running for the elevator?
I believe this idea of compelling endings is not only important for fiction but for non-fiction as well. Take Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: “Sometime that day, or perhaps the day before, he had taken off his uniform, picked up a sack of rice, slipped into the Naoetsu countryside, and vanished.” Vanishing, dying, running, falling, are all great ways to end a chapter on a high, cliffhanger note.
How about this from my mystery, Time Exposure: “As he sank to his knees, he lifted his head to gaze up at the Blackhawk. Captain Geoffrey Farrell smiled down at him. A boot to the head put him out.” Or this from Pure Lies, in the form of dialogue: “Well, you may be nuts and I wouldn’t testify to this in court, but between you, me and the microscope, honey, these signatures were all written by the same person.”
Scene endings can follow this rule to some extent, but it might get tiresome if every scene did. I think you have to let the reader rest once in a while and catch up with the action.
Not all chapter endings must end on an action note either. Many can end with inner conflict or conflict between characters. Gives the chapter tension. What happens between these two people next? Does Anna May leave her husband? Does mom throw Maynard out of the house? Does little Davey start to cry? Is Barbara in danger of being fired, of losing her health insurance, of missing a plane to an important event? If you care about the characters, you will turn the page.
I’d love to hear some chapter endings you think are great . . . or terrible. When we can recognize what works and what doesn’t, our writing benefits in the long-run.
Writing mysteries is a “flexible” process and as an author I must be tuned-in and willing to make changes . . . often serious changes. Throw out chapters, throw out characters, add new locations, scenes. Pump up the senses: add fragrances, colors, cacophonous sounds.
I often reach a sticking point around the middle of the novel, which leads me to inject a “turn of events” into the story. This turn of events is often not planned, but gives the story a much-needed jolt.
In my current book, there are two NYPD homicide detectives, one in the past and one in the present. Both are following leads in a murder case (as detectives are wont to do.) Each lead spins off other leads, but in the end, the leads peter out (as my brain does) and they are left, frustrated, and wondering what the next step might be.
When this happens to me, I simply just murder someone. What? you say. It’s as simple as that. Murder someone.
Now, this “someone” absolutely must have relevance to the story. Please don’t bring in your next-door neighbor unless they’ve had a role in the story already. In addition, there must be a darn good reason to kill this someone off. If it’s your neighbor, the old “fence dispute” doesn’t cut it.
Yes, a fresh murder can get the readers’ (and writer’s) mind spinning in new directions. What did I miss? Why didn’t I see that coming? If X is now dead, she couldn’t have been the culprit.
A mid-novel murder is always good to keep readers on their toes, working to figure out the mystery. That’s the point. I write mysteries. The longer I can keep my readers baffled and confounded about what’s really going on, the more enjoyable the read.