Two weeks ago we were taking about novels, and series in particular, with a main character who’s a detective, police investigator, prosecutor, bounty hunger, spy or quirky elderly librarian whose always stumbling over pesky dead bodies – that is to say, novels in which the story isn’t necessarily about an internal change that person goes through, but rather, on how she solves a crime.
This week we’re going to talk about a real crime. That is: the crime perpetuated by the notion that you can write about how someone solves a crime that you know even less about than they do.
Winging it when writing a mystery of any kind is about as effective as trying to cross a bridge that hasn’t been built yet. It’s a process that, for the writer, tends to culminate in a moment akin to the one forever epitomized by Wile E. Coyote, who after running full speed off a cliff, hangs in mid-air for a split second as it dawns on him that the only way to go is down, and then plummets. Uh oh.
Yet writers are often encouraged to leap onto page one with only the most rudimentary notion of what actually happened, crime-wise, other than that, hey, I already told you, there’s a dead body. The problem is understandable, because since we read a book beginning on page one, it’s seems laughably logical to assume that we start writing a book on page one too. Right?
Wrong. As I’m embarrassingly fond of saying, all stories begin in medias res – in the middle of the thing. Meaning: page one of the novel is actually the middle of the story. And mysteries and thrillers of all kinds – think courtroom dramas, police procedurals, even speculative fiction full of wars, battles and political intrigue – offer a perfect example of why that is true.
When you stop and think about it, writing forward without first figuring out – in detail - exactly what the mystery is seems kind of crazy. I mean, how can you send your detective in to investigate a crime when you don’t know exactly what happened? How can she look for clues when you don’t know what the clues are? How can she look for witnesses when you don’t know what those witnesses actually saw? Or, for that matter, who they are?
You can’t. Sure, your detective won’t know for sure till the end. But YOU need to know from the very beginning.
Think of it this way: Although our criminal justice system is based on notion that a person is “presumed innocent until proven guilty” in reality that presumption is meaningless. Because in reality, it’s already a done deal: the person on trial either did it, or they didn’t. End of story.
Which is almost always where the novel begins -- with the detective trying to figure out what already happened. And, far more intriguing – why.
That’s why, when it comes to mysteries and thrillers of all kinds, whether one-offs in which the protagonist almost always does change, or a series where she doesn’t really change much at all -- there’s always something that you need to figure out WAY before you get to page one: the mystery itself. The crime. The hot mess of intrigue you’re about to fling your intrepid protagonist into.
In other words: while to your protagonist – and to your reader – it’s a puzzle, to you it can’t be. To you it’s simply: what actually happened. It’s the mystery, solved!
And lest you think, okay, that’s straightforward, just a matter of figuring out the external logistics of the crime – not so fast! Because you need to plumb the psyche of the bad guy, the villain, the misguided dope, the one who everybody’s after, just the same way you do your protagonist’s.
The perp, after all, has a story-specific past that gave them a motive, an irresistible reason why they're doing the dastardly thing they’re doing.
And that, too, is something that you need to know from the get-go, because that’s what spurs everything they’ll do in the novel (not to mention everything they’ve already done, since most mysteries open after a crime has been committed). The why is not only what your protagonist will be trying to figure it out – it’s what your reader is dying to know, too. Readers don’t just want to know what the bad guy did. They want to know WHY.
Sadly, this is something we see all too often in the real world – when an atrocity happens, what is it that we always asks? We don't want to know about what happened, because we already know that. The headlines are blazing with it. Want we to know is: Why did that guy do it? What was his motive? And we want something far deeper than “Well he was angry because he had a deeply troubled life.” What we want to know is: what, specifically, caused him to believe what he believed, setting him on the path that led him to do this horrific thing?
That's what we come to story for. The real reason something happened. Because that's what gives us savvy inside Intel, the better to navigate our own lives, and hopefully stay out of trouble (or at least not get caught).