I am currently reading a science fiction novel written by a multi-genre, multi-award-winning author. This author also writes fantasy, romance, media-tie-ins, collaborations, and mainstream novels.
This author also writes mysteries.
Her work is the absolute best there is (according to Locus Magazine: 2 Hugos, 1 World Fantasy Award, 2 Locus Awards, 1 Endeavour, 1 UPC, 1 Sidewise, Campbell New Writer Award, 1 AnLab Poll, 6 Asimov's Reader Polls, 2 HOMers, 1 Science Fiction Age Poll) – it is also a spectacular example of four tips or ideas I heard at DiversiCon 21, a convention that celebrates speculative fiction of all kinds.
The first idea was that all critical action has to happen on stage. I occasionally read mysteries and it’s always been clear to me that the clues that would allow the solution, are clearly laid out even though they may be veiled or easily misread. Mystery readers are trained from a young age to expect this. In a writing class I teach, we talk about writing fiction. I point out that most of the genre fiction sold is romance. But second on the list are mysteries. In magazines written for kids, you can almost guarantee that there will be a mystery in every issue – CRICKET, HIGHLIGHTS, HOPSCOTCH, BOY’S QUEST – all of them use mysteries to not only entertain, but to teach. Certain mysteries have a clear set-up and dénouement. Every ENCYCLOPEDIA BROWN mystery has the same structure. It’s almost boring, yet the books sell today, and were first published half a century ago! Donald J. Sobol’s last book was published in 2012. 50 million books have been sold – and there are still 7.5 million in print. My first sale to CRICKET was called, “Mystery On Space Station Courage”.
No matter how many times I read these or other mysteries, the author has to consider this idea, even if they break it on purpose. (In that case, the story is called “literarary” and it gets shelved somewhere else.) Everything of importance needs to happen “on stage”. Not only in mysteries, but in any genre fiction, and (for the most part), in literary fiction as well. Agree? Disagree? Why?
The second idea seems fundamental to all writing as well: make the reader wait. The entire world waited with bated breath and cash in hand to find out if Harry Potter ultimately defeated Voldemort. JK Rowling forced every single one of us to wait patiently as she built up the story line. The fact that the Harry Potter books were, at heart, mystery novels should make this advice self-explanatory. Outside of genre certainly, there are literary novels and experimental novels where the ending is revealed immediately. First person novels in which the main character “tells” the story are an exception to this rule, the main reason being that as soon as they say something like, “I only barely survived the sinking of the Titanic…”, you know the ending. They survived. Also, stories that begin with the hackneyed “Had I but known...” are a deliberate violation of this idea – though people still do it. Do you mind these kinds of books?
Third idea, the evidence should always be there is a reflection of both of the ideas above and involves respecting your reader. For example, most websites that offer writing advice will tell you not to end your story with, “and I woke up from the dream”. Information that you need to create an image in your mind as you read is withheld from the first page of the story and not revealed until the last – and you have no hint whatever that what is happening didn’t happen at all. Your mental image of what’s happening does NOT include the main character snoring in his or her sleep-messed bed. While I read fiction as an “escape” from the humdrum of daily life, I also expect that it will reflect daily life. I especially don’t like to be tricked when I read. Real life has enough surprises without adding a writer who deliberately keeps stuff from me. OTOH, some people like to be tricked. You?
Last of all, give the reader a PAYOFF at the end. It doesn’t have to be spectacular, but it has to be satisfying. HIDDEN IN SIGHT is a novel by Julie Czerneda that I finished a few days ago. The last book in a trilogy, it concluded by tying together several events from the previous books as well as concluding the novel itself. It also reconciled characters to each other and allowed for the fulfillment of a secondary character’s long-held dream. For me it was perfect. Another example, this time from a scriptwriter of the popular TV series, “Bones” called “The Proof In The Pudding”, involves the Jeffersonian team and an assignment to find the cause of death of – but not the identity of – a set of bones. When it becomes clear that they are the remains of John F. Kennedy and there appears to be evidence that he was murdered by not one but two killers and that Booth is facing a crisis of faith in the US government, Brennan misleads everyone but Cam into believing that the remains are not JFK’s. It’s not what I expected, but the payoff was extremely satisfying for me because it preserved a relationship as well as left the issue open ended. What kind of payoff do you expect in a story?
Because these ideas match my expectations as a READER, I use them as a writer. How about you?