Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Planting the Clues in Crime Fiction

I recently taught at a two-day writers' conference in Kauai. One of the classes I led concerned the structure of writing mystery, the various tropes and techniques. Seemed to be a hit. So I'll share it here. The trick to writing a mystery is ...

You write backwards.

Sort of.

Let me explain.

Think of the best mysteries you know. You can use movies too if it helps. Think of the ones that were a total mindfuck, the Usual Suspects or Silence of the Lambs. Now I promise you, the better the twist, the more convoluted the plot, the more that writer knew his ending first.

Of course, most writers, myself included, can’t just sit down and think of an ending. Just a problem with how the brain works. You have to get in, muck stuff up, waste time, take wrong turns that lead to dead ends, until firing synapses and neurons make connections, and your story finally starts taking shape. This is why writing is really 99% rewriting.

It's all ... contrivance.

When I say the word “contrivance,” it sounds bad, doesn’t it? But when someone says “that ending was contrived,” what he or she is really saying is “I saw that ending coming from a mile away,” or “that ending was shoddily written, not earned, too much a coincidence,” whatever. But the actual word “contrivance” is exactly what we do as writers. All art is contrived. We make it up. The trick is to keep those strings tugged safely behind the curtain, out of sight, and making the work seem effortless.

Writing a mystery, we create our protagonist, whoever that may be solving the crime, and that person is also a stand-in for the reader. Meaning, he/she is going to discover those clues we sprinkle as our hero discovers them. But the author can’t learn them in that same order. We are the architect of the ruse. In a way, we cheat. After making that first draft mess, we get our ending, then we break up that solution into bite-size chunks to be discovered along the way. It appears organic. But is all calculated.

Beginnings are easy. Comparatively. Endings a little tougher. But you know what the hardest part about writing a book? Besides forcing yourself to stay off the Internet long enough to actually write the damn thing? The middle. Middles are so tough because we usually have the beginning (if we didn't we wouldn't be writing), and as we start to write, we begin to see what we want to happen at the end. We now only need to connect A to C. Writers all too often rush over the B part in their race to the end. Problem is, that solution must be earned. One action must beget another. Logically. A bunch of scenes that don't promote causality will read like a bunch of clumsy scenes lacking conflict, implemented solely for convenience sake.

Here is where having some structure helps—let’s avoid the word formula because, like contrivance, it get bad PR. This "form," which may sound a little bit paint-by-numbers, is actually a good thing. It tells us what goes where. We want the reader to experience shock and surprise. And that takes careful planning. This is one of the reasons I write mysteries. With literary fiction, yes, you have more legroom to stretch out. But also way more potential to bore your reader senseless. Mystery writing follows a template, because the very nature of the genre supplies our plot points.

Plus, if you ever get stuck with crime, you can just heed Ray Chandler's advice and have someone enter the room with a gun.

Joe Clifford is acquisitions editor for Gutter Books, managing editor of The Flash Fiction Offensive, and producer of Lip Service West, a “gritty, real, raw” reading series in Oakland, CA. Joe is the author of three books: Choice Cuts, Junkie Love, and Wake the Undertaker. His latest mystery, Lamentation, is due out this fall. Visit Joe at www.joeclifford.com.



Sue Coletta said...

If this is a small taste of your conference, I wish I was there.

Eliza Cross said...

I'm currently writing the middle part of my novel and I think some further planning and structure might be just what's needed. While I don't write mystery, I do want the reader to experience some unexpected twists along the way - without making the story feel contrived. Thanks for this.

Holly West said...

I recently wrote a similar post about this topic on Do Some Damage... but yours is a lot better.

Joe Clifford said...

I have 9 down votes at Reddit. It is makes me feel like a loser :(

Susan Clayton-Goldner said...

Good advice for mystery writers and novelists in general.

Sue Coletta said...

Well I upvoted you, Joe. Can I do it twice?

Joe Clifford said...

Unfortunately ... no :( (But thanks!)

Dr. Suzana E. Flores said...

I upvoted too!