Bruce at Wordswimmer writes about story endings in his post, Where the River Ends, and that got me to thinking about some of the problems I’ve encountered in ending mysteries.
With a mystery, the question of how to end the story begins with which character did the crime. I no longer start with a specific villain in mind. The story often changes so much in the writing that a pre-planned ending has no choice but to change as well, or it wouldn’t make much sense.
In the last couple of mysteries I’ve written, I was as surprised as anyone by who the villain turned out to be once I got to the second draft or later. That’s okay, and it has a lot to do with how I develop characters. If I know who the villain is too early, I’m in danger of giving it away, offering hints I’m not even aware of because of my judgments about that character.
If I start out thinking the villain isn’t a villain, I can get to the heart of that character sooner in my own mind. I can get to know him, let him grow and round out on the page. I’m an idealist, and I really like to see the best in people, so there needs to be that spark of sympathy first, without letting on even to myself that he or she is a killer in the making. I guess in that regard my characterization is as organic as raising a child. What mother imagines her infant would harm anyone?
This process forces me to explore the shadows, my characters’ shadows as well as my own, to see possible motivations, both conscious and unconscious.
I first encountered the shadow, as a human concept, in stories I read. I confess that I didn’t understand the concept very well when I was young and still in denial that I had a shadow or that any good person did. But one encounters this idea many times, if one reads at all widely, and the reason for that is it’s a universal truth about human nature.
In exploring the shadows, I’ve come to see that a fully rounded character, even if he’s the good guy, has a shadow, whether that shadow is clear on the page or not, whether that shadow is negative or positive. I want to know each major character’s background as well as possible, so I start with the positives and work my way into the negatives. Though it hurts me to watch a character I’ve come to like or sympathize with cross the line into murder, at least the biggest puzzle of the mystery isn’t lost on me, and I’m not giving the killer away up front. If I decide the murderer needs to be someone else, not the person I thought it was going to be, I don’t have to cast about too far for someone else who could have done it. In truth, any one of the characters might be capable of killing, given the right circumstances and motivation. They all have their shadows. By the time I get to my final draft, I usually have a few characters that, with nudges into poor choices and flawed rationalization, could become much darker individuals. That’s usually a key to how I end the story. Which character, which nudges, and which choices? Which fits this need best? What motivates the villain to do the awful deed and also causes him or her to get caught in the end? How will the reader be surprised and at the same time see that this person and the clues leading there were present all along? (Foreshadowing will have to wait for another post.)
My exploration of the shadows has made me think a lot about the choices we make in life, and how important each one is, especially when we stack one choice on top of another in the way that we sometimes come to think of as inevitable. We don’t have a choice in everything, certainly, but sometimes when we look back over our lives or a course of events, we can see the turnings we’ve made, and many of them were choices, that brought each of us to be who, where, and what we are today. When we’re accountable for those choices, I think we improve our ability to move forward and make better ones.
If there’s one positive effect fiction can have, perhaps it’s to get us to take a look at the cause and effect of choices. What are we capable of? What would we do in the same situation, and where might that take us or what might it make of us, and our world with us? The stories that get me to think in those terms are the stories that stay with me.
The cat’s litter box is clean. That mundane detail isn’t your favorite sentence I’ve ever written, I’m sure. Mine either. But my day often seems to revolve around whether that task has been accomplished, and what comes after it. I go through a list of chores, on the days I think to make one, eventually reaching the line that has to do with writing, after checking off a lot of other stuff. Today writing comes after important things like the cat’s box, which is of utmost importance to her, though slightly less to us except through our affection for her, since we don’t use it and it’s out in the garage, easy for us to forget. Vacuuming comes next, mostly pet hair this time of year. That task must be accomplished while the day is still cool enough to have windows open, or not at all. A late-in-the-day shower will be in order, after all the creepy stuff on the list is done. (Bear with me, I do have a point here, this isn’t merely a run-through of my chores.) (more…)
A comment discussion at Eric Mayer’s blog post, Putting Ourselves Out of Business, involved the idea of considering one’s writing just a hobby. I have a feeling that most fiction writers, published or not, feel to some degree as if they’re hobbyists these days. After all, there isn’t much money to be made in this business, except by a very few. But they also have to take it seriously in order to get far, it has to be an intense, obsessive sort of hobby.
Late in 1993, after a lot of discouraging experiences attempting to sell my fiction, I decided to “quit fiction writing for good” and I wrote nothing but personal journals and technical manuals for a year. I began writing fiction again early in 1995, but with a difference. I did it, as I’d begun as a girl, to please myself, primarily to complete a story I thought had to be written or it would drive me nuts. That story had been percolating inside me since I was seventeen. I surprised myself then by doing some of the best fiction writing I had in my life to that point. My decision at that point to please only myself with what I wrote carried me through a kind of barrier into a different way of looking at writing fiction. (more…)
There are times when dialog seems to come by means of mental torture and pretzel twisting, and to be the most difficult writing I do. I continue to learn. In reading through my second draft, a few weeks ago, I checked for those places where the story dragged or faltered, and I found those were often the same places where dialog stumbled or rambled on too long. Nothing much seemed to be happening, even though something was, because I’d buried it inside too many words.
I got lost in the accompanying narrative, the setting, the characters’ activities, movements, body language, or overwrought cleverness. Sometimes I bogged down in the minutiae of sighing, nodding and eye gazing. Writers can get so caught up visualizing each detail of character interaction they rob readers of their mental interplay, their own visualizations based on common human experience. We presume readers don’t know how a character might deliver a line in a given situation. The stream of dialog reads as dammed up where it should flow. It loses its surface tension, its sparkle, and its undercurrent. It becomes stagnant.
Susan, at Spinning, posed this question to writers, in her post on Reading & Writing, after she answered it on another blog. It’s a writing question on the surface only. It can apply to a lot of things people do, mostly creative. It only starts out in a context of writing. I suppose it has a lot to do with our ability to multi-task. I guess I tend to have more of a one-track mind.
When I’m writing fiction, I tend to read mostly nonfiction, often research related to what I’m writing, or a good book on writing, creativity, or personal growth. Anything that helps understand people and their motivations better is helpful to fiction writers, as well as anything that improves our story building skills and instincts—which isn’t necessarily limited to books on writing. I don’t go for the type of self-help books that offer quick fixes to personal problems. I classify most of those with fad diet books. But I’m drawn to books that help me understand human nature and the human experience on a deeper level.
I thought I’d better check in, since I’ve been absent so much lately you might think I’d been sucked into my computer and am living an alternate existence inside my own fiction. That’s how it feels sometimes. I’ve finally finished the second draft of the novel in progress. This was a huge effort, mainly because I rewrote just about the whole thing. Except for one or two of the early chapters it’s almost unrecognizable compared to the first draft, with major point of view and character changes. I’m much happier with the resolution to the mystery. I’m reading back through, looking for the places the story slows down. (more…)
Writers discuss breaking the rules of writing all the time, whether it’s the rules of grammar, of writing in general, or the rules of a particular genre. One rule of thumb is to learn the rules and understand the reasons for them, to understand whether they’re widely accepted and respected rules, or merely arbitrary. Once you know them, when you choose to break a rule you at least understand the possible consequences. Some say breaking the rules of genre is necessary to reach the bestseller list. Others warn it can prevent a writer from being published at all. I suppose that depends on which rules, and how one goes about breaking them.
But rules of writing aren’t the rules I’m concerned with breaking, at the moment.
What I’m puzzling over is how many rules a sleuth can get away with breaking within the confines of a mystery. (more…)
My current novel started out as a story told from a single point of view, that of a young woman named Iris Somerset, who’s a tarot reader. She gets caught up in a murder investigation, mainly because the police don’t believe she had a psychic vision of the murder. She doesn’t really blame them. She can hardly believe it herself.
The first draft seemed to go great, and I finished it quickly.
It felt a little flat to me. There was a lot more story seeping into my mind, as the original idea developed and morphed over time, than was apparent in that draft. The main problem was the limited viewpoint. After debating with myself for a while, I decided the story needed a second viewpoint character. Actually I have to admit the character himself told me this. Yeah, sounds a little crazy, huh. But this is fiction. He was coming to life, and he wanted a voice.
The character was already there. I just had to make him a viewpoint character, change some scenes that involved him so he could tell a portion of the story from his perspective, reveal some of what he knew.
It sounds so simple. (more…)