As I drifted off to sleep last night, I was wondering who I might kill. I wasn't planning a murder, not necessarily, just musing about who would be the next to die. Why do you think it is that we gravitate to mysteries and suspense, specifically those which involve death?
I like the first sentence because it creates questions. Why does she want to kill somebody? Who is the victim? What did he or she do? We gravitate to mystery and suspense novels because they create questions. We can't put the book down until we get the answers to our questions. If death is involved, it becomes even more urgent that we get answers.
I agree, yet questions in themselves can become merely annoying, as if they’re holes in the fabric of information. Perhaps it’s curiosity—what next? I think it’s curiosity which draws me through life, through the darkest of times. And I think that there’s actually far more mystery and suspense in our lives than we acknowledge. Most of us accumulate a collection of such significant events: a sudden illness, a death, a loss to fire or flood, fired from a job… and we ask: Why didn’t I see that coming? What will I do now?
I agree that a murder becomes particularly interesting; the cessation of life is likely a deep-seated concern for the vast majority of people. How have you selected your victims? And why those specific characters? I’m not asking about a specific story, but more generally.
As you say, there is far more mystery and suspense in our lives than we acknowledge. If we pull from the ordinary and extraordinary of our lives, we can create mystery and suspense for our characters.
Consider ending chapters in the following ways to keep readers turning the pages:
* have someone change his/her mind abruptly
* show a strange text message on a phone
* have an email from a stranger pop up on the screen
* show the police coming to the door
* have a doctor call with test results
* provide a chance encounter
* create a false alarm
* describe an ominous image (storm approaching)
* reveal something terrible is about to happen (brake fluid leaking)
* give a surprise announcement
* reveal a secret
Even something as innocuous as having someone pull an item from his/her pocket can create What's Next.
Indeed, I agree that the fundamental element to mystery and suspense is the creation of What’s Next. Those events you have listed trigger curiosity in the reader, and their unravelling or elaboration persists for a time, taking us deeper within the story.
Do you prefer the “Who done it?” style of writing wherein there’s a death, a limited number of people available, and a reveal at the end that justifies the writer’s assertion that character X is the perpetrator for the following reasons… Or, do you prefer the interplay of many small “mysteries” and suspenseful moments which appear to hinge on elements found in some primary mystery?
I mention this because I gravitate more to the latter. There’s always a reason to ask: What’s next? While I want to see resolution, I am also accepting of the fact that new and unforeseen challenges may arise. It’s as if we’ve passed one test, but we must now study for another—even though it hasn’t as yet been scheduled.
Like you, I much prefer the interplay of many small mysteries and suspenseful moments which appear to hinge on elements in the primary mystery. This gives rise to subplots, the layering in a story that I love. If the story is not rich and complex with a network of mysteries all linked to the overall big message or resolution, I don't feel like turning the pages.
I love the red herrings in a story that send the reader one way, expecting the mystery to be solved, when the answer lies another way.
I agree; however, I don’t need the complexity to which you’ve referred to be obviously directly related to the mystery. Sometimes, I like to get to know the characters a bit more outside of the mystery. It’s a bit like no matter how serious a matter might be in one’s life, you’ve still got to eat and sleep, else you perish. Besides, I might just be lulled before something big occurs; the quiet time acts as a counter-point to that. You, of course, may disagree.
How do you feel about the protagonist in a mystery/suspense? It seems to me that there is an abundance of seriously flawed protagonists and I am not fond of those. I think my least favourite is the ex-cop who is either battling alcohol or drugs (or both), and who has either retired from or been drummed out of the police force. He has likely lost whatever family he might have had and might be haunted by a personal tragedy to boot! Despite a poor diet and lack of exercise, he nevertheless is either (1) in tip-top shape, or (2) couldn’t defend himself against a wet noodle attack.
The protagonist who stumbles along, yet resolves the mystery, fails to secure my interest. Perhaps that sort is too much like me, stumbling and bumbling through life—and I don’t need more of the same. I much prefer someone who who has more of their ducks in a row, someone I can admire and trust to lead me through the morass in which the writer has dropped me. I don’t expect them to be omniscient or prescient, merely thoughtful and competent.
Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older, but I yearn for idealism and goodness and it is my fervent hope that the real life expression of that is possible. I’m not denying the existence of evil, but I am not so much the pessimist nor the anarchist that I like to see our future depicted as one that is apocalyptic, grey, dreary and simply ugly. I’ve sometimes said that I write “bedtime stories for adults” —with poisoning, drowning, suffocation, bludgeoning…
The protagonist needs to have a flaw in order for the reader to see a change in the character arc. Each powerful character needs a flaw to overcome, for readers love to see the character overcome his/her obstacles, either physical or emotional. However, the trite characters with flaws that are overused become the characters whom we push aside. In my current crime, my cop shows burnout—he probably has PTSD—but he does not have an alcohol/drug problem. His job has affected his relationships, so he is alone. He's affected this way in order for him to have the struggle towards a better life and for readers to be pulling for him along the way. Regardless, he must be someone who takes an active role in solving his crime/problems—not the bumbling cop who gets an answer through happenstance. Even if someone else provides those answers, he must put himself/herself in the trajectory of solving the crime.
Again, I am full agreement; the “flaws” exist and the character grows to while attempting to over-come them. We agree that too many flaws and bumbling to an answer is “over-used”. It is exaggerated well-beyond anything remotely realistic.
My protagonist in The Awen Chronicles is rather subtly flawed. She starts out with little confidence in social situations but her confidence and ability to experience joy are increased over time. It’s all in over-coming the psychological burdens of her past and discovering the depth of her personal courage.
What brought you to the point of writing mystery/suspense? A general love of the genre? A particular news article that grabbed your attention? Or, something else?
Actually, perhaps we should leave that for a later time when we continue our discussion of writing… Joy Lynn Goddard's website can be reached at joygoddard.com
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