18 Feb 2013, 6:05am
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Novelist as trickster

Something that’s been bugging me lately:

I have a trick for picking the killer in an Agatha Christie whodunnit: The first character who absolutely couldn’t have done it, having been cleared by an iron-clad alibi after being arrested or even confessing to the crime… that’s the killer. The narrative presents the question: Who is the killer? Then it presents the likely and unlikely suspects, giving you reason to favor some but not others.

This is something people miss sometimes. It’s not enough to present a mystery. You have to throw in red herrings. You have to give the reader a reason to think the correct answer is not.

Partly because there’s a story sense that we develop as we read and watch movies that let us predict too many plots. A buddy of mine had this annoying habit (we haven’t watch TV together in a few years so I’m hoping he grew out of it) of guessing what would happen next in any TV show we’d be watching. The protagonist’s doorbell would ring and he’d say “It’s the psychologist.” And it would be.

It wasn’t because he’d seen the show before. It was because the psychologist hadn’t turned up in the story for a while and it was time for him to reappear.

For most movies, in face, events are utterly predictable. You know when the villains will burst into the hero’s hideout. You know when the new love interest will turn the corner and see something misleading. You know when the corrupt cop will reveal himself, and usually you know who it is.

So it’s not enough to have a mystery, even a minor one, without red herrings. Who is the mole in the spy agency? It’s not good to just leave the question up in the air, without focus. Give us a reason to think it’s character A and a reason to think it couldn’t be character B. When B is revealed as the real thing, that makes the surprise all the better (assuming the clues and red herrings are well laid).

Mystery: not enough. There has to be trickery, too.

 
  • The prequel to Child of Fire: see here for more details

  • Starred review from Publishers Weekly

  • Starred review from Publishers Weekly

  • Named to Publishers Weekly's "Best 100 Books of 2009" list. Get the audiobook here.

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