Thanks to the Internet, and the proliferation of cliché-caching sites like TVTropes.com, it’s harder than ever to surprise a reader. We’ve become so jaded as story-consumers that even the phrase “I’ve seen it all before” is too predictable to bother uttering. Rather than allowing this to discourage her, however, guest author C. Hope Clark chooses to see genre-savvy readers as an exciting challenge for her creativity to overcome in her quest to trick and trap her readers to their hearts’ delight.
Mystery is the only genre that pits author against reader. When I state this in classes, attendees’ eyes travel up and to the left, as if searching through their mental files to see if their experiences prove my statement. They always smile in recognition.
At first blush, anything with X versus Y sounds like a bad thing. An adversarial experience. Readers hunting for mistakes, maybe. Finding blue eyes on your protagonist on page 43 and brown on page 76. Or spelling “Jesse” in one conversation and later having it “Jessie”.
But only mystery? What about romance? Sci-fi? Women’s fiction? Suspense? Ah, suspense! Still no. Suspense is about the chase, not the whodunit. Only in mystery does the story open with an unanswered question that, through clues, trip-ups, and numerous wrong turns, leads the reader to a solution he never saw coming.
Author vs. Reader is about more than the whodunit. It’s about the red herrings and twists, and writing them such that the reader can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t. It’s about leading him down one path with all its color, intricacies and three-dimensional style to make him feel that what isn’t real actually is. Then at the end, after the maze of this redirection, the solution rears up in the reader’s face all grinning, sly, and smiling, and whispers, “Got you.”
I get chills mastering that talent as an author, and it is entertainment of the highest order when an author bests my sleuthing skills as a reader.
I absorbed this Author vs. Reader tenet a long, long time ago in a small, uneventful class, but I didn’t realize the intensity of its importance until I got involved in a critique group. I’ve belonged to an online critique group for twelve years. A core within that group has followed and coached me from the first novel to the present. We have become so familiar that we scold each other when material triggers our BS meters.
While I can write without the group, I prefer to hear their questions as to why I chose a certain route. “If that’s a clue, you’ll need to flesh it out better than this, because it isn’t working for me.” Or, “Are you kidding? Sorry, but I can’t see this character doing that even if it is a red herring.” After feedback, sometimes I toss that twist in the trash. Other times I hone it more, so that it is smoking hot smart. It’s finding that subtle edge that makes a mystery brilliant.
No author, however, can know all the potential options to taking a mystery from Point A to Z. I dare say that no author can operate in a vacuum without running twists by someone they trust. As mystery specialists, we read so much and juggle so many options through our heads that we can become callous and flat in understanding what zings. However, beta readers or a strong critique group can help us zig instead of zag so that the zing really sings. The harsher you let them question your motives, the slicker you learn to adjust.
An avid mystery reader enters a story with radar on and eyes scanning for clues, accepting the challenge laid down by an author. The reader opens the book, thinking, “No way this author can best me.” The author writes, thinking, “You’ll never guess who did it before the end.” And the gauntlet is thrown down. Unless your theories and clues have been tested to the nth degree, a mystery aficionado will bust you by chapter ten.
This Me against You mentality makes for some of the best stories. But it makes for some of the biggest hurdles for an author. Every story has to be told well, with great dialogue, remarkable setting, and characters that pop off the page. The highs and lows, the emotional baggage, all must be presented with a deft hand. Each word matters, and in the best books, the reader appreciates this because he never sees the words… only the story.
A mystery author, however, must invest themselves deeper, because the reader enters Chapter One knowing that anyone on any page might be the culprit… or an author’s misrepresentation. Actions, choices, and even snippets of dialogue can snare and divert a reader.
A knife thrown in the bushes jumps out as a clue to watch, while the subtle mention of hot chocolate on the counter means nothing, only to become the real evidence. Or will the knife seem so obvious that the reader discounts it, only to learn that it did matter, a jousting advance and retreat between reader and author.
I’ve altered who died, shifted red herring suspects, and even deleted climaxes to avoid being too predictable. Killed the unexpected good character and saved the cad. My second Carolina Slade Mystery, Tidewater Murder, had an entirely different climax before a beta reader gave it a lukewarm rating as predictable. In the third, Palmetto Poison, a Silver Falchion award winner, I decided in the third draft to insure every single character represented a twist somewhere in the book.
Authors twist and turn, then twist and turn again, then ponder whether to undo one twist and replace it with another. Or twist the twist that came about from the first twist. There’s nothing wrong with stepping back from your work think, “How can I screw with this in another direction one more time?” Remember, your reader has many mysteries under his belt, and feels he’s seen it all. He tingles at the opportunity to experience something he hasn’t. Every paragraph and page must be taken to the point of ridiculousness, because anything less is fair game to the reader.
An author has to wow himself with the clues and answers in a mystery long before he wows the reader. And if a mystery author hasn’t completely amazed himself with his story, he’ll never win the fight.
C. Hope Clark attempts to amaze her mystery readers in her award-winning Carolina Slade Mysteries and Edisto Island Mysteries, both from Bell Bridge Books of Memphis, TN. Two of the Slade mysteries won Silver Falchion awards at Killer Nashville, and her latest release is Edisto Jinx. Her short mystery “Rich Talk” appeared in Killer Nashville Noir: Cold-Blooded and has been nominated for an Edgar. When not twisting mysteries, Hope manages FundsforWriters.com, chosen by Writer’s Digest Magazine for its 101 Best Websites for Writers for 15 years. Reach her at www.chopeclark.com. She lives on the banks of Lake Murray in central South Carolina, when she isn’t writing at Edisto Beach.
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