For me, a side effect of writing is the inability to read for pure entertainment. Every novel becomes a lesson in the subtleties of plot, or in some cases, the lack of subtleties. Readers have certain expectations. If the story is a romance, we feel sure that the main character, despite the bumps and potholes she goes through on her journey, will find love in the end. Rarely are two males of equal “value.” We root for her to pick the one or the other.
In every day stories, we presume the main character will reach some recognized goal or an acceptable substitute that is better. In crime stories, we expect the seasoned detective or amateur sleuth to uncover the criminal. Further, we try to beat the main character to the solution or enjoy the shock of the unexpected. This is especially true in mysteries, my favorite genre for pastime reading. Like many readers, I select a few favorite authors because I prefer the slow uncover of clues to unspeakable violence every other page or psychotic killers. Motives may seem illogical to us, but they are reasonable in the criminals’ minds.
I find that some authors in book after book, have a Tell like poker players that points out the villain early on as surely as if he had a tattoo on his forehead that said GUILTY. I know that if a particularly ugly man or woman sporting a grotesque mole somewhere on his or her face enters the story by chapter two, it’s only a matter of a few pages before that person commits a dastardly deed. If his teeth are yellow or crooked, the deed will be particularly horrid. In another series, I realize that if a character is snarky to the hero, scowls all the time, and is disagreeable and demanding, whatever the crime is—that’s the culprit. One author no later than page 20 in every story brings the lonely heroine and mysterious stranger together like two ships colliding for no other reason than they just felt like it. She has even lifted the entire scene from one book to the other, word for word. I can’t cast any stones. Reviewing some of my published books, I find that often my character names are a dead giveaway. Of course, Grossman is guilty in The Double Double-Cross. Only my main character is surprised.
Perhaps it is time to reflect and regroup. Recall those news clips when some serial killer is finally caught? Neighbors and friends all exclaimed shock. “He is such a quiet man. He never causes any trouble; we barely knew he was there.” Or, “I can’t believe that she murdered her children. She babysits my kids. She bakes cookies for the neighborhood.”
Criminals’ goals are directly opposite to those of our hero, who wants to find and expose them. They want to get away with whatever crime they commit. They blend in, appear just like everyone else. Unless they are bat-crazy, they hold their snarky comments inside. They may help carry your groceries, bake cookies, and repair that loose picket on your fence. Most are ordinary-looking, or perhaps even beautiful or handsome. The Venus Fly Trap catches flies by offering them what they want. If Evil were ugly or insulting, we’d avoid it.
I am more aware now of my own Tell. A review of the manuscript in progress revealed that I made the killer too unlikable. That tendency we have may stem back to our fairy tale days with Cinderella’s ugly stepsisters. If I were retelling that story today¸ I would make them beautiful. Only their behaviors are ugly. So I’m rewriting my perpetrator’s role.
In real life, not all heroes are drop dead gorgeous. Maybe they broke their noses in high school football, or they limp from an old car wreck. The females may be unable to control their weight or have bad hair days every day. We must fight our cliché characters as we fight cliche text.
Some writers have the faith that their story will eventually reach a desired destination, even if they don’t plot it out first. I’ve done it that way too. The anxiety was agony. Some plot backward. They know the solution and plant clues as they work toward the beginning. I tried that and felt it was too obvious for me. I like to be surprised. The same holds true for stories of possibility. I always know where I need to end, and it’s only a matter of how to get there with the fewest detours. A loose plot gives me confidence.
There is no one way to plot a story. My method may not appeal to you, but this is how I try to avoid telescoping the denouement up front. I honestly don’t know which of the characters is guilty. I plot my story right up to the last two chapters and stop. Then I read through what I have. I find that I have subconsciously revealed clues [real ones, not cosmetic ones]. I see that, without realizing it, I have pretty much eliminated most of the suspects. I’m lucky if I narrowed the list to only two suspects. Did I miss something? Which one is it? How can I make the least likely one be the answer? If I’m surprised, perhaps the reader will be too. I know it isn’t going to be the ugly, snarky one. He’s much too obvious.
I recall from criminology classes that the perpetrator’s conscience, assuming that he is not a sociopath with an inactive one, causes him to make mistakes. Perhaps after cleaning up a chaotic scene, he neglects to wipe his fingerprint from the underside of the light switch. Or the clever hero views photos of the party before and after the crime and notices that the lapels on the perp’s shirt are slightly different or perhaps the buttons are sewn on one shirt with the crisscross pattern and the other shirt’s buttons are stitched like prongs. Perhaps one had cuff-links, the other one buttons. A quick search uncovers the telltale clothes. When we avoid Tells, we give the main character the opportunity to be smarter than the criminal. These details may not be enough in a real court, but the writer’s job is usually to point out the culprit and end the story. It is a matter of slipping the clue somewhere into the story.
It’s the same with any story. It doesn’t have to be a mystery. Whether we write every day possibilities, probabilities, or raw realism, the solutions are hidden somewhere in the observations or dialogue that bring about a satisfying denouement for our main character. And we don’t have to brand it with a Tell. Write on!