Creating Suspense without Manipulating Outcomes

Creating Suspense without Manipulating Outcomes

Recently I went with my husband and another couple to a murder mystery dinner. Our job was to question characters—doctor, lawyer, actress, maid, gardener, etc.—about their host, a wealthy estate owner murdered during his own dinner party.

It was fun to talk with the cast, explore the “manor,” and interact with friends. The evening was broken up into three parts:

  • Act 1: A PI (Private Investigator) told us there was a murder. Without any of the details, we questioned the cast.
  • Act 2: The PI called us back together to tell us:
    1. The victim had been stabbed at the base of his skull.
    2. Part of a torn note was found in the corpse’s mouth. All of the guests had received a note exposing a dark deed the rich man had found out about them.
    3. Parts of the estate had been shut off/boarded up, and we needed to explore those closed off areas.
  • Act 3: We re-interviewed the actors with the new information, the PI found the final clue, and the case was solved.

Toward the end, I was pretty determined that I had it figured out because with the person I suspected, all of the pieces fit.

However, during the final phase, two things happened. In the dark corridors, somebody found a letter opener (murder weapon) and PI found the other half of the note. The mystery was solved because the name at the top of the note told who the murderer was.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Well, the story was unsatisfying because it broke three key rules of good fiction:

  1. Chekhov’s Gun: Employing purely extraneous details which do not enhance the plot and do not lead to a potential conclusion. (the character backstories). Learn more HERE.
  1. Red Herrings: Using clues that are not extraneous and would lead to a possible conclusion, just the wrong one from the real conclusion (plain sight gardening sheers fitting the description of the murder weapon). Post about how to do them right, HERE.
  1. Deus Ex Machina: Resolving a problem through contrived and unexpected intervention with a new event, character, ability, or object (the name on the letter that the PI found when nobody else could). Hilarious post about Deus Ex Machina HERE

Literary agent Victoria Marini said this one best:

In the first act, it works to have everyone be a suspect because they each have motive, opportunity, and ability to commit the crime. But Chekhov’s Gun indicates too many details thrown in that aren’t relative to the story, and the note being found by the PI was a major Deus Ex Machina–because the writers of the play intervened with a new object and event that we weren’t told about until the conclusion. Red Herrings work great in mysteries, but after the first one or two acts, the reader should be able to start drawing a few accurate conclusions. The problem with our experience was that there was no way to solve the puzzle based on the information we were given.

A good example of plotting done right is the boardgame CLUE. Players are on a level playing field with access to all relevant information. Each player starts with an open graph where all weapons, rooms, and characters are suspect.

But as information becomes available, you’re able to eliminate suspects until all that’s left are the last possible choices. It’s deductive reasoning, not an endless stream of “guessing” what the author wants you to figure out.

A mystery should narrow down possible conclusions with each act, not add more possible conclusions. In other words, you can’t have a conclusion that wasn’t reachable all along.

It’s the same with writing in any genre. As authors, do we deliver what we promise in the premise? Do we give readers the tools they need to come to satisfying conclusions?

I think one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from writing, and particularly from working with a writing group, is:

Give the reader credit!

Readers are smart. Allow them to put the pieces together so they feel like they’ve figured something out, rather than that they’ve come along on the journey, only to be misled by the clues and tricked in the end.

Look at We Were Liars, for example. Without spoilers, the novel is basically a psychological game that could have gone badly. However, I felt like there were enough clues along the way that I ultimately bought the ending. The big revelation was earned because Lockhart had legitimized the end all along. The clues were all there, it just wasn’t until the end that I was able to make sense of them.

I believe that’s how good fiction works–the author trusts that the reader is smart enough to stay with them. Otherwise, it may be a fun journey, but it leaves the reader unsatisfied in the end.

Have you ever read a book that left you feeling tricked or didn’t trust to you to make the connections? As an author, do you have any tips for creating mystery without manipulating the outcome?

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