Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sept Dare Day 4 - Gathering Of The Suspects and Other Unmasking Techniques

I'm skipping Day 3, because I'm a day behind, and yesterday was just more of the same of Day 2 anyway.

Today I started writing new material. I thought I was going to work on ways to bring some important minor characters to the front earlier in the story. But as I thought about things that were going on behind the scenes, I found myself writing, instead, the "Secondary Wrap-up Scene."

I had not noticed how many unmasking and wrap-up scenes tend to happen in a mystery. I thought I had already written the key scenes for this book, but over the summer I re-read a lot of Agatha Christie, and I realize that in most of my favorite classic puzzlers, there are usually three major "detective reveals all" sorts of scenes. (Although simpler stories can get away with two.)

If there is an adventure or suspense element to the story, somewhere in the third quarter there will be an "Oh, my gosh!" moment. It may happen as early as halfway through the book, if there is a strong element of action or suspense. This is the moment where the facts come and get the protagonist. This might be the moment where the thugs kidnap and beat up the hard-boiled hero and he realizes that the mob is involved. Or the heroine might come across a stained shoe-lace in the kindly old-vicar's car, and before she figured out what it means, the vicar pulls a knife on her.

At this point a major part of the puzzle is revealed, and usually in such a dramatic way that neither the protag nor the audience realizes right away that the puzzle hasn't actually been solved yet. This is usually part of a longer revelation sequence, which ends when the protagonist figures out exactly how the vicar or the gangsters figure in to the story, and he or she gets to reveal the truth in a dramatic way as a part of defeating this villain.

This is equivalent to the "Gathering of the Suspects" moment in a classic cozy. Here the detective explains it all.... except that it's usually NOT all. And very often it isn't all even in a non-adventure cozy mystery. Very often the detective reveals most and there is one really important loose end. Which leads to a second revelation scene, which I call the 'Unmasking' since it tends to reveal just one more thing.

This is the scene where, after it is revealed how the Vicar had managed to cover up the disappearance of those young women so many years ago, that he wasn't the one who committed those older murders. He committed the current murders to cover up the older crime, but the older murders were actually committed by his crazy wife. Ta da! Unmasking of the real source-villain and the thing that drives the whole plot. This scene is usually pretty short, because we already know most of the story - and it tends to focus on those little tricks we see used in TV shows like Murder She Wrote. You know, where the killer is revealed because she's the only one who uses that shade of pinkish purple lipstick. It's usually clever and just kind of a little backlash surprise.

This second revelation works as a surprise because in a mystery, no matter how much has been revealed, there are always some unanswered questions, even when the story is over and the bad guy caught. "So just HOW did the Vicar know that Mrs. Cooper was on to him?" and "If Mr. Soames was driving to Portland, why didn't he notice the kumquats on the passenger seat of his car?" and "What did happen to the burglar?"

Which leads us to the third revelation scene - the one I called the "Secondary Wrap-up." That's where the detectives sit down to tea and explain to each other all of the little unexplained bits. Of course this scene also wraps up some subplots. What are the young lovers going to do next? Is Mr. Soames going to get in trouble for stealing the kumquats? What's going to happen to Mrs. Cooper's cat?

I like a good adventure suspense with an uncomplicated mystery okay... but I LOVE a story that seems uncomplicated, but turns out to have every little detail tied in. It's satisfying when you learn that every red herring had a purpose, though it may be in some indirect way. Because all those red herrings were things I wondered about. It's good to acknowledge them.

For revelations to work, though, you have to use them all the way through the story. As I mentioned in the post about chapter endings - you have to make promises to the reader, and you have to pay off on those promises. If you save all the cool stuff for the very end, then the audience will be bored on both ends of the story - the beginning because they aren't getting anywhere, and the ending because it's all explanation.

IMHO, if you want a page turner, it's not about promising now, and paying off later. It's about constantly promising and constantly paying off. That's why the masters of suspense and mystery often use multiple revelation scenes.

I don't know how many words I wrote today, because most of it is on notepaper, and I'm not finished for the night -- but I think I've got off to a good start.

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