Saturday, April 21, 2012

Delayed Bodies - Writing the Cozy Mystery

Elizabeth over at Mystery Writing is Murder wrote a post Friday about her struggles to move the discovery of the body as early as possible in a cozy mystery -- to get the story going.

This is generally good advice, especially in a light genre with relatively short stories, like the cozy.  You really do need to get the story going.  No dillying or dallying or shillying or shallying.'s more than good advice if you are writing for a large traditional publishers -- it's a requirement.

I, of course, had to be the contrarian.  I do not argue that the story has to get up and start going right away.  I just don't like it when the finding of the body -- a major turning point -- is rushed.

When I say "rushed" I don't mean that the finding of the body can't happen early.  Heck, there have been some wonderful mysteries where the body is found in the first sentence, or has already been found before the story even starts.  (And that's a technique I'll say more about below.)

What I mean by "rushed" is this:  When a body is found, everything changes.  It closes one sequence and opens a new one.  Whatever you are committing to in the opening sequence has to be completed. There has to be a full arc, or it's a waste.

Now, as a fan of classic mystery, I also have a bugaboo about variety, and the drama of it all (even in a comic mystery).  The story doesn't always demand that the body be found immediately, or even be found "on screen."  It can be a background event.  And pushing it to the front too early can leave me feeling cheated.

What I feel cheated out of is whatever else happens to drive the story.  Mysteries, after all, are about secrets, so there is always going to be a surface story that drives your character's immediate reactions, and an underlying story of what the killer does.  And these two trails will be full of deceptions and red herrings, and disguised truths... and I don't want to miss out on any of that.


Just in practical terms, I mentioned in the comments on Elizabeth's post that there are ways to handle the inciting incident (or catalyst) differently.  I mentioned one that works for thrillers, and she wondered how that would work for cozies.  Rather than clutter up her comments with a very long post, I figured I might as well just list a few here:

1.) The Split Incident.

This is the one I mentioned over there, and one that Robert McKee mentions in his book STORY.  If you have a situation that needs slow growth, you can sometimes split the "inciting incident" by creating a "prologue" which is outside of the story. The example he uses is Steven Spielberg's Jaws.  The movie opens with a horrific shark attack.  But that attack happens unwitnessed, so even though it's an incident, but it doesn't incite anything yet (except for a certain amount of tension and nausea on the part of the audience).

This is equivalent to Alfred Hitchcock's baseball-bomb theory.  I.e. if you have a couple of guys sitting around talking about baseball, and then suddenly a bomb goes off, you've bored the audience and then shocked them. If you show the audience the bomb under the table, and the two guys don't know it's there... suddenly the same scene is full of tension.

So in Jaws, after the shark attack, we get to meet Sheriff Brody and his family and the island of Amity in their ordinary everyday lives, and all the time we see the ocean in the background and we worry about the Brodys.  And because we're worried about them, we're a little more involved in their day-to-day difficulties.

And if we start seeing those day-to-day difficulties match up with the main danger we already know about, we feel rewarded.  Sheriff Brody is the "protector" of the town, so danger is his business -- he'll have to deal with that shark.  And he's afraid of water, so we know this will be tough for him.  And his kids are reaching the independent age (and are not afraid of water) so we're worried about him in terms of his love for them. And his struggles with the local politician aren't that interesting at first, but boy do they connect up later when the question as to whether to close the beaches comes up.

So that works in a thriller, how can it work in a cozy?

Same way.  The first thing you have to do is identify the "bomb" -- that is, the driving force of the story which will cause your characters to put themselves on the line -- and give us an early glance.  In a mystery, the bomb is always the puzzle.

So a young woman hurries along the street.  She's carrying an old fashioned cassette recorder -- which is not only odd for anybody, but it's particularly odd for her, because she's this really super hip young lady, with a smart phone and a couple of other gizmos on her.  And she seems to be up to something.  She sees someone, and ducks down an alley.  She drops the cassette player in a dumpster, and dashes on.

That might be enough, or maybe she runs into the person she's avoiding as she leaves the alley.  We don't see this person (it's the killer) but we know she's scared.

Then the story begins as Wendell Durringer, our octegenarian sleuth, wends his walker into the corner coffee house, and he finds that the hip young barrista who always got his coffee order wrong didn't show up for work....

The tricky part is this: Jaws works because we can already see a connection between Sheriff Brody's every day life and how the shark will disrupt it.  And even if we are not sharp enough to realize that connection yet, the fact that the chief of police on an island is afraid of water is plenty ironic and interesting enough to drive the opening sequence by itself.  And when the shark DOES show up, we see the connection right away, and so does Brody.

And since the "shark" in a cozy is a puzzle, I think that whatever drama gets in Wendell's way should not just be that the barrista is missing.  Wendell has to walk into the tangle of drama that will turn out to be what led to her being missing.  He may not realize that the bank manager's spilled coffee has anything to do with it.  But the conflict between the banker and the other waitress -- which seems to be over coffee -- needs to relate to what lead to the barrista's disappearance.  And Wendell might very well see that there is something going on there.

2.) "Not What It Seems" (or maybe "Mysterious Events")

This can be a variation of the technique mentioned above, except that you don't let the audience know more than the protagonist.  I used a variation of this in Have Gun, Will Play.  At the start, Mick and Casey ride into the middle of a range war, and get involved in a shoot out.  What happens in that shoot out is relevant to what happens later on.  And Mick can see that there is stuff going on that no one wants to tell him about.

So at this point, the story isn't driven by the fact that people got killed.  The tension of the story is in that Mick and Casey (and their suspicions) are not welcome, but they are needed.... because one of the players in the range war has a daughter he wants to get out of the territory.  He hires Mick and Casey to escort her to safer ground.

This makes complete sense on the surface, and is an interesting challenge all on its own, plus it has a little bit of suspense lurking in the background, because we know that something is odd about the whole set up.

While a murder does make a major turning point in the story, the actual first major turning point is when Mick decides he doesn't like any of the situation, so he goes maverick. The story has enough drive without the murder.

This technique isn't just a matter of how you begin a story -- it's a structure for the whole story, and I admit I have a weakness for this kind of structure.   A spooky house, mysterious happenings.  Love it. 

3.) Non-Murder Case Opening (or Red Herring Opening)

This is a variation on the above.  I used it in The Man Who Did Too Much. (I'm not saying my books are brilliant examples, but they're handy.) In this case, the main puzzle isn't a murder at all, or at least doesn't seem to be until a murder happens later.  The key here is that the story IS about something else.

This story begins with George's personal problems.  He compulsively takes care of people, and his girlfriend suffers ptsd and is compulsively needy, and they can't break out of the cycle and create a normal life.  They are in desperate need of an Inciting Incident to break them out of the cycle.  Luckily, right there in the first chapter, George's former boss asks him for a favor, to investigate a local lead in a distant kidnapping case.

There will eventually be a murder, but it's the kidnapping case which drives the story.  And George's personal life only adds to the drive:  George doesn't actually care about the kidnapping case, but it matters to Karla. And Karla is the person who can help George with his personal problems.  And soon everyone is sucked much more deeply in the case than any of them expect.

This may sound more thriller than mystery, but both the kidnapping, and the murder (and for that matter, George's personal life) are puzzles, and the story is structured around those puzzles.

4.)  Start With The Body

You don't always have to do anything tricky.  If you consider that the finding of the body irrevocably changes the direction of the story, then one way to keep it from messing with your setup is to find the body first.  Let the body launch the set up.  Don't give us important conversation, or too much of the character in normal life -- because we're going to lose the details with the finding of the body.  Start with the body, or only give us the broadest strokes of the scene first.

It seems to me that The Ice House started this way.  (It's not a cozy, but that's only because of tone -- structurally it was a manor house mystery.)  Three women sitting on the patio and one notices that the gardener is racing at full tilt across the lawn toward them --The gardener who never ever moved fast in his life.  Something is very wrong; he's found a body.  It's only then, in reaction to the finding of a body, that we get the context.  One of the women had an abusive husband who had disappeared years ago.  She was investigated for murder by a vindictive inspector, who couldn't make a case.  Suspicion has hovered over the woman and her friends for years.  It's been a living hell, and now it's about to start all over again.

Starting with a body is a great way to begin a story where the situation is loaded with drama from the past.  It's good even when the situation doesn't seem so loaded to the characters.  A body is found, and it doesn't seem to have any relation to the characters... except on investigation, secrets come out.

There are other possibilities for changing up how the body affects the story, but I am tired, so that's all I'll do tonight.

See you in the funny papers.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Oh, I like your contrarian responses. :) Helps me work through it all! Please keep it up.

Some very solid ideas here, Camille. I especially like the red herring opener. Thanks for thinking this through...will be sharing with others today.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Elizabeth --

You know I think it all comes down to the promise you make the reader on the first page. Sometimes with cozies, we sorta depend on the genre to make that promise. Therefore you get a little leeway to play around, but the genre promises a body, so you'd better serve one up.

But if you are making some other promise related to the character or story, then the body can become a milder suspense factor.

Deborah Bancroft said...

OH! Just exactly what I needed. I've just looked one of my endlessly ongoing projects dead in the eye and I sez, "Cozy," (I sez), "Cozy, you are gettin' yerself WROTE!"