Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Writing the Cozy Mystery - Twisting Your Contrivances

Once upon a time a writer friend had a problem with her mystery/suspense story.

She had a character who had to miss a phone call -- a phone call that would warn her she was driving into a dangerous situation.  The problem was that the character was just not the sort of person who ever would or could miss a phone call. She was a smart, on-top-of-it businesswoman who had a no-fail cell phone that she would not only have on her, but she would check for messages just in case she missed any.

And as a group we had a lot of suggestions for how she could miss the phone call.  Mainly they were simple things like have her drive through a tunnel where there was no reception.

The problem with those simple answers is that they often come off contrived.  If the audience believes that this woman would never miss a phone call, and then circumstances just happen to make her miss it, they see the mechanics of the story cranking away, and tension is lost.

Still, for minor things, that can be okay.  They do the job and you move past them as quickly as possible.


Something like that could be a place where you delight your audience too.  IMHO, every time you come across a contrived coincidence, you're looking at a delightful irony that wasn't set up right.

You just have to lay the seeds so that the audience can feel satisfied, rather than bored or annoyed, when it happens.  Further more, a little contrivance like that can be turned into something that makes the whole story sparkle.

It's All About the Red Herrings

There are several ways to do this, but you have to start with raising an expectation that will lead them astray -- a red herring.

It can be especially effective if you actually start by raising the expectation of exactly what will happen, only it's so early in the story, the audience doesn't know where you're going with it. It's easy to divert them into another direction at this time.  But they will remember that first thought and be satisfied when it pays off later.

For instance, say this woman has this really super cool never-fail phone, and she happens have one of the recall list because the battery won't hold a charge.  This detail is already satisfying, all by itself, because it's ironic.  A no-fail phone which fails.  It's a great joke.  Plus we also feel a little satisfaction (and a little shadenfreud) that this person who is so perfect actually has a flaw.

Still, when the audience learns that the phone is faulty, they will think "Ah ha! It will fail her when she most needs it!"

They feel smart having figured that out, but they will be bored if they wait until the end to see that pay off.  So you distract (and delight them) by paying off early.  You make them think that some other event is going to be the one where it fails her.  She's waiting for an important call, for instance, on which her entire business hinges.

You can double the value of that red-herring if you make this a part of an interesting subplot.  Her super spiffy phone doesn't work, and that pays off almost instantly when you learn she is waiting for an important phone call.  But then the audience learns that they don't want her to get the call.  Maybe it will help her business, but it could make her miss her son's birthday party.

So the audience isn't fearing it will fail, they're hoping it will fail.  They want it to fail, dangit. And because they want it, it stays in their mind, but in the wrong context.  And you can even drop the issue of the phone and the phonecall completely, and focus on the kid and the party and the business deal.

Then, later, when she needs to be warned that the killer is waiting for her, the audience remembers the phone and goes "Oh, no, that's right, that phone doesn't work!"

Which is satisfying, but...

You can do better than that.

Remember that the more conscious the audience is of something, the more impact you can have.

So.... remind them that the phone doesn't work just before the person tries to call her.  The audience thinks "Oh, she's not going to get the call..." and they start to sigh... and then you hit them with the twist.

The phone rings.  It works.  She answers.  Great!  The audience sits up.  This is not how it's supposed to go.  But it's the business call she was waiting for.  And _that's__ what prevents her from getting the warning call. That danged call we didn't want her to get in the first place! Oh, the agony.

Worse yet, she might even see the warning call is coming in -- she has call waiting -- but the friend who is trying to warn her is against that business deal, and she's pissed at him, so she ignores his call.  She chats away. The warning goes to voicemail.

And she is so happy to have got the business deal, and so satisfied with having thwarted her friend, that she never checks the voicemail.

But it gets better!

Final payoff? We know that voicemail is there.  There is still time for her to check it and be warned.  She might even regret being rude to her friend, and think about calling him back.  She looks at the phone with guilt. But she's got to get where she is going first.

She's there, she's getting out of the car and she looks at her phone and sees "1 voicemail message" on the display.  It's the very last moment where she could possibly get away... she flips open the phone to get the message, and _then__ the phone craps out. (Or the phone works and just as she's listening to the message, the killer shows up and it's too late anyway.)

And thus the conveniently missed phonecall becomes more than an author's contrivance which bores the audience. It becomes a riveting, amusing, delightful center of attention.

Hitchcock specialized in this sort of multi-threaded red herring, but it isn't just a thriller tool. It's also something that every great comedy writer has to master.  Read P.G. Wodehouse or Donald Westlake, or watch madcap movies like Arsenic and Old Lace.  You'll see detail after detail set up and pay off again and again, twisting in new and better directions all the time.
The thing that makes this trail of twists and red herrings work so well is that it doesn't just solve one problem with one pay off -- it makes the whole darned story interesting and satisfying.  It pays off again and again, like a government bond.

Now, you might think: well, that works fine for people who plot things out in advance, but a "pantser" can't make use of that technique... can she?

Actually, the best writers I know who are pantsers are masters of this technique.  They do it one of two ways.  The first way is that they learn to recognize details with great possibilities. So they might start the story with the wonky phone and the expected business call, and they have no idea where it's going to go, but they keep playing with it and complicating it while it's interesting and then drop it when it's not, and then bring it back when they need something to pay off later.

The other way is that many pantsers have a general idea of where they are going.  They might know, for instance, that the protagonist is going to be lured into a confrontation with the killer at the end, and that a missed phonecall might be a good way to ramp up tension -- and then they start laying the groundwork for it, even if they have no idea how they're going to get from point A to point Z.

That's pretty much how I came up with the scenario above.  I knew the problem and I found a starting place and just rambled out the complications, building one on the other.  (I have seen too many Hitchcock movies.  And madcap comedies.)  And if you're a plotter, you can plan it out in advance, but you can also change it as you go, becuase it builds.

The one thing that's hard is to retrofit something you've already written.  Still, you can do simpler versions by just planting in a few small details earlier.  Look among your existing subplots for one that might do the equivalent of the "important business call". 

The key is that you have to have fun all along the way. Because that's what you want the audience to have.

See you in the funny papers.

 A Round of Words in 80 Days Update

This Segment's Progress:

Saturday Day 62 - 1000 words (mostly blogging)
Sunday Day 63 - 697 words (fiction)
Monday Day 64 -thousands of uncounted blogging words, but mostly I just had an existential crisis.
Tuesday Day 65 -2692 words (half fiction half blogging)


chihuahuazero said...

You use a marvelous example in this post! I'm putting this article in my weekly round-up.

Hopefully, I'll love the rest of the series.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, CZ!

Melissa Yuan-Innes said...

Amazingly helpful. Thank you so much.

The Daring Novelist said...

Thank YOU, Melissa!

Rob Cornell said...

Have to agree with Melissa. This was great. I kind of do this now as a "pantser." I'll throw in random details that become major plot devices later. In fact, I just did that today.

Thanks! :)

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Rob.

You know, this is really what we look to mystery and suspense for, but I think as we are writing and juggling so many details, we often lose sight of it.