Sunday, February 21, 2010

Writing Mysteries is like Playing Jenga

What the heck is Jenga, you ask? It’s that game where wooden pieces about three times longer than they are wide are first pushed into a tower-like formation with the help of a loading tray. According to Wikipedia, the first player takes one and only one block from any level (except the one below the incomplete top level) of the tower, and places it on the topmost level in order to complete it. Only one hand at a time may be used to remove a block; either hand can be used, but only one hand may be in contact with the tower at a time. Blocks may be bumped to find a loose block that will not disturb the rest of the tower. Any block that is moved out of place may be left out of place if it is determined that it will knock the tower over if it is removed. The turn ends when the next person to move touches the tower or after ten seconds, whichever occurs first.

The game ends when the tower falls in even a minor way—in other words, any piece falls from the tower, other than the piece being knocked out to move to the top. The loser is the person who made the tower fall.

And how in the world does this have anything to do with mystery writing? Hold on. I’m getting to that. When you write your story, you have all the clues carefully placed in your chapters, but if one is pulled out too soon, the mystery falls apart. For me, the worst thing to hear when I let others read my stories, which isn’t too often, is “I knew who the killer was halfway through.” I once went back and completely changed who the bad guy was for that very reason.

And you know what? It made the story so much stronger because I caught everyone by surprise. I hate it when I’m reading a book and know who the villain is somewhere in the middle, or worse, before the middle. I spend the rest of the story critiquing the clues instead of just enjoying the story. Unfortunately, because I do write mysteries, this happens more often than not. The perfect book for me is when I get slammed in the end with something I never saw coming.

The movie with Bruce Willis, Sixth Sense, comes to mind immediately. The ending blew me away.

So I’ve come up with three simple rules to keep from pulling out the Jenga pieces of my story too soon. Lucky you, I’m gonna share.

Number One – Don’t be obvious. The story I’m currently writing started out with one killer and because of an added subplot now has an entirely different one. When I decided to make him the villain, I had to go back to when I introduced him and take out some of the character traits I’d given him so I didn’t give it away too soon - things like how quickly his anger turned to rage and how physically strong he was. Instead, I used these to describe another character, a red herring I wanted the reader to suspect.

Number Two – Speaking of red herrings, throw in a lot of them. A great example of how this is done is Law and Order. Just when they think they know “whodunnit”, they find out they’re barking up the wrong tree, yet they come away with another promising clue. The killer may actually be one of the people they’ve questioned previously and ruled out, but mostly the viewer doesn’t see it coming.

Unless you’re me. I can usually tag the killer right away. A definite clue is if a character is a popular actor/actress. He’s getting the big bucks, and nine times out of ten, he’s the bad guy. In your story, don’t tip your hat with too much attention on the “best-known” actor.

Third and most important in my opinion – characterization. Never make your killer villain-like when you first introduce him. Show him being nice to old ladies, leaving an extra tip for a down-and-out waitress, or opening doors for women. That way the punch is so much greater when you reveal that he’s a bad ass. That way, your tower of Jenga doesn’t fall until you decide it’s time.

So what about your stories? Any tricks up your sleeve for sustaining the drama until you’re ready? I’d love to hear your comments.


Cassy Pickard said...

Great post, Liz. And, for me, great timing. I'm thick into revisions on a story I have left quietly in the file drawer for a few months- hoping I'll gain some distance and perspective.

Your three points are spot on. I have been reworking in each of those areas. I confess that characterization might be the most difficult for me. I think I know these people so well, and then they don't completely behave.

So part of what I have started to do is make a cheat sheet. Not the usual "blue eyes, curly hair" kind of notes. Rather, it's about emotions and habits. For example, I have a line called "When angry." Next to that I put how this character behaves when angry. I keep that close at hand, reminding myself of the twitches, shakes, clenched jaw or whatever becomes unique for that one person. Hmm, maybe a topic for my blog on Friday.

As for Jenga, I confess I've never played. But, I love the metaphor for the constructions we all create. AND, why sometimes they are in perfect balance and other times....well, that's why we love revisions.

Thanks, I'll be thinking about your comments as I hit the keys today.


Kari Lee Townsend said...

Love the Jenga reference, Liz. Great post.

I usually try to form several relationships of various kinds between my characters, which leads to many clues and red herrings. Former lovers, old friends, new rivalry, secret sibling, blackmail, jealousy, etc. And like you, I try to hide the "real" relationship, revealing only what is necessary until I want the reader to go....OMG I had no idea, but now that you revealed it, that person's actions make perfect sense.

Hard work, but so much fun when done well :-))

Liz Lipperman said...

Cassy, I remember being at a Donald Maass workshop and hearing him say "Think of something your character would NEVER do, then make him do it."

I love the ideas of a characteristics chart. I'll get started on that today! And I'd love to see more about it on Friday.

Liz Lipperman said...

Kari, I think that's the key. After you reveal the bad guy, you want your readers to go back and realize they'd missed all your great subtle clues. I've read a book or two from well-known authors where when I finished, I just shook my head. No, I hadn't picked out the real killer, but um...when did he suddenly have eight motives for killing someone? You have to be able to have them go back and rethink and say, "Oh yea, I should have picked up on this at the beginning."

Unless you're reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde, and that's a whole other blog.

Mary Martinez said...

Great Blog! I love Jenga by the way.

When I have a villian/killer I find if I write and not know who it is myself is the best.

Though I know there's going to be a villian, and people dropping like flies or their's a stalker, if I don't know who it is, the the reader sure as heck doesn't.

Anyway that's my way. And I guess we all have to find our way.
Thanks for the great blog Liz.

Lindsay said...

Yes, I agree that it's a great post and the follow-ups are great also.
I've taken what I learned from watching TV shows- Law & Order, NCIS, Numbers, etc. and not put it in mine.
Keep the suspense/mystery going for as long as possible. Until the very end and and maybe beyond.
The only show that I've not had luck in figuring out the bad guy is a new one, at least to me, Castle. Haven't gotten the bad guy yet and it's frustrating.

Liz Lipperman said...

Ooh, Mary, I'm intrigued that you write without knowing who the bad guy is. How do you put in subtle clues? Or do you go back when you're editing and add them?

I'm pretty much a tried and true plotter, so I have to know who's got an evil heart and pray I am not too obvious. That's why my edits are so important and that's also why I bite my nails when I'm waiting for my beta reader to get back to me, hoping I don't hear the dreaded "I knew." line.

Thanks for commenting.

Liz Lipperman said...

Lindsay, thanks for stopping by. You're a regular to M & M, now.

Ha! Even Castle doesn't fool me often. I'm telling you, man, look for the face you recognize.

Lindsay said...

Guess I'm not so TV savie as you. Then again it could because I work second shift so on the weekends I have to pick the shows carefully.
I like this blog of all the ones I go to. The info you ladies put out makes for great reading but even more gets me to think more about my writing. Like today's. After reading it I, and I'll admit it, stole the idea of writing down about the bad guy so I can interject it in bits and pieces in my work. Or I guess I should say, polish it cause I've got subtle hints scattered through out.
Like tonight-I went back over the beginning trying to work in more suspense into it. Some day I might even get past page 15 or rewrites/edits.
Keep it up ladies.

Liz Lipperman said...

Ah, Lindsay, that's so sweet. The best thing about writers is that we love to share what works.

Good luck with the rewrites.

Patg said...

I've never heard of the game, but I don't much like any kind of games anymore. But Mysteries, oh yes, and I've discovered that the twists and turns that keep me guessing and clue collecting are the ones I love the most. The best are when a major clue or the actual killer is on the first page. So clever.
Lindsay, try writing your ending first. I found it kept me from mutiltating my beginning so many times that I hardly recognized the story. Reworking the ending just goes along with all the new revelations an author keeps coming up with in the middle.

Liz Lipperman said...

Welcome to the blog, Pat. Now that's another intriguing idea - write the ending first. Are you a pantster or a plotter?

Thanks for commenting.

Patg said...

Very nice blog, Liz. The minute I clicked on and saw the banner, I was hooked. Looks like NYC brownstones, and I love them. Only tell me if it isn't NYC.

I'm a plotter. Everything is aiming at that ending. The basics of the ending, not necessarily the first written version. It is the twist I try to think up first.
Get started on the beginning just to see if an introduction works, then Write That Ending.
Writing is hard work, but I've heard a lot of authors talk about the 'vomit' approach to the story. Get the basics all down, drive and push to do it, then relax a bit and go back and rewrite. Well, that driving and pushing is easier for me if I'm heading somewhere.

Liz Lipperman said...

Pat, the banner is a brownstone, but I have no idea where it's from. It's also on my website. When we started this blog, we used it, agreeing to try it for a while.

I, too, have a friend who "pukes" out her stories,and it always amazes me. Of course, she has massive rewrites. I am pathetically slow and edit a zillion times as I go, so my edits are not so major.

I see you start with a twist. I start with one, too, but as I write I gradually give it two or three more and change the killer in he me ix.

Thanks for commenting.