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.