Detective Fiction Essay
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Why Ask Why?
The most important part of any type of book or story is that it be interesting. This proves to be particularly important in detective fiction as well. What could be more interesting than having a crime committed in front of you, given all (or most) of the details and still not be able to figure it out? This is exactly how detective fiction authors draw people into these stories and books. By weaving an intricate and interesting plot full of fascinating characters, and all types of details about the crime, readers get drawn into the plot and cannot stop reading until they find out the solution to the mystery. Simply put, readers are drawn to detective fiction because it is so easy to become completely engrossed in the stories.…show more content…
Should the setting be a generic, make-believe place, or an actual place, it will help readers enjoy the story more. The advantage of using a generic location is the ability of the reader to envision a place in which they are familiar with. This will lend to the reader being more interested in the story because they can associate details from the story with things from their lives. In a similar way, a specific location such as San Francisco, in “The Thin Man,” make the reader think of the story as more realistic. By setting a story in an actual place, lends to a sort of realism to the story. Both generic and specific settings help the author to lace the story together with the characters and the clues to make detective fiction more fascinating, which in turn draws the reader back to the genre again and again.
Clues have, and always will be vital to detective stories. The most important thing to consider is if an author plays “fair” with giving/not giving the clues to the reader. There are many “rules” which imply fair play of detective fiction, such as Van Dine’s “Twenty Rules of Writing Detective Stories.” These rules or guidelines help to establish, in Van Dine’s opinion, what constitutes a fair story. He believes that detective stories are a kind of “intellectual game.” This idea plays on the mentality of reading these stories as a challenge for the reader. The
When I started reading Gone Girl, I’ll admit I had high expectations. “It’s incredible,” one friend told me after recommending it and praising it profusely. “You just won’t even believe what happens …” She stopped short, looking guilty. “I can’t say any more,” she said, almost at a whisper. “I don’t want to give anything away.”
If you haven’t read the novel, I don’t want to give anything away either. But suffice it to say (and you’ve probably heard it already) that Gone Girl contains some killer plot twists. The narrative builds and builds, and then—boom—a major revelation is revealed. And then another. And another. It makes for a delicious, tense, uncomfortable, and incredibly thrilling ride.
And here’s the thing: As implausible as some of the occurrences in Gone Girl are, they’re also set up in such a way that I embraced each of them, one right after the other. They felt organic. They felt natural. They didn’t feel forced.
How do we do that when writing fiction? How do we write plot twists and turns into our stories without seeming overly obvious? How do we surprise readers without coming completely out of left field?
In this excerpt from Story Trumps Structure, Steven James presents four ways to craft plot twists that readers will never see coming.
PLOT TWISTS: PRACTICAL STEPS TO PULLING THE RUG OUT
1. Eliminate the obvious
When coming up with the climax to your story, discard every possible solution you can think of for your protagonist to succeed.
Then think of some more.
And discard those, too.
You’re trying to create an ending that’s so unforeseen that if a million people read your book, not one of them would guess how it ends (or how it will get to the end), but when they finally come to it, every one of those people would think, Yes! That makes perfect sense! Why didn’t I see that coming?
The more impossible the climax is for your protagonist to overcome, the more believable and inevitable the escape or solution needs to be. No reader should anticipate it, but everyone should nod and smile when it happens. No one guesses, everyone nods. That’s what you’re shooting for.
While writing, ask yourself:
What do I need to change to create a more believable world for each separate twist I’m including?
How can I drop the gimmicks and depend more on the strength of the narrative to build my twist?
Will readers have to “put up with” the story that’s being told in anticipation of a twist ending, or will they enjoy it even more because of the twist? How can I improve the pretwist story?
How can I make better use of the clues that prove the logic of the surface story to create the twist and bring more continuity to the story—but only after the twist is revealed?
2. Redirect suspicion
When you work on your narrative, constantly ask yourself what readers are expecting and hoping for at this moment in the story. Then keep twisting the story into new directions that both shock and delight them.
To keep readers from noticing clues, bury them in the emotion or action of another section. For example, in an adventure novel, offhandedly mention something during a chase scene, while readers’ attention is on the action, not the revelation. Use red herrings, dead ends, and foils. Bury clues in discussions of something else.
While writing, ask yourself:
How can I do a better job of burying the clues readers need to have in order to accept the ending? Where do I need to bring those clues to the surface?
How can I play expectations based on genre conventions against readers to get them to suspect the wrong person as the villain or antagonist?
3. Avoid gimmicks
Readers want their emotional investment to pay off. The twist should never occur in a way that makes them feel tricked, deceived, or insulted. Great twists always deepen, never cheapen, readers’ investment in the story.
This is why dream sequences typically don’t work—the protagonist thinks she’s in a terrible mess, then wakes up and realizes it was all just a dream. These aren’t twists because they almost never escalate the story but often do the very opposite, revealing to readers that things weren’t really that bad after all (de-escalation). Showing a character experiencing a harrowing or frightening experience and then having him wake up from a dream is not a twist; it’s a tired cliché.
How do you solve this? Simply tell the reader it’s a dream beforehand. It can be just as frightening without de-escalating the story’s tension, and it can also end in a way that’s not predictable.
While writing, ask yourself:
Will readers feel tricked, deceived, or insulted by this twist? If so, how can I better respect their ability to guess the ending of my story?
Have I inadvertently relied on clichés or on any plot turning points that have appeared in other books or movies? How can I recast the story so it’s fresh and original?
4. Write toward your readers’ reaction.
The way you want your readers to respond will determine the way you set up your twist. Three different types of twists all result in different reactions by readers: (1) “No way!” (2) “Huh. Nice!” and (3) “Oh, yeah!”
When aiming for the “No way!” response, you’ll want to lead readers into certainty. You want them to think that there’s only one possible solution to the story.
The more you can convince them that the story world you’ve portrayed is exactly as it appears to be—that only one outcome to the novel is possible—the more you’ll make their jaws drop when you show them that things were not as they appeared to be at all. If the twist is satisfying, credible, and inevitable based on what has preceded it, readers will gasp and exclaim, “No way! That’s awesome! I can’t believe he got that one past me.”
With the “Huh. Nice!” ending, you want to lead readers into uncertainty. Basically, they’ll be thinking, “Man, I have no idea where this is going.” When writing for this response, you’ll create an unbalanced, uncertain world. You don’t want readers to suspect only one person as the villain but many people. Only when the true villain is revealed will readers see that everything was pointing in that direction all along.
Finally, if you’re shooting for the “Oh, yeah!” reaction, you’ll want to emphasize the cleverness with which the main character gets out of the seemingly impossible-to-escape-from climax. Often we do that by allowing him to use a special gift, skill, or emblem that has been shown to readers earlier but that they aren’t thinking about when they reach the climax. Then, when the protagonist pulls it out, readers remember: “Yes! That’s right! He carries a can of shark repellent in his wetsuit! I forgot all about that!”
Relentlessly escalate your story while keeping it believable, surprising, and deeper than it appears.
While writing, ask yourself:
If I want to shock readers with the twist, have I led them into certainty as they try to predict the ending?
If I want readers to suspect a number of different endings, have I satisfactorily built up all the potential outcomes?
If I want readers to cheer at the ending, have I (1) created a seemingly impossible situation for the protagonist to escape from or conquer or (2) allowed the protagonist to persevere through wit or grit rather than with the help of someone else (that is, deus ex machina)?
Story Trumps Structure shows you how to shed the “rules” of writing—about three-act structure, rising action, outlining, and more—to craft your most powerful, emotional, and gripping stories. For Steven’s insights on ditching your outline, writing organically, crafting a satisfying climax, and escalating tension, be sure to check it out.
Rachel Randall is the managing editor of Writer’s Digest Books.
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