Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How Soon the Body?

There is a continuing debate in mystery circles about when the body should appear. One camp says that the body should be there no later than the first chapter, and preferably in the first five pages. The other camp, the one in which I am firmly ensconced, is that the body should appear when it is rational and appropriate to the story for the body to appear.
As an exercise, I began a mystery where the body appeared at the top of page two. The book actually turned out rather well, becoming BEADED TO DEATH, my October 2012 release from Carina Press. The poor victim didn’t fare as well, though. He didn’t even get a name until about halfway through the story, and no one at all seemed to care that he was dead. Although I enjoyed writing the book – which turned out to be strangely lighthearted – the dead man was really very little more than a plot device. A prop.
Call me old-fashioned, but I think a dead body – even a fictional one – deserves more respect than that.
In this week’s  release – This Week! Squeee! – EXERCISE IS MURDER, I introduce a range of characters and there isn’t a death in sight until some sixty-odd pages into the manuscript. Of course, if you’ve read the cover blurb or a review, you’ll be able to pick out the victim from the get-go, but by the time of the death you’ll know this body as a person, not just as a device. Hopefully you will feel shock and surprise and outrage, as we all should at all murders. This is a person whom you knew, not just a stage prop lying around to further the plot.
As readers we want to know the people in books; we want them to become ‘real’ to us. There’s nothing more annoying than cardboard characters, even if they are dead when the book opens – or within a few pages thereafter.
I know that for a story to be feasible, it isn’t always possible to have a leisurely ‘get-acquainted’ time. To be strictly fair, though, neither is it always in the best interest of the story to have the body appear so late in the story that the murder seems an afterthought thrown in just to have the book qualified as mystery.
I guess the point of this rant is that the story must be paramount. Very little makes me angrier than pundits who pronounce ‘The body MUST show up no later than page … whatever.’ In storytelling there are no rules except what makes the story work – other than basic grammar and spelling. The finished product must be in a format that is comprehensible to the readers, after all.
Sometimes the victim character becomes known after he is dead. The writer peels back layers to expose the victim for what he was, good or bad. This works if done well,  but then almost anything works if it is done well. That’s the hard part.
Perhaps what I am trying to say is that we should care. Even if it is only in ink or pixels a murder is a horrid, violent crime. It is the untimely cessation of life and should be treated seriously, however lighthearted or farcical the rest of the book. To do less, to treat the victim as nothing more than a convenient prop or a plot device, is to desensitize ourselves and our readers to the enormity of a crime. No sane human being, writer or not, wants murder to be relegated to the status of a petty misdemeanor.
Neither do we writers want to be given rules about when the body should appear. It should appear when it is right for the story – not before, and not after. To do less is to deny the victim his right to personhood.
The character is dead; the least we can do is make them live.

          Janis Patterson is a seventh-generation Texan and a third-generation wordsmith who writes mysteries as Janis Patterson, romances and other things as Janis Susan May, children’s books as Janis Susan Patterson and scholarly works as J.S.M. Patterson.
          Formerly an actress and singer, a talent agent and Supervisor of Accessioning for a bio-genetic DNA testing lab, Janis has also been editor-in-chief of two multi-magazine publishing groups as well as many other things, including an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist.
          Janis married for the first time when most of her contemporaries were becoming grandmothers. Her husband, also an Egyptophile, even proposed in a moonlit garden near the Pyramids of Giza. Janis and her husband live in Texas with an assortment of rescued furbabies.


Rose Anderson ~ Romance Novelist said...

Huge Congrats on the recognition Janis. :) I love a good mystery too.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

First, like Rose, I want to congratulate you, Janis on gaining so much recognition which is obviously well-deserved!

Now about bodies: I agree that mystery writers deserve latitude and shouldn't be expected to write in a strait-jacket. When I wrote The Drowning Pool, one criticism was the book began with the finding of a body. I didn't change it. This was appropriate for a novel which was essentially a police procedural. In The Inferno Collection, the first body doesn't appear until well into the novel. That was appropriate for an amateur sleuth mystery. Answer: it all depends on the type of mystery you're writing. There is no one right way. I agree with you!

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...


I put the body in wherever it works best.


Susan said...

Thanks for the congratulations - I'm still elated!

Jacqueline & Marilyn, good on you both for doing what is right for your story. The story must reign supreme, not any nonsensical 'rules' someone made up.

Cindy Sample said...

Congratulations on all of your great news, Janis. I enjoyed this post. The dead bodies in my series range from page 4 to page 30. I tend to emphasize humor over homicide so my victims are subject to my whims. Except when they refuse to let me kill them which is what I'm dealing with now - the recalcitrant victim!

Kathy Ivan said...

Hey Susan! Congratulations on this latest release.

As for when the body should show up--it's just rules and as we all know rules are meant to be broken. The body appears when the body appears, which is when the murder takes place/when it's discovered.

Congratulations again!

C. M. Albrecht said...

My mystery "Deadly Reception" was firmly rejected because the victim didn't get whacked until nearly halfway through the book. Fortunately for me, I found a publisher who liked it that way. In my latest book, "The Sand Bluff Murders", I bumped the first victim off only a few pages into the book. That worked well too.
The film Gosford Park was criticized because the murder didn't occur until nearly the end of the film, but I liked it, being a lover of the English murder period of the 20s and 30s with lovely old cars, butlers, maids and mumbling constables who trembled at the thought of entering a manor house and facing their haughty owners.

Morgan Mandel said...

You are really on a roll! Keep it up!!!

Morgan Mandel

Marilyn Levinson said...

Congratulations on your new release, and for having 2 books on Carina's Best List. Achievements to be proud of!

Earl Staggs said...

Hey, Susan/Janis, congrats again on your honors. You've earned them, fer shure. I agree with everything you said in this post, particularly about rules. There's only one rule of writing cast in stone: Whatever works.

Sandy Cody said...

Congratulations. I agree that the body should appear when the story demands it, not when some silly rules says it should.

Susan said...

Thanks for coming by, everyone - I appreciate your comments! Happy writing -