Sunday, April 19, 2009

Eenie Meenie Writing Method

From the Sunday morning mind of Earl Staggs

A few years ago, a writer I knew invited me to her debut signing event. She’d written three or four Romance novels which went unpublished before writing this one. It was her first Mystery and a small press published it. I was excited for her so I went.

She handled herself well in her presentation, I thought. She’s an attractive girl, bubbly in spirit, and well-spoken. Everything went along just fine until, in response to a question, she stopped me cold with this:

“I didn’t know who the killer was myself until the final chapter.”

I don’t know how the rest of the audience reacted, but I was numbstruck. How could this be? How could a writer put together a complete murder mystery without knowing who did the awful deed? Did she toss in a large number of red herrings and suspects, then draw a name from a hat at the end? After I read the book, I felt that’s most likely what she’d done.

She’d developed several viable suspects, but none more suspect than the others. There were a number of what seemed to be clues, but none pointed to anyone in particular and none were crucial to solving the crime. In the end, the protagonist somehow decided who dunnit, confronted her, and got a confession.

I felt cheated.

When I read a mystery, I like to stay in step with the protag as the clues and suspects are presented, weighing and assessing them until the stew boils down to a credible denouement. I don’t mind at all being surprised by a good plot twist as long as I can reconcile it with what’s gone before and it rings true. I can also understand how a writer can begin a novel with one perpetrator in mind and change to another one as the plot progresses. I’ve done that myself, but I’ve gone back and rewritten where necessary to make it work.

But to write a complete novel, then choose the killer with an eenie-meenie-minie-moe method and expect readers to be satisfied!?!?

Would someone pack all their belongings, hit the road making right and left turns at random, then when they run out of gas, that’s where they stay?

Would a builder accumulate a pile of boards, begin cutting and nailing them together, then when he runs out, decide whether he’s built a house, a garage, or a bridge?

Maybe there are people out there who do things that way. My only hope is that they don’t write mystery novels.

Earl Staggs


L. Diane Wolfe said...

I think it would be difficult to write any genre in that manner. I am a big believer in the outline. Writing without an outline, or at the very least a target ending, is like driving across country without a map. Who knows where the heck you'll land?

Not deciding until the very end also implies she was not totally committed to her story or characters. And if the author is not committed, then the reader has an even less change of remaining committed.

L. Diane Wolfe

Kevin R. Tipple said...

It is unfortunate that she chose not to go back and punch up certain aspects in the book surrounding the killer so that it wasn't so obvious what she had done. I suspect what she did is a frequent occurrence and one that most authors don't talk about.

I don't think it has anything at all to do with commitment. Quite often, even from bestselling authors, I see comments that certainly imply that they write without outlines and don't have a clue to how it will all tie together until that final chapter. They are committed to the story and believe the characters involved will tell the author how it ends and they just write until they get it finished. It wouldn't surprise me at all if she is of the same mindset.

Kevin R. Tipple

The boom rolled through the area and down the hall and inspired the suspect to jerk upright in his seat. Off balance from the start was always best.

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Jean Henry Mead said...

I didn't know who the killer was until three-quarters of the way through A Village Shattered. I had so many suspects that could have been the serial killer that I couldn't decide. Then, one morning I awoke with the logical answer. And I haven't had anyone complain that they were cheated. :)

Mizrepresent said...

lol, i totally loved this and completely agree with you. See, i am a lover of mystery and suspense and so, i have studied this art for decades and so i would be completely remiss with a not so "true to life" ending, or even an ending we could imagine. Don't give me eenie-meenie-mighty-mo...give me the real deal!

Morgan Mandel said...

I'm a seat of the pantser when I write and don't always know where the story may lead me, but I do know enough to go back and plant clues. Actually, that's the fun part to see if the reader catches onto them.

Morgan Mandel

Mark Troy said...

So what draft was it when the recognition of who done it struck her? I can't imagine not knowing the killer until the final draft. OTOH, I read an interview with an author (whose name I can't recall) who said she writes the first draft and then picks a different character to be the murderer when she writes the second draft. That way the solution is more of a surprise to the readers.

Mark Troy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I don't like to hear that, or maybe I don't want to read that, i.e. those books. I like a logical progression, something the reader may "get" or not before the writer reveals it. That takes planning. And a lot of work. I hope I haven't read one of your friend's books, or if I did, I'm sure I didn't enjoy it.

Dana Fredsti said...

Earl, when I wrote my first mystery, I knew who the murderer was when I started writing. however, this character didn't stay the murderer because it just wasn't working, despite careful planning. As a result, I've had only one person (that I know of) come close to guessing who the murderer is in the book. It does sound like she needed to go back and up the ante after figuring out who dunnit...I had to do that when my murderer changed midway...and I think my book is better because of it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to everyone for your comments. It's reassuring to know you agree with me. I don't think there's one of us who hasn't changed our whodunnit along the way. The difference, I think, is that we went back and tied it all together so that it worked. The author I was talking about didn't and I've read a few others who also didn't.

Earl Staggs