Here’s my problem with mystery/detective novels.
So, you’ve authored a mystery. You’ve created a narrator to tell me your story, one little bit at a time. You knew, when you started editing this book, how it was going to end. You know whodunnit. So spit it out already!
So you see, I’m not a big fan of mystery novels. I’m sure the best examples of the genre are truly excellent. If I could only let go of my Type-A Personality, sit back and enjoy the ride. Instead, I get fed up with the drip-feeding.
(I’m not the only one who overthinks this issue.)
As a reader I have little time for red-herrings, and I can even reinterpret foreshadowing as telegraphing once I’ve reached the end of the story. I don’t enjoy feeling like a pawn. (Yes, we’re all pawns. I just don’t like feeling like one.)
All this moaning is neither here nor there, because I’m not a part of the mystery/detective literary world. But is there a take-home message for writers of other genres? Should this bizarre response teach me something else, as a some-time writer of short stories?
I think so. Because there are a number of ways in which writers can unwittingly ‘hold out’ on readers. I’m as guilty as the next hack.
1. WITHHOLDING CHARACTER NAMES
He heard his heart pound in his chest. Or so he thought. Perhaps this wasn’t his own heart after all. Perhaps he heard footsteps, approaching down the shingle path as he lurked in the shadows of the eaves. Yes. He was sure now. He could definitely hear footsteps, heavy and deliberate.
Each instance of ‘he’ could have been an opportunity for the author to GO AHEAD AND TELL US the protagonist’s name. But for some reason the author refuses to offer a name, even though this is third-person narrative – possibly omniscient, though we can’t yet tell. Name is withheld even though a third-person narrator has FULL ACCESS to all names. There seems no good reason why the author shouldn’t just go ahead and tell us the character’s name is Bob, and here’s Bob, lurking in the shadows. Hi Bob. Let’s get on with the story.
Why do so many authors do this? To create suspense, I guess. But there’s good suspense and bad suspense.
When meeting in real life – across cultures – a few nuggets of information are exchanged before progressing further with a conversation. One of these things is the other person’s name*. Even when we know nothing else about a person, we feel more at ease just knowing names. That’s why check-out chicks are made to wear name-badges (even if the name is obviously faked. I know. I used to be a check-out chick and we often swapped badges for fun.)
Have you ever met a new person at a social gathering, been introduced, instantly forgotten their name then found yourself unexpectedly caught up in deep conversation for the rest of the night? After a while it dawns on you: You know all sorts of things about this lovely new acquaintance – their job, where they live, where they went to school, their favourite sandwich spread. If only you could remember their name. Eventually, one of you must own up to the uncomfortable: ‘Er, sorry. I actually missed your name…’ It’s been bugging you, hasn’t it?
Fiction is the same. Many readers want to know the name of a character before knowing much more. The name serves as a hanger for all other information. And when an author refuses to let on, it feels like holding-out.
2. WITHHOLDING SETTING
I am very guilty of this and I explain why in this post.
3. WITHHOLDING BACKSTORY
As my chef-trained friend once mused, ‘People are scared of chicken.’ This was after I opened the fridge, expressing doubt at last night’s leftovers. The public are imbued with so many horror stories of food poisoning – especially here in Australia, and especially over the summer BBQ season – that it’s easy to shun all shreds of leftover chicken no matter how promptly you transferred it to the fridge after yesterday’s do.
I took this pic at the Canberra Chicken Olympics
Same goes for writers and backstory, I think. We’re constantly warned off the dreaded info-dump. The first big lesson I learned from my writing group was Drip-feed your backstory. My first attempt at a novel (I’ve since attempted two more and finished none of them) had far too much backstory in it, and chapter two was entirely backstory. Classic mistake.
After my lightbulb moment, I couldn’t believe I’d been so naive.
Step Two of the learning curve: Avoid backstory altogether.
This is equally misguided. In an attempt to create something fast-paced and attention grabbing, I ended up writing a good number of stories which failed to tell readers anything about my characters, aside from what readers really had to know during that small amount of time between the beginning and end of the story. I may have achieved something poetic and minimalist at times. But those stories were not the least bit satisfying for most readers.
I still struggle to know how much backstory to include, and what constitutes ‘enough’. The line is so fine and I’m not a good judge of it in my own stories – I’m far better when looking at someone else’s draft. (Another big reason to join a writers’ group.)
In sum: Not all leftover chicken will kill you. Don’t be afraid of it just because of the horror stories. Learn the food-handling rules and you’ll be fine. Same goes with writing and backstory. Omission of interesting backstory can feel like holding-out on the reader, even if you end up slowing the pacing down for a scene or two.
*Another thing: I’ve noticed new acquaintances like to start out sure of each other’s marital status/orientation. Even though it’s nobody else’s business – most times – this is no doubt an evolutionary advantage. I once had a man declare in a pub, soon after meeting, that he was, ‘Not married, not single, not gay.’ As an unattached man in his 40s, I think he’d grown weary of this universal need-to-know, but I must say, he didn’t clear a single thing up for me that day. (Though, as my new boss, I worked him out as time went on.)