Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Rules of Play

Every story has a plot. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Hero saves the world from multi-flippered aliens. Murder committed, murder solved. One thing every plot has in common is it has to make sense. Logic is key.

Of course, you can have colourful characters gamboling about. Of course you can have unusual situations (Why is Auntie Marge up in the tree? Again?) You can have talking animals. Every writer creates their own world, but that world has rules. It can't be anything goes.

One of the issues any mystery writer must tussle with is "How hard am I going to make this?" Is this mystery long on humour but short on plot? Many mysteries are so populated with quirky characters that it's easy for the actual mystery to be fairly light. Yes, Cyril got killed, but he was a nasty old thing. No one liked him. He was mean to Little Johnny and he kicked his cat. Sure, let's solve the mystery, but in the meantime, would you like some pie?

Then there are the mysteries with multiple sub-plots and myriads of suspects. Larger issues are examined. World events can come into play. Both characters and plots are far more complex. Was the victim killed because of his personal life (he'd just left his wife, who is far from pleased), professional life (he was a major player in industry and had political ambitions), or is it something else entirely? Not much pie in these books.

The answer to "How hard am I going to make this?" depends on the writer. But it must make sense. There must be clues, be they physical or not. When the solution is revealed, it has to make sense and any reader could go back through the story picking up each of the threads that lead to the conclusion.

Personally, I can't stand reading mysteries and having all vital information revealed by the oh-so-clever sleuth in the final moments. Give me a chance to figure it out. Don't make it so easy that I figured it out before I hit the halfway mark, but let me see the logic of the solution. I don't mind feeling stupid, but I do mind not being allowed to play.

Remember your rules of play. There are absolutes, no matter what type of fantastic world you're living in. Have fun? Absolutely. But remember that reader. You don't want them scratching their heads at the ending. That's just not fair.


  1. Elspeth - I could not agree with you more!! No matter what else a mystery is, it has to be logical. There has to be a real reason (at least in the mind of the killer) that the murder was committed. There has to be some sort of logic in the way the sleuth goes about looking for clues and solving the mystery. And yes, the characters have to behave as they do for logical reasons. They don't have to be our own motivations, but there has to *be* a motivation. Well said. I, too, get annoyed at stories where the author doesn't give the reader enough information to suspect a person who turns out to be the killer. No fair, says I.

  2. Totally agree with you. I want to be surprised at the reveal, but be able to think back and say, yes, all the clues were there, just hidden.

    Straight From Hel

  3. Margot; That's the thing, isn't it? It has to be fair. It has to be logical. Easy puzzle or difficult, you want a fighting chance.

    Helen; The surprise is so important, isn't it? Too easy is dull. The trick is to be able to hide the clues in such a way that some people will pick them up and some won't. That's a true talent.

  4. I want to solve it too! It's not fair, otherwise. I'm also not crazy about mysteries where I solve it before the sleuth. That's happened a few times lately and I was disappointed...

    Mystery Writing is Murder
    Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

  5. Totally agree.

    I love mysteries and any story where the clues are like those in the movie THE SIXTH SENSE. Everything was right out in the open. But we didn't begin to put it together until near the end. At least I didn't.

  6. I love the mysteries where I think I have them solved only to have another clue reveal that I was wrong and had better keep searching for that aha moment.

  7. Elizabeth; That would be annoying. I confess if it becomes too obvious, I skip to the end.

    Carol; Isn't it the best when it's right out in the open?

    Jane; Twists and turns are what make mysteries fun reading. Here's to twists and turns!

  8. I totally agree Elspeth and can't wait to read your book! I enjoy it when I pick out the tough clues (makes me feel clever) the best though, is when you come to the end and say, "I can't believe I missed that!" Hats off to the clever and balanced author.

  9. Deb; What a nice thing to say! Hats off indeed, to the clever and balanced author.

  10. Great blog. I put coding in my books and my characters have to solve it in a logical order which is harder to do. I know how my codes work but I also need to allow my readers a way to figure it out.


  11. What are your favorite mysteries? Which do you feel deprived you of the chance to solve it for yourself?

    I love Elaine Viets Dead End Job Mysteries.


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