A post I shared earlier thoughtfully spells out ways to use unreliable narrators to build suspense in mysteries and thrillers by letting readers edge slowly into characters’ personalities and the dilemmas their personalities create for them, so that the journey through the story is one of ongoing discovery. Mulling this post, I found myself lamenting a plot device that in some ways is the antithesis of this slow reveal and, sadly, one I’ve recently encountered more than once.
Cranky Part: I HATE this plot structure.
Mea Culpa Part 1: I tried it once. Got shot down royally by my wonderful St. Martin’s editor.
Mea Culpa Part 2: Yeah, sometimes a little of this strategy sneaks by; sometimes a modicum of it is even necessary to tie up ends in a denouement.
But! In my curmudgeonly view, we should all be highly self-conscious about the degree to which we’re tempted to fall back on this device.
So what is this cardinal plotting sin?
Here’s how it worked in the latest iteration I came across:
Step 1: The heroine/protagonist/amateur sleuth roves around, earnestly enough, learning basically nothing—generally ruling out unlikely suspects.
Okay, I’ll go along. My interest flagged somewhat because throughout her inquiries, the protagonist/sleuth seemed to have nothing personally at stake except satisfying her suspicion that the relevant death had not been adequately explained. Still, I’ll go along. When a character dies in mysterious circumstances, the protagonist really ought to express and act on his or her doubts. In the history of mystery fiction, idle curiosity has uncovered and solved many a crime.
Step 2: Suddenly the identity of the villain is revealed.
In this plot structure, this revelation usually occurs when the protagonist/sleuth is in the company of the villain, inevitably far from help. In the worst iterations, it occurs without warning: “Now I’ve got you, my pretty! How nice that you didn’t suspect!” In the book on which I’m basing this analysis, the protagonist/amateur sleuth abruptly identifies the killer (but without letting us readers know what clued her in)—
At which point, all of a sudden, she realizes that her bumbling inquiries might inspire the bad guy to come after her. And voilà, within mere minutes after she realizes she’s in danger, he shows up. Before I could contain my frustration at being deprived of the basic piece of information that would have allowed me to share her revelation, he has her bound and gagged and completely at his mercy.
Now comes the worst part:
Step 3: For pages and pages, the murderer lectures his captive audience—
That is, his victim(s)—on what happened, why, how he did it, what clues they missed—in short, all the things that the best detective/mystery fiction stack up slowly so that when the final piece settles into place, the protagonist and the readers have done some work, the kind of work that makes both the journey and its resolution an achievement, intellectual but emotional as well.
Yes, many mysteries turn on a sudden realization, a moment in which the detective/sleuth chains together a string of loose clues or recognizes the importance of some minor incident or discovery. The best of these revelations, in my view, are the ones where the sleuth deduces the connection, à la Sherlock Holmes, instead of having the information told to him or her.
But the success of this turning point, regardless of how the sleuth arrives at it, depends on the quality of the groundwork we’ve laid. In other words, if our villain has to explain the case to our hero, we haven’t done our job. In the best mysteries, when the villain pops up, as he or she probably will, the reader and the sleuth, in concert, should be able to exclaim, without pages of tedious instruction, “Now it all makes sense!”
In the kind of slow reveal Jane K. Cleland discusses in “Writing Suspenseful Fiction: Reveal Answers Slowly,” we readers get the information as the protagonist encounters it. We’re not deprived of the building blocks that the protagonist will ultimately use to solve the crime. The beauty of using an unreliable narrator for this process, as Cleland illustrates, is that the information is filtered through the character’s misreading. As we slowly come to understand the character and the emotional or cognitive needs that drive him or her, we have the chance to read through to a coherent solution ourselves.
But even without an unreliable narrator, we mystery writers owe it to our characters as well as our readers to take a hard look at that lecture we’re tempted to let the villain deliver and, instead, piece out the information so that we can lay it before our hero and our readers step by step, obviously with alluring wrong turns along the way. Revelations ought to come from within, not from some obnoxious bad guy pointing a gun at our readers’ bound and gagged and silenced bodies. The slow reveal of character and information gives readers voice. They become our partners, our eager allies, in solving the crime.