Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
There are millions of stories, but just two plots. Lee Child explains them this way. A group of people are sitting in a dark cave. They hear a terrifying noise and somebody whispers, “There’s something out there.” In the first kind of plot, the characters remain huddled inside, frightened and contemplating what the threat might be. In the second plot, somebody stands up and says, “I believe I’ll just step outside and see what’s happening.”
When Child’s itinerant hero Jack Reacher steps off the bus to investigate the source of the trouble, woe be it unto the bad guys. He’ll outwit them, outfight them, and leave them demolished in a pool of their own blood. The Reacher novels depend more on violence and physical combat than the traditional mystery, but the basic setup is the same. The detective must go out into those Chandleresque mean streets or wherever the murder has been committed – and track down the villain. Even Nero Wolfe who famously never left home, sent Archie as his proxy to sort out the suspects and deliver them to Wolfe to be interviewed.
It’s the same old story, over and over again. And to quote R.L. Stine, “Every story ever told can be broken down into three parts: The beginning. The middle. And the twist.” The twist is the unexpected turn of events that makes an old story new. But according to Sophie Hannah, a twist isn’t the same thing as a surprising or brilliant resolution. It has to be something that completely overturns a seemingly obvious conclusion or subverts a reasonable assumption. She calls Agatha Christie’s “Orient Express” a great puzzle, but because the assumption it overturns is unreasonable, it’s not a twist. The best twists are those that upend or reverse everything you thought you knew.
When a twist is especially clever, it tends to inspire copycats. Anyone who hasn’t been living in a cave would see through these oft- repeated stratagems:
The typewritten suicide note. The hasty cremation. The wheelchair-bound invalid. The body so disfigured it can’t be identified. The body that can’t be found. The body that’s been pronounced dead by someone other than the police. The broken watch that fixes the time of death. The voice heard through a closed door. The recorded phone message. The clue so vital it can’t be divulged over the telephone. Untracked snow seen through the window of a locked room.
The first mention of anyone recently arrived from Australia, let alone a long-lost heir to the deceased’s fortune, puts the reader on high alert. Anyone slightly wounded by an unseen attacker is almost certainly yanking the detective’s chain. Lovers who quarrel loudly and make a show of their hostility are probably collaborating. And nobody would be stupid enough to drop the cigarette case engraved with his initials beside the body, right? Ha! The hoary old “nobody-would-be-that-stupid” defense means one of two things. The owner of those initials is guilty as Cain or she’s been framed.
Readers often focus their suspicions on the character with the airtight alibi, the one who was miles away at the time of the murder and has a speeding ticket to prove it. The callous suspect with the obvious motive and no alibi may fly under the radar, but the genre-savvy reader is instantly wary of the kind, quiet character with no clear reason to be the plot. We know that the overly helpful suspect is a stone killer and the appearance of a twin fairly screams chicanery.
The opening theme for the TV series C.S.I. Miami is “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who. The premise is that it’s useless to try and fool the experts. They’ve seen it all before. It’s not easy to fool readers who cut their teeth on Christie and Highsmith and Sophie Hannah. But just because something has been done before doesn’t mean it can’t be done again in a way that hacks the formula. The blurbs on the covers of hundreds if not thousands of books promise a twist – Stunning! Ingenious! Breathtaking!
Of course some readers don’t care a fig about the plot, let alone the ingenious twist. They’re interested only in the characters. As some writing guru has observed, the story keeps the characters moving, but it’s the characters that keep the reader reading. So, shove your sleuth out of the cave. Round up the usual suspects – the Aussies, the twins, the squabbling lovers, the sexy blonde who dropped her cigarette case. Put unorthodox thoughts in their heads and unreliable words in their mouths. If the characters are complicated enough, full of contradictions and dark secrets, on the razor’s edge between good and evil, we’ll get fooled again no matter what the song says.
Excellent essay on what it’s all about. Thanks!
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As sharp and witty as – well, as everything you’ve done!