By Brady Major
Like a loyal lioness protecting her mouth-watering cubs from a pack of raving hyenas, I am returning to give you advice on how to tackle major writing challenges. If you’ve chosen to pursue a career as a writer, you’re obviously hurting for anything resembling financial security, so the least we can do is help each other out once in a while as we bump heads rummaging for food in dumpsters.
Please hold your applause-or declarations of unconditional love-until we reach the end of this next set of storytelling rules.
In tension-riddled genres like thrillers and mysteries, the status-quo dances on the knife’s edge, the needle’s tip; things can kick off at any second. It quickly becomes necessary for every writer working amid these conditions to know how to present and pace the action that characters become tangled in.
This is where pacing comes in. You don’t want to make the mistake of overburdening your stories with too much action. For one, your credibility as a storyteller will be put to task as your characters somehow continue to find their way out of a series of increasingly debilitating brushes with death, despite the fact that they’ve been injected with enough morphine to collapse an elephant. Even more devastating, your readers will grow less attached to the safety of your characters and far more emotionally detached from tension if heroes continually get out with nary a scrape.
Every choice should be vetted to ensure that it’s the best way to move your story along. Don’t deliver your readers a shootout in a warehouse full of ancient artifacts if your heroes were facing an entirely different set of foes in a bone-crunching bar brawl just ten pages earlier.
As priceless Ming vases shatter in a hail of gunfire and African tribal weapons are slashed near your protagonists’ necks, your readers will mentally check out to ask themselves, Didn’t these guys just fight at that bar only pages ago? By cramming two action sequences together that would work beautifully if they were given a wide berth of one other, you instead devalue them both and steadily decrease the investment your readers may have in your protagonists and their well-being.
In my own mystery story, “Down the Rabbit Hole,” I used the momentum of the story to dictate when and how I was going to use action. If my heroes had been investigating for too long and the narrative was in danger of slowing itself to stagnation, I’d ensure a sequence was coming up that would get the story’s blood pumping again. Because of this, a chapter full of character interaction in the police department paved the way for a noisy and chaotic chase inside a sin-caked nightclub. And, because the wounds my characters endured continued to make their jobs harder afterward, they resembled the human beings they were instead of invulnerable superheroes.
#2 Man as Myth
How do you build up a cast of characters that feel like vital parts of the narrative and crucial figures in their own right, even when they likely won’t carry the same impact as your protagonist? One method is to impose a mythic sensibility onto these human figures. Now, I don’t mean you should have your characters suddenly morphing into griffins or sirens, nor do I mean that you should only describe them through metaphors. What I mean is that you should make your characters feel larger than life.
For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, Dr. Watson doesn’t meet the famous detective right away. We start in Watson’s first person perspective and, through the various opinions of those he meets in London, his perception of who Sherlock Holmes is becomes continually altered. Some view Holmes positively, as a wondrously captivating man, while others see him as dangerously eccentric and nearing oddball territory. By the time we meet Holmes in the flesh, he almost doesn’t seem like he could be real, or even human, if what others have said is true, which gives dimensions to our gradual understanding of who he really is.
#3 The Chore of Gore
With every mystery story must come a crime scene for your characters to investigate. But how much gore should you include?
If your approach is similar to mine, and you like to explore seedy, no holds barred worlds full of Machiavellian-type characters with their own agendas, then tragedy and gore is a necessity for showing the kinds of debauchery humanity is capable of. In the second chapter alone, I introduce readers to the first victim of fatal violence, Melody Nash, a young girl of fifteen who has been pulled from the scummy underbelly and rushing waters of the city’s sewers. In my description of the crime scene, I deliver all the details:
“Pendergast spotted the lifeless body of a young girl lying ahead, no older than fifteen or sixteen, her face nearly hidden from view and facing the rushing waters of the tunnels. Arthur tossed both detectives gloves as he reached down and turned the girl’s head to face their direction, her blonde locks now much closer in hue to a brunette after coming in contact with the sewer’s waste-ridden waters.
Pendergast was taken aback by the innocence of the delicate features, the girl’s bright blue eyes visibly faded by the fog of death. He was overcome by a great sense of dread towering over him as the potent scent of the sewers flooded his nostrils and stalled his brain. Transfixed there, held in place by the girl’s death stare, he questioned the world of its merits. How, he wondered, could such innocence find itself lying dead in the confines of such a slime-ridden hell? It could just as easily have been his kid sprawled out before him limp and sodden, and just the thought of it made him take pause and praise the fact that he was a father to none.
Pendergast broke his locked-in stare with Melody’s eyes, and made an effort to take in the rest of her. Her style seemed anachronistic at best, dressed in what felt to him to be a Victorian era wardrobe. There she rested in a flowing dress that barely reached the top of her shins, making it clear to Pendergast that it wasn’t tailored to her specific measurements. The predominant color palette of the dress was blue, with the multi-layered skirt and upper torso featuring floral patterns of a soft white. Worn pantyhose masked the girl’s thin, long legs, the material torn heavily at the thighs and shins, leading down to a pair of bare feet that were both heavily lacerated. A tightly bound corset dominated her torso and slimmed her figure immensely in an effort to lift a bosom that was not yet fully developed. A muted red bow tied around her neck completed what was a most peculiar ensemble.”
The girl’s demise and the mystery surrounding her nasty end serve to represent two ideas that act as thematic cores at the heart of my novel: innocence is quickly snuffed out and the world hungers to feast on any remains. Because I’d made a pact with my readers to present them with a dark and foreboding mystery that delivered the goods when it came to depravity and a human response to that depravity, the excerpted scene above falls in line with that obligation.
If you are writing a more traditional “cozy” mystery, describing a grizzly killing isn’t the way to go, since placing such an emphasis on the crime scene and the details of the victim’s possibly bloody death will inevitably feel out of place. Many such writers forego death altogether and instead spin yarns that feature more family friendly riddles, like the theft of prized diamonds or the sudden disappearance of a prominent public figure. This is why you never see boy detective Encyclopedia Brown spending his hours inspecting blood splatter patterns at crime scenes or interrogating his town’s prostitutes for answers on street corners when one of their ranks ends up getting their head bashed in repeatedly with the door of a pick-up truck.
Dear readers, make yourselves known. Tell me in the comments section below what part of the writing process weighs heaviest on your shoulders when you’re crafting a story.