Friday, April 15, 2011

Involuntary Admissions

I was recently reading a mystery novel and rather quickly fingered the woman who was much later revealed to be the murder. I'd like to say it's because I'm such a genius, or because I can assemble evidence so well, but that's not true. I didn't ever figure out WHY she committed the murder or how she did it either. I was just sure that she was the one.

How did I "know"?  When I think back, what first made me think, "It's her?"

Well, she is 35 years old. The sleuth/protagonist went to high school with her. She is a grown woman, same age as he is, a divorced woman with 15 years of a professional career.  And she looks her age. And yet from beginning to almost the end, the protagonist and every other man in the book calls her "a girl." "The girl who called you the other day." "The pretty girl you're dating." "The girl who kissed me."

It was off tonally. In 2010 (when the book takes place), even high school basketball players (under 18!) are called "women." Only children (and old ladies -- "The girls and I are meeting at the senior center for bridge" :) are called "girls". Certainly in books where words are carefully chosen, that usage is going to stick out, first as offensive, and then as odd.

So what was going on? I suspect that this was a subliminal attempt to make her seem unthreatening (and thus hide her as the villain). And if it were just a couple times, or only an older man or woman had used that term for her, or if she were more girlish, maybe that would have worked. But in fact, it backfired, because after three or four such references (especially by the protagonist), I cottoned onto the tactic, at least subconsciously.

Okay, examples? When have you read a book and for -the wrong reasons- figured out something that you weren't supposed to figure out? When has a best friend been just a bit too loyal, and you thought, "Uh-oh, he's going to betray his friend for sure"? When has a mentor been just too giving? Or when has a hated boss done something that makes you think he's being set up?

I'm thinking if we can figure this out, we might be able to write "around" those savvy, suspicious, infuriating readers (like us) who bypass evidence and clues and go right to our voice and word choice to solve our secrets.

I remember my kid coming in to the living room and seeing a short scene in a film, and saying, "So John Travolta's the villain?" I asked how he knew that, and he said, "Because he's smoking a cigarette!"

Alicia

16 comments:

mooderino said...

Nice post. Cheers,
mood
Moody Writing

Clare K. R. Miller said...

Hah. I've noticed that guys with their hair totally slicked back are either villains or at least jerks (unless it's The Outsiders, of course).

I can't think of any examples of what you're looking for, unfortunately. All I can think of is my own trunk novel, in which I suddenly realized that the extremely loyal servant, who I had thought until then was just being a typical Victorian servant, was about to betray the heroes...

Marva Dasef said...

On TV cop shows, the actor you recognize not part of the regular cast is the villain. Doesn't matter how innocent he/she may seem. At the end of the show, that's the person in handcuffs.

Jordan said...

I remember watching a romcom where the heroine said she couldn't swim. I predicted right there she'd go in the drink later and the hero would save her. (Yep.)

Edittorrent said...

Marva, remember in Galaxy Quest, they would talk about the cast member who wore the red shirt (it was based on Star Trek) as the one who was sure to die before the end of the episode!

Jordan, I'm reading a book now where someone says authoritatively that so-and-so is too wimpy to ever be king, and I realized-- That guy is going to be king. Opposition!

Alicia

epic said...

Nobody did it better than Scott Turow in PRESUMED INNOCENT. He didn't cheat the reader -- the clues are all there. Beautifully done. Turow, you are the Man.

On to the Parade of Bad Cliches:

Thrillers - are really about betrayal from the inside. Typical culprit: the boss / mentor. ALWAYS.

Romance - the naughty, naughty bad boy is actually good and the nice man is the villain.

Mysteries about serial killers - one of the witnesses or expected victims, somebody the cops are busy protecting, is actually the killer.

Gary Baker said...

When watching an American movie, the guy with the British accent is invariably either the soppy romantic lead or a complete b4st4rd.

Clare K. R. Miller said...

Ooh... and in TV crime shows (at least the ones I watch), if there's a woman with very short blonde hair, she's the killer. It even works in one NCIS episode where there are two women with very short blonde hair.

Ms Luey said...

In my last project, the protagonist asks a supporting character if the supporting character would like to come work for the protagonist "when this is all over" (when the drama of the story was concluded).

One of my beta readers left this comment next to this scene: "read this and knew she was toast". Sure enough, the supporting character dies later in the book.

Clare K. R. Miller said...

Oh, that reminds me of another one! (Spoilers for Gail Carriger's Soulless follow.) A vampire character requests that, if they survive, the main character hold his hand and allow him to watch a sunrise--she negates supernatural powers, so he's just human when she's holding his hand. I knew then that he would survive, and thought it was a close one, he did make it.

Edittorrent said...

Those are great examples!
A

Gayle Carline said...

I read a mystery where EVERYTHING pointed to a woman as the killer, which disappointed me. Then, midbook, it all pointed away from her and I thought, well, that's good, it was somebody else. Except it wasn't. Turns out, it was her all along. The writer could have saved about 150 pages.

On TV mysteries, it seems like the killer is either 1) the first, usually benign, person they interview, or 2) the actor whose face you recognize from all their other guest roles on other shows, usually as the killer.

Marie Dees said...

I submitting the first couple of chapters of my first mystery to my graduate writing class. After class, one woman told me who the murder was. I was astounded because she was right - but I was only one ch 2. How could she have guessed so soon.

Her answer - it was the one character I seemed most distant from in my writing. She figured I was holding him at arm's length because I didn't like murderers. She was right. Since then, I've realized I need to connect with and understand my murderers.

Alicia Rasley said...

Marie, what a good insight. Groan. I don't know what that all means, but I get the point that you have to connect with the murderers.
Fictionally, of course.

Alicia

harmamae said...

I've found when I get used to a mystery author (Agatha Christie, or something) I get a "spidey sense" about who's the murderer, but I can't say why or how. Maybe if I analyzed it more I'd figure out the clues...

Gail Dayton said...

Yeah, I'm late. But I'm remembering when I was writing one of my books (Barbed Rose, I think), I had a character who would betray everyone in the end, and all the way through, she was just awful. I had to go back and make her nicer. Not perfect--she still did some pretty douchy things (douchey?), but nicer. Someone who might go either way. It was tough.