Monday, July 27, 2009

Revelatory sequencing

I'm reading a mystery where the victim is widely disliked, so there are lots of suspects. (I'm summarizing and paraphrasing here, but you'll get the point.)

So the detective has just arrived at the scene and has said he'll go tell the new widow that her husband is dead. He thinks that her reaction could tell him something.

The woman sees that he's a policeman and stands up and says in exasperation, "I hope you're not here to tell me my son has been arrested."
He says, "I have some bad news. Your husband has been murdered."
Next line:
She reacted with shock but not sorrow, and Yanif saw clearly that she didn't love her husband. Could she have murdered him? He didn't know. He just knew she wasn't mourning his death.

Okay. We know she has a husband, the victim.
We know now that she has a son.

Now this is a big moment in the plot. The detective tells the widow, and she reacts in a way that puts her right at the top of the suspect list.

But I think the scene could have been made more emotional, more fun, with a bit of a diversion here. Let's say the woman rises and says with exasperation, "I hope you're not here to tell me my son has been arrested."
The detective -- craft the dialogue carefully here, because my point is... draw it out. Take your time. Take it slow.
The detective replied, "No. But I have some bad news--"
And then he pauses. Maybe you want him to draw a breath here. Maybe he's pausing so that he can see her reaction to the news. But when he pauses, instead of waiting, the widow rushes in.
"No! Not my son! He's not--"
And the detective says hastily, "No, no, not your son. It's your husband. He's been murdered."

So she drops into her chair, hand on her throat, and whispers, "Oh, thank God. I thought you were going to tell me-- but he's all right. Philip. My son. He's all right, you say?"

And the detective then has to say again, "Yes, ma'am. This isn't about your son. This is about your husband. He has been--"
"Murdered, yes, you said. But Philip is all right-- Thank you."
"But your husband--"
She took a deep breath. "Yes. Walter. Murdered. Yes. Please tell me where, and when."


What's the difference? Well, first, we learn something about this woman. She loves her son. She doesn't love her husband, but that's not because she's incapable of loving. She's no sociopath.

But more than that, we are now SHOWING and not just telling. How do we SHOW that she doesn't love her husband? By contrasting her terror about her son with her nonchalance about her husband. The detective doesn't have to tell us that she has no sorrow-- we see it, because we see what grief would look like in this woman-- and it's not for the husband.

Important moments, like revelations and challenges and confessions, should be set up. So often writers rush these moments, and shortchange the reader by shorthanding the event. The enjoyment for the reader is the process of getting to that moment, the understanding and experience created by the process. This is not the place to get concise. (Back at the restaurant scene? You know, where the detective spends a page telling the waitress how he likes his salad prepared? Try conciseness there, just a thought. :)

In fact, interruption, digression, misunderstanding, misinterpretation-- these are your tools to making the event more interesting. You don't want to be obnoxious about it, of course.

(This is below is obnoxious.)
The new widow rose and said with exasperation, "I hope you're not here to tell me my son has been arrested."
The detective replied, "No. But I have some bad news--"
He looked around the room. It was a typical upper-class drawing room, except for the fine Addam mantlepiece over the hearth. It was such a fine piece, in fact, that he wondered if it was original to the house, or purchased recently at that Sotheby auction in town. He'd wanted to attend that auction, but the press of work-- a murder in the cathedral-- had kept him away. But there had been an Addam mentioned in the catalogue for that event, and he wondered if this could be that one. He had to give the Lindens some credit for good taste, no doubt about it.

He turned a more approving gaze on the lady of the house. "Your husband has been murdered."

That's obnoxious because it's false suspense. Yeah, it slows things down, but no decent human being would stop just before giving bad news to mentally assess the decor. What is natural? What will feel plausible to the reader? Let the event cause the suspense. Let the interaction draw out the scene.

(I've actually got nothing against a paragraph of good description of the setting, and tying it to the POV character's own experience. But the place for that is at the start of the scene. We naturally notice our surroundings when we come into a new place or have to move around. Get the room described concisely, but once the action starts, put in only the description that is natural or you can do subtly-- "The widow dropped onto her yellow couch and pressed a square of linen to her cheek.")



green_knight said...

The obnoxious one would work to establish the detective as uncaring and a horrible little man.

Sigh. It is with great disappointment that I have to announce retiring from posting to this blog, but blogger has changed something about its code, which means that if I open blogger posts inside Safari, it takes the whole application down. I simply cannot jump through the hoops that are necessary to keep commenting on a regular basis, and I cannot run the risk to lose considerable chunks of time because I forget myself and quickly check into an interesting discussion.

My absence is in no way a comment on the contents of this blog - I love it, I have learnt so much from it, and I will continue to read the posts on my feed reader (livejournal) because I really really appreciate them.

I've tried to work around the problem, but short of switching to a different operating system, I cannot see a way to keep blogger happy. This isn't the first time I've been excluded thanks to my choice in platform, and not the first time that blogger's noncompliant code has caused me problems, but the latest change is one step too many for me to cope with.

I really will miss y'all. I continue to be active on livejournal, I have e-mail, and I hope to run into you at some con or other sooner rather than later, but I need to protect my workflow and my computer. :-(((

Adrian said...

The obnoxious version, though, is a great way to bury a clue. The reader is going to breeze through the diversion of the room description in order to get to the revelation and the reaction they know is pending. (The Sotheby auction might be the key to solving the crime.)

You've pointed out how mysteries can "hide" clues by putting them into the participle or the dependent clause. Perhaps this is a way to do the same for something more substantial.

P.S. We'll miss you green_knight.

Edittorrent said...

GK, I hate those ridiculously complex and inscrutable conflicts between programs. Everything's gotten so complex that when these things happen, I don't think even the software engineers can't figure it out. Good luck! We'll check out your livejournal.

Yes, you guys are right-- obnoxious can be a deliberate choice for the author to clue the reader in that something's amiss. I love the idea of a toadlike detective who always focuses on the wrong thing. He sounds like a bit of a snob too. I bet he wears spats. :)

Terri Tiffany said...

Great explanation-loved your examples:)

Beth Gray said...

I think you did a great job in describing what can happen to a story when the author tries too hard and is too close to it to realize that it is not coming across as hoped. This is a good reason why a writer needs to allow the work to set for a while before reading it as a reader would.

Unknown said...

This is great and has given me something to think about. Thank you, Alicia!

That being said, where is everyone?
Murphy? Wes? Jordan? Leona? it's quiet. And GK, you will most certainly be missed around here. The best!

Jordan McCollum said...

I was out of town. Sorry!

Speaking of false suspense, I read a book not too long ago where I think at least four times the author put in false suspense by having the POV character not tell us something that would have been patently obvious for the sole purpose of stringing us readers along, only to reveal it about 10 lines later after a POV shift. Dumb.

kelly said...

Tell me that example you used isn't from a published novel....

Leona said...

Hi Babs, I'm back. May be a bit spotty for a week or so. I'm on my way to a new life in Texas!

One short stop on the way - Roswell, New Mexico. Anyone care to comment on the coincidence of having my tranny quit working in the middle of alien territory? (BTW my only published novel is sci-fi)

WE were eight hours, give or take, from our destination. Now we are spending three days swimming and resting after two days of driving. We only broke for food and bathroom. taking long lunches in the heat of the day.

I'll be able to keep up every few days and do more than skim everything. In fact, I'm rereading stuff, back to early july as much as I can.

Anonymous said...

kelly, mine is from an English mystery. The dialogue is really great, or I'd put it aside-- the scenes are sort of static until someone starts speaking, then zing. The power of good dialogue!