By Susan Rogers Cooper
While teaching classes over the years on how to write a mystery, I've come across other people's rules for how to and how not to write. And there are some fine rules out there. But, let's face it, as writers we are already dancing to the beat of a different drummer. Is it okay to bend some of these rules? Break one or two? Or totally ignore them? To screw up a wonderful quote, “Rules? We don't need no stinky rules!”
Now a man named Resnicow wrote some charming rules on how to write a mystery. He didn't specify – but I must – that these rules are only for the classics, or cozies, or drawing room mysteries.
Number one I agree with, unless you're writing under the name of Carolyn Keene:
“1. You're writing a mystery: so kill someone.” That's mostly a keeper.
“2. All clues should be presented clearly and preferably more than once.” Unless you're writing a police procedural, hard-boiled, or suspense.
“3. The information given the reader must be accurate. Do your research.” Okay, another keeper.
“4. All questions must be answered, all loose ends tied up.” Unless, of course, the book is going to have a sequel, or the whole point of the story is unanswered questions.
That's just some of Mr. Resnicow's rules. But he's not the only one with a list. Back in the day, I found an interesting publication by a group of sci-fi writers out of Houston. They called their opus “The Turkey City Lexicon,” and they divided their rules into groups: Words, Sentences and Paragraphs, Background, and Plot. I'll just recount some of my favorites.
“Said” Bookism: Artificial, literary verb used to avoid the perfectly good word “said.” “Said” is one of the few invisible words in the language; it is almost impossible to overuse. Infinitely less distracting than “he retorted,” “she inquired,” or the all time favorite, “he ejaculated.”
And on that subject, my own pet peeve, no identifiers in a discussion involving more than two people. For God's sake, it's two extra words, people! (Now putting soap box away.)
Tom Swifty: Similar compulsion to follow the word “said” with an adverb. As in, “We'd better hurry,” said Tom swiftly.” Remember, the adverb is a leech sucking the strength from a verb. (I love that last line!)
“Burly Detective” Syndrome: Fear of proper names. This is when you can't call Mike Shayne “Shayne,” but substitute “the burly detective” or “the red-headed sleuth.” It comes from the entirely wrong-headed conviction that you can't use the same word twice in the same sentence.
From Sentences and Paragraphs:
Laugh-track: Characters giving cues to the reader as to how to react. They laugh at their own jokes, cry at their own pain, and (unintentionally) feel everything so the reader doesn't have to.
Hand Waving: Distracting readers with dazzling prose or other fireworks to keep them from noticing a severe logical flaw.
Fuzz: Element of motivation the author is too lazy to supply. The word “somehow” is an automatic tip-off to fuzzy areas of a story: “Somehow she forgot to bring her gun.”
Info Dump: large chunks of indigestible expository matter intended to explain the background situation. This can be overt, as in fake newspaper of “Encyclopedia Glactia” articles inserted in the test, or covert, in which all action stops as the author assumes center stage and lectures.
As you Know, Bob: A form of info dump in which the characters tell each other things they already know, for the sake of getting the reader up to speed.
I've Suffered for My Art And Now It's Your turn: Research dump.
I call this my personal favorite because, if I do the research, by damn, I'm gonna use it! Okay, half the time I have to go back and delete the boring stuff I learned, but please, ask me about it! I'll give you all the details!
And my favorite under Plots:
God-in-the-Box: Miraculous solution to an otherwise insoluble problem. “Look, the Martians all caught cold and died!”
Like I mentioned earlier, rules are meant to be used, edited, adapted or broken, but sometimes it's fun to see what other people think good writing is all about.