Showing posts with label plot holes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label plot holes. Show all posts

16 August 2022

Finding the Sweet Spot Between Overexplaining and Underexplaining

I read two mysteries in the past week that I enjoyed very much. One was a cozy, the other sort of a historical (it involved time travel). The juxtaposition of reading them back-to-back brought a writing question to the fore: How do you find the balance between not wanting to spoon-feed the reader key facts and not wanting to leave them confused?

In one of these books, as the sleuth put the clues together and figured out whodunit, she laid out her thought process. Fact A led to fact B, which led to fact C. Consequently, the sleuth knew, Character X was the killer. I reread the section multiple times. I agreed about facts A, B, and C, but how--I wondered--had the sleuth jumped from fact C to knowing whodunit? While I had correctly guessed the killer, I hadn't been sure of why this character had committed murder, and reading this part of the book didn't enlighten me. Ultimately, I realized there was a key fact, D, which hadn't been mentioned while the sleuth was figuring things out. The author had left room for the reader to guess about fact D so the reader could draw her own connections between the facts and the killer's identity.

In the other book, the sleuth not only talked about facts A, B, and C. She talked about facts D, E, F, and G, drilling down, showcasing her thought process. By the time she realized who the killer was, there was no way the reader would have any question how she came to that conclusion. The author had left a roadmap that would have made Rand McNally proud.

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Which author's approach was the right one? Trick question! They both were right. Some authors simply like to give readers more room to draw their own conclusions than others do. There's nothing wrong with either way of doing things.

Of course, not all readers would agree, and that's the rub.

I've read reviews where readers complained about plot holes because the author, like in my first example above, didn't explain how the sleuth came to a certain conclusion. I've also read reviews where readers complained because they didn't like how the author spelled all the details out, as if the author didn't trust the readers to be smart enough to draw their own conclusions.

What's a poor author to do? Seems you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

The problem is that some readers are more literal than others. They need or want the facts to be spelled out because, without them, these readers won't see how the sleuth reached her conclusions and might think you have a plot hole. These readers don't want to have to work so hard while relaxing with a book.

Other readers are more intuitive and feel patronized if an author explains or (from these readers' perspective) overexplains things. For these readers, part of the fun of a puzzle mystery is being given the room to figure things out for themselves, and when that fun is denied them, they become aggravated.

This isn't to put readers in either group down. I can be pretty literal myself and often encourage clients to explain things a bit more, helping the reader to connect the dots. Yet there certainly are times when I read a book and think, we know, we know, get on with it. Every reader has their own tolerance for how much explanation they like and need. The challenge for authors is to satisfy readers who are more literal-minded while at the same time satisfying readers who enjoy making connections. Satisfy everyone, no matter where they fall on the reading spectrum!

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No problem, right? Just give readers enough breadcrumbs to lead them to the solution, but not so many that the pacing is negatively affected.

You're cursing at me under your breath, aren't you? I get it. It's easy to say, not so easy to do. But here's my suggestion for finding that sweet spot: First, figure out what your natural inclination is. Are you more literal-minded or more intuitive? Do you tend to overexplain or underexplain? Then, once you know which way you tend to lean, make sure you have a beta reader or critique partner or editor who leans the other way. 

An author whose natural inclination is to assume the reader will make logical jumps would be well served by a more literal-minded editor who can point out where there are gaps in the sleuth's thought process. In contrast, an author whose natural inclination is to spell out every little detail would probably benefit from a reader who is good at making connections and who can highlight where the author explained so much that the writing began to drag. Between the two of you, you hopefully will find a good middle ground so your literal-minded readers won't feel lost, yet your intuitive readers will still feel challenged.

Good luck!

06 November 2019

How to Kill Your Story

I have been reading a novel by an author I much admire and have run into a roadblock.  About a third of the way through the main character began acting like an A.S.S.

I refer to a person with Amateur Sleuth Syndrome.

I will not name the author or title (I only review things I like) so forgive my vagueness in what follows.  X is in jail, accused of murdering Y.  Our main character, Hero, is trying to prove him innocent.  Hero gets a call from a Mysterious Stranger, offering to provide the evidence he needs, but when he goes to meet good 'ol Mysterious he is locked in a building and almost killed by the same M.O. that took out Y.

Okay, so far, so good.

But why didn't Hero have a cell phone when he got locked in?  This book was written well within the age of ubiquitous cells, so where the heck was it?

It gets worse.  Having escaped with his life Hero now has a compelling bit of evidence that X is innocent - specifically an attempted second murder.  Does he inform the cops?

Heaven forbid.  Instead, amateur that he is, he is determined to get at the truth himself.  His flimsy, off-the-cuff defense for this is that the cops have already made up their minds about X and wouldn't be interested.

So he is definitely acting the A.S.S.  But I  diagnose another illness complicating the case of this suffering piece of prose.  Namely, E.A.T.S.  Editor Asleep at The Switch.  Because any editor worthy of his two hour lunch should have spotted these issues, which the writer could have solved in a few minutes.

Dang, said Hero. I left my cell phone on the breakfast table.  Or forgot to charge it. Or there's no signal in this building.  How inconvenient, seeing as how I am about to die and everything.

And later:

I don't dare go to the cops, Hero explained.  They'll just think I faked the crime to try to get X out of jail.

Not a very good argument, that, but better than a whole heap of nothing.

As long as I'm complaining, let me tell you about two other plot-killers I have encountered. One was a short story featuring a woman suffering from U.G.  By this I mean Unnecessary Guile.  This private eye needed to know who owned a car so she contacted a cop friend and used all her Feminine Wiles to persuade him to look up the information for her.

Fair enough, I suppose.  Except that the car had just committed multiple traffic violations, endangering the public.  If you wanted to get police attention wouldn't you lead with that?  Or at least mention it?

And then there was a story in which a police officer was guilty of Cop Rejecting Accepted Procedure, or C.R.A.P.  He chose to get information in a way he knew would make it unusable in court.  Okay, there are lots of fictional fuzz who bust the rules left and right, but this guy was supposedly before (and after) a straight arrow.  So what were we supposed to make of this weird aberration?  Methinks somebody got lazy, and I don't think it was the character.

I hope you find these tips useful.  Follow them and it will be less likely that your reader will engage in something T.A.B.U. (Tossing Away Book Unfinished).

13 March 2018

The Plot Thickens

Welcome Sherry Harris

Sherry Harris, author of a cozy amateur-sleuth mystery series, is our guest today on SleuthSayers. In addition to writing the Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries, Sherry is vice president of Sisters in Crime National and immediate past president of the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Her first novel, Tagged For Death, was a finalist for the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her fifth novel, I Know What You Bid Last Summer, came out from Kensington on February 27th, and she has more books under contract. I've been lucky enough to work with Sherry for a few years, and I'm happy to let her share her thoughts on plotting and plot holes– evil, evil plot holes– with you today.

— Barb Goffman

The Plot Thickens
by Sherry Harris

Plotting is not something that comes naturally to me. It reminds me too much of outlining papers for school. No fun. What’s an author to do?

Since the second book in my Sarah Winston Garage Sale series, Barb Goffman has been my independent editor. One of the many things she’s done to improve my writing is to encourage me to plot. When I gave her my sixth book to edit last spring I expected the usual notes on upping this or that. What she gave me included a list of TWENTY-SIX questions that I hadn’t answered in the manuscript. TWENTY-SIX!
book 1 in the series

That meant I had a lot of rewriting to do. We all know that saying, all writing is rewriting, but this time it was crazy. Not only that, but she said she’d figured out who did it near the beginning of the manuscript. Barb had never said that to me before. And she had one more bit of advice: Maybe you should sketch out your plot before your write the next book.


How does my editor at Kensington figure in to all this? Some editors want a five-to-ten page synopsis or outline before they sign off on a book. For the last four books, I’ve only turned in the briefest ideas – some only a couple of sentences, some a paragraph. I turned in a synopsis after I’ve written the book – it’s a lot easier that way.

When I started book seven I attempted to take Barb’s advice, so I wrote out a page of who did it and why they did it. I referred back to that page as the book progressed. I have to admit it was helpful because if I started off on a tangent, the page would keep me on track. This time the manuscript came back with fourteen questions. And most of them weren’t difficult to fix, so I didn’t have to spend a ton of time rewriting. Whew! Maybe there is something to this whole plotting thing.

Sherry's latest book
Now I’m starting the eighth book. When I wrote my Kensington editor it was more of a “Hey, I want to try this. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done in a cozy before.” He said, “Go for it.”

But now I’m facing the blank computer screen. I’ve started to try to plot. The nugget of information that leads me down the writing path has been a bit different in each book. Sometimes I start with the victim, sometimes the type of crime. This time I know who the killer is, but I don’t know who they killed or why.

I’ve been making a list of potential victims and writing why after each one. It’s a very different process for me and so far I keep drawing a blank. Instead I’ve been sketching out other aspects of the book – things like who are the suspects (which may sound crazy considering I still don’t know who dies), where Sarah is in her personal life, what time of year is it, what kind of garage sale will she deal with. While I do that I keep wondering if I can pull off what I want to and then circle back to the list. I stare at the list and then play a game of solitaire. A call to Barb to work through all of this is imminent.

Any advice? How do you manage your plot?