Showing posts with label rules. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rules. Show all posts

09 November 2019

My Rules of Mystery


Many writers have drafted up a set of "rules" for how to write and, specifically, how to write mysteries. I thought now would be a nice time to toss in my five cents on the matter. And the following list can equally apply to short stories or novels.


1.   First rule of mystery writing: There MUST be a mystery.

Readers KEEP reading, page after page, because they want to know the answer/solution/explanation of that mystery.

2.   Does a mystery always need a dead body?

No. But the "crime" needs to be significant, e.g., a serious physical assault, the robbery of a valuable jewel, a threat to kill.

An empty chocolate wrapper (and Who ate the candy?) is a children's mystery. A severed head is an adult mystery.

3.   The mystery must be solved at the END of the story.

Ask a question very near the beginning, e.g., Who murdered Roger Ackroyd? Answer this question very near the end.

If you don't answer the question, and the mystery remains a mystery, the reader will throw your book at the wall.

You could answer the question in the middle, but you better have another good question to ask at that point to lead the reader through to the end; and there needs to be a good, justifiable reason for doing this.

4.   There is a difference between mystery and suspense.

A bomb that brings down an aircraft is a mystery. A passenger on a plane thinking the guy two rows ahead may have a bomb in his overhead luggage is suspense.

5.   Be aware that “Mystery” is a broad church.

There are many sub categories (or genres) to mysteries, e.g., noir, cozy, police procedural, private eye, locked room. And feel free to mix these up.

6.   Genres have rules.

If you’re writing in one of the genres (99% likely), be aware there are conventions and reader expectations for each.

Unless you truly are one of the masters of literature, mess with reader expectations at your peril.

7.   You are unlikely to be one of the masters of literature.


8.   Write what you know. If you don’t know, find out.

Don’t write a story about a private eye, or a kindergarten teacher, if you have no idea at all what is involved in those professions. Don't set a story in Latvia if you don't, at least, know the country's capitol or what language the people speak (Riga, Latvian/Russian). Don't write about Euclidean geometry, if you haven't any idea what that is. Don’t guess; research (libraries, Google, talk to people).

A good writer is a good researcher.

9.   Clichés

Avoid these like the plague.

There are countless websites that list clichés and common and overused tropes.

10.  Conflict is your friend.

Conflict, at its simplest, is the "disagreement" between a person and another (person, external force/creature). It's between protagonist and antagonist; or to put it another way:

Main Character vs. ________________

Every work of fiction (mystery, or other) that’s ever been sold to a publisher has had conflict in it (literary fiction excluded). Conflict invites drama; it is the fuel of a story. If your story has no conflict, there will be little to engage the reader.

A scene where a married couple eats dinner and discuss what color to paint their bathroom is not drama. If one of the diners suspects the other of sleeping around, you have conflict (and they can still be discussing what color to paint the bathroom (see next)).

11.  Subtext is your friend.

Subtext is not written, it is implied. It is the underneath; the feelings and intuition, the unspoken meaning.

Even a shopping list can have subtext.
  • Milk
  • Bread
  • Eggs
  • Hammer
  • Shovel
  • Bag of quicklime
  • Bottle of champagne 
Subtext is one of the writer's tools of magic.

12.  Plants are your friends.

Don’t have the hero pull out a gun and shoot the bad guy on the last page, if there’s been no mention (or any kind of reasonable expectation) that the hero is carrying a gun. Plant it. Remember your Chekhov: Gun on wall in first act. Gun fired in third act.

And plants apply to everything, not just guns. Bad guy's sneeze gives away his position in the shadows; plant his allergy earlier. Hero must rescue cat from tree, but he can't; plant his fear of heights earlier.

Without planting, events and actions will appear implausible, and your book will meet the wall.

A good writer is a good gardener.

Note: Yes, I know I'm retooling Chekhov's meaning (he was more concerned with the relevance of things in a story, i.e., don't include something, if it isn't needed later).

13.  Red herrings vs. Playing fair

Feel free to mislead and misdirect your readers (let them reel in many red herrings), but always play fair. Give your readers some real "clues" as to what is going on; so, at the end of the story, they'll slap their heads and sigh, "Oh, but of course!" Give them enough clues so that they "almost" might be able to work out what is going on, before you yank the curtain back and startle the snot out of them.

Never try to "trick" your reader; your book will be thrown at the wall.

And if you end your story with: it was all just a dream, you'll hit the wall before your book does.

14.  MacGuffins are a thing.

Many mysteries make use of a MacGuffin. A microfilm that everyone wants, and will kill for, is a MacGuffin. The Maltese Falcon is a MacGuffin. The object of a quest: a diamond mine, an unknown Beethoven Symphony, the Holy Grail, can all be MacGuffins. MacGuffins give the characters something to do.

Wikipedia sums it up best: "In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself."

The shark in Jaws IS NOT a MacGuffin.

15.  Impose a deadline

Deadlines work well in suspense (We have to find the bomb, it explodes at midnight!!!), and they also work in mystery. A deadline focuses a story on its end/outcome and creates urgency. Think of a story as a tunnel. The deadline is the light at the end.

The detective on board the train must identify the killer before the train arrives at its destination and all the passengers disembark. An unknown man who smokes Gauloises has threatened to hijack a school bus, and it's two hours until school's out.

16.  Twists are good. (there be spoilers here)

A TWIST ENDING is not a prerequisite for a mystery, but if you can write an unexpected and satisfying twist into your story's end, it will certainly make it more memorable; it will add another layer of icing to the cake. A twist ending completely upends and rearranges the facts and events of what's come before it.

The Sixth Sense: The child psychologist IS one of the dead people the kid is seeing. Psycho: Norman Bates IS his mother.

Pro tip: Twist endings are never arbitrarily dreamed up at the end of writing a story. They are written in right from the very beginning. Robert Bloch knew on page one of Psycho that Norman Bates' mother was dead and that Norman was the killer, and Bloch carefully hid this in the fabric of the storytelling. He didn't let the reader in on the truth until the end.

PLOT TWISTS can appear anywhere in a story and are different to the "twist ending." Plot twists change something significant about the story and/or the characters, but don't rewrite the whole thing.

Star Wars: Luke, I am your father. The Shining: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

An excellent, legendary plot twist appears in Psycho, about one third of the way in. Mary Crane, the book's main character (the one we've been following and who we care about), is murdered. She's gone for good. Never comes back. Bloch was one of the masters of literature; he could get away with that kind of thing.

17.  Last rule of mystery writing: Ignore all the rules at your pleasure. Except for the first one.


So, do you have any "rules of mystery" that you live and write by?



stephenross.live/
Twitter: @_StephenRoss/

26 April 2019

Thornes and Roses – The World of TK Thorne


Ladies and gentlemen, meet author T.K. Thorne.

T.K. Thorne, a retired police captain, woke up one morning and decided to wildly depart from her previous writings to explore murder, mayhem, and magic in her newest novel, House of Rose, where Birmingham Police Officer Rose Brighton discovers she is a witch of an ancient line. Set in the Deep South, House of Rose is the first book in the Magic City trilogy. T.K.’s previous works include award-winning historical novels— Noah’s Wife and Angels at the Gate— and nonfiction. Last Chance For Justice, detailing the 1963 Birmingham church-bombing case. She writes from her Alabama mountaintop, often with two dogs and a cat vying for her lap.

— Velma

Crime Meets Magic

by T.K. Thorne

The first thing most people say to me when they learn I was a career cop is, “Oh? You don’t look like a policeman.”

This is a good thing because I’m a woman.

Perhaps at 5’3”, I don’t fit the stereotype in their minds. That’s not worrisome to my self-image because during my 20+ years in the Birmingham (Alabama) Police Department, it never occurred to me that I was too small … other than the annoying fact that my hands couldn’t fit properly around the gun’s grip. Not only did I have to figure out an alternate way to shoot, there were other challenges.

In those early academy days, we had to carry the fifty bullets needed for the firearms qualification tests in our pants pocket and dig them out to reload with one hand (the other held the gun). Tight time constraints for firing and reloading were in place to try to replicate some of the stress of being under fire. If I pulled more than six bullets at a time out of my pocket, it overwhelmed my hand’s capacity to manipulate them into position to reload. Bullets tumbled to the ground, making it impossible to reload in time. With practice, I developed the ability to blindly grab exactly six bullets at a time. I’m inordinately proud of that now useless skill.

Since Joseph Wambaugh’s controversial Choir Boys appeared in 1975, the number of law enforcement authors has grown, but they’re still an anomaly, and so I get to surprise with the double whammy of being a retired cop and a writer. I’ve learned to deal with the “You don’t look like a policeman,” reaction with a smile and a simple, “Thank you.” And when I explain my latest novel is about a young police woman in Birmingham, Alabama who discovers she’s a witch, I get an even more fun reaction—“Is it autobiographical?” And an even more fun answer—“Yes.”

Ironically, my new novel, House of Rose, is the first one to pull from my law enforcement background. Previous writing adventures took me to the ancient past with two historical novels about women in the Bible who get no name and one line (Noah’s wife and Lot’s wife) and to my city’s civil rights days as nonfiction.

Then Rose came into my life. Rose Brighton is a rookie police officer, a somewhat prickly loner, surprised that she loves the job and determined to make it despite the challenges. She is also is a young me—only taller, with adequate-sized hands, exotically beautiful … and a witch.

It was love at first write.

Magic is not an element to introduce into a story without serious contemplation. It must exist within the fictional world as a “realistic” element within the story structure. The rules of how it works must be internally consistent. Also, it needs to match the voice of the story’s narration. A light-hearted, humorous approach, such as a fairy story or a comic book-based type of story (think Once Upon A Time or Dr. Strange) can get away with more loosey-goosey magic. That said, any story can include humorous elements. I had a great time playing the traditional broomstick-and-potion concept of witches against the real-(story)world powers of three ancient Houses whose members derive their magic from the three ores used to make Birmingham steel—coal, iron ore and limestone.

Orson Scott Card says magic must have a cost. I would add that all power, to include magic, needs to have limits. Frodo’s ring in The Fellowship of the Ring allowed him to be invisible, but at the same time, exposed him to Sauron's deadly wraiths. Harry Potter had to learn to use his wand and get the memorized spells exactly right or bad things could happen. Even Superman has to avoid kryptonite.

The rules of magic within the world you’ve created must be obeyed. Additionally, the use of magic needs to play a role in moving the character and plot forward. At the same time, it can’t substitute for the character’s need to make choices and face consequences. Merlin mustn’t show up and save the day (unless your character has worked and sacrificed to free him from his ice prison). In House of Rose, the ability to see the future is not something Rose controls and when it happens, she is left with a debilitating headache and serious complications in her life, not to mention her job as a police officer.

Magic Checklist
  • Are the “rules” consistent and consistently applied?
  • Does the “shade” of magic correspond to the narrative tone?
  • Does the magic have a cost? Does your reader understand what it is?
  • Does the magic move the plot forward and/or character development?
  • Does the magic supersede the character’s need to make choices and grow?
As a writer, I want to be as intrigued and entranced as my readers. Writing a novel is a long term commitment. Despite the challenges, magic—used well—can add spice and depth. For me, weaving magic “realistically” into a crime story was a bit like learning to blindly pull exactly six from a pocket full of bullets. It seemed improbable at first, but maybe learning that skill was not such worthless endeavor after all. Maybe it was a reminder that anything is possible.

Even a police-witch.

25 February 2017

Know the Rules You’re Breaking (THE most controversial post you’ll see from me)


by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

The rules, the rules…

Always, in my Crafting a Novel college class, beginning students are alarmed to find out there are rules to writing.

I’m not keen on rules in general. After all, I became a writer so I could thumb my nose at reality, right? Control the world of my fiction in a way I can’t control my real life.

All that said (and I could make a blog post out of just that line above) there ARE rules to writing. A bunch of middle-aged guys behind a baize door didn’t make them up for no reason (double negative – Ha! Rule-breaker, you.)

The rules are there for a reason. They’re all about logic. Here are two that are perhaps least understood. Let me make this clear:  You don’t have to follow them (more on that later.) But you do need to know them first, so that you know when you are breaking them. Here goes:

Present Tense:

This isn’t a rule. It’s more about savvy marketing. Most novels are written in past tense. Did you ever wonder why?

The trouble with present tense is it defies logic. If what I am reading is happening NOW, then how did it get written down on this page?

Approximately 60% of people (stats from a publisher) have trouble with this. Big trouble. I’m one of them. Our brains can’t accept it. Every time I hit a present tense verb, I’m thrown out of the manuscript. My reading is disrupted every paragraph. Ergo, I will not read present tense books.

Some students tell me they like to write in present tense because to them it ‘feels more immediate.’ (The classic way to do that is by increasing tension, I subtly remind.)

Here’s what I tell students: if you are writing your first genre novel, it might be wiser not to write it in present tense. Publishers know that present tense reduces the potential market because of morons like me who can’t read it. Why put another obstacle in the way of getting published?

(Publisher story: one popular YA dystopian fantasy novel was written and published in present tense. The publisher instructed her to write the second book of the trilogy in past tense.)

First Person Viewpoint Switches:

Many, many people don’t know the rules to first person viewpoint. So here goes:

The rules of writing in first person are simple: The protagonist becomes the narrator. As a writer, you make a promise to the reader. The person telling you the story is telling their story to you directly. No third party writing it. You are in her head.

I love first person. I *become* the protagonist, when reading or writing first person. But first person has huge limitations for the writer: the person telling the story must be in every scene. Otherwise, they won’t know what is going on in that scene (unless you employ a second person to run back and forth, telling the protagonist. Note the use of the word ‘tell.’ Telling is ho-hum. You won’t want to do that often.)

If your story is in first person, you can’t be switching to another character’s viewpoint. Ever. Nope, not even another viewpoint in first person. Why? Because your reader thinks this: “What the poop is happening here? The book started in first person. The protagonist is supposed to be telling the story. Now someone else is telling it. What happened to my beloved protagonist? Are the original protagonist and writer number two sitting next to each other at twin desks writing the story at the same time and passing it back and forth?”

In a phrase, you’ve broken your promise to the reader.

The rule is simple. If you need to write the story in more than one viewpoint in order to show every scene, then write the whole novel in third person. That's the advantage of third person, and why we use it. You can use multiple viewpoints.

One additional first person restriction: if your protagonist is telling the story directly, then he can’t die at the end of the story. This should be obvious: if he died, who wrote the darn thing?

Should you break the rules?

If you want to break the rules, have at it. You can write what you want. That’s the delight of being an author.

But in my class, you will hear this: The rules are there for a reason. Of course you can break the rules, but if you do, you will lose something (usually reader continuity and engagement.) It’s up to you to decide if you gain more by breaking the rules than you lose by doing so. BUT: If you break them in your first novel, publishers (and savvy readers) will think you don’t KNOW the rules.

So at least go in knowing the rules. And then do what you damn well please.

Final words: Don’t publish too soon. Take the time to learn your craft. And then…be fearless.

18 March 2013

no, No, NO!


by Fran Rizer

Here's a picture of my reaction to being told, "No."

Color that child's hair red and it could be a photo of a young Fran. My mom used to say she was glad I was an easy-going baby who didn't often need correction because I didn't like being told what to do. Now my hair is platinum blonde (okay, it's white), and I still don't especially like being bossed around.


Leigh's "Professional Tips: To Be or Not" on March 3, 2013, set me to thinking about writing rules, violations, and lots of other aspects of writing and teaching it. Does anyone remember e e cummings? That poet who refused to use capitalization or punctuation was my first encounter with writers who intentionally break the rules.

About the Letter "E"

In 1939, Ernest Vincent Wright published Gadsby: Champion of Youth, a 50,110-word novel without a single "e" (apparently his name was exempt). In 1969, Georges Peree produced La Disparition, which omitted all "e's" in both the original French and the English translation, A Void.

That intrigued me so much that I thought about trying it with something I'd written. Being too lazy to seek something to translate to Non-E-Lish, I tried it with the opening of this blog:

Original Line: Here's a picture of my reaction to being told , "No."

Same Thought, Written Without 'E's: This photo shows how I look if I'm told, "No."

Original Paragraph: Color that child's hair red and it could be a photo of a young Fran. My mom used to say she was glad I was an easy-going baby who didn't often need correction because I didn't like being told what to do. Now my hair is platinum blonde (okay, it's white) and I still don't especially like being bossed around.

Same Thoughts, No E's: Color that child's hair titian and that photo could stand for a young Fran. My mom always said, "I'm glad my child was a good kid who didn't command lots of modification, as Fran couldn't stand disapproving words." Now my hair is so light that it's platinum (okay, it's bright as snow) and I still don't allow anybody to boss this old gal around.

That wasn't so difficult. Try it yourself, but please don't cheat and write the original with the conversion in mind or change any words in the original to make it easier.
I'm going to move on now because all the E's gathered around my keyboard are beginning to threaten me. One has even vowed to set my computer on fire if I don't let them back in.


About Verbs

In 2004, Michel Thaler wrote Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train from Nowhere.) This 233-page novel has plot, character, and action, but not a single verb! Thaler says, "The verb is like a weed in a field of flowers. You have to get rid of it to allow the flowers to grow and flourish. Take away the verbs and the language speaks for itself." I would have preferred to read that statement minus the verbs and see if the same message was delivered.

Leigh told us about those who want to abandon the verb "to be." Thaler took that to the extreme, but let's take a look at that nasty old verb. First, I've dealt with adults in writers' groups who weren't quite sure exactly which words are forms of the verb "to be."

So here's a reminder though I'm sure none of us need it:

ENGLISH CONJUGATION OF THE VERB "to be"

Grammatical conjugation of a verb requires making a systematic list of all forms of the verb for each person, number, and tense. The verb "to be" is the most irregular verb in English. The simple conjugation of the verb to be is as follows:

Conjugations
• Infinitive: be
• Present Participle: being
• Past participle: been
• Future: will (or shall) be
Person,Number
Present Past
• 1st, singularIamwas
• 2nd, singularyouarewere
• 3rd, singularhe/she/itiswas
• 1st, pluralwearewere
• 2nd, pluralyouarewere
• 3rd, pluraltheyarewere

If you narrow those red words down by deleting repetitions, there are only eight of them: be, being, been, am, are, is, was, and were. Twice I've been in writers' groups with PASSIVE VOICE FREAKS. PVF's are people who go through other authors' sample manuscript pages and circle every one of those eight words and write PASSIVE VOICE and an ugly frowny face over them. The PVF's then look up with an expression that's uglier than the frowny face and makes me want to slap them, which I don't do because, as I've told you before, I am a sweet old southern lady.

Leigh wrote, "In particular, most advocates of removing most or all forms of the verb 'to be' point out it virtually eliminates passive voice."

Personally, I'd prefer the PVF's learn to correctly identify as passive only the structures where the verb "to be" is used as an auxiliary (known as "helping" until third grade) verb making the subject of the predicate the receiver of the action opposed to the giver of the action.

Example:
• The gun was fired by Fran who was ticked off by the PVF.
"Was fired" is passive as is "was ticked off" which makes this doubly less effective than the active:
• Fran fired the gun at the PVF who had pi _ _ ed her off.

Uh-oh! My samples are politically incorrect with the current gun issues in America. Please change "gun was fired" to "knife was thrown" and change "fired the gun" to "threw the knife."

Most of the time forms of "to be" are used as linking verbs showing condition or existence of the subject. If they were good enough for Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Jeffrey Deaver, and Harlan Coben, they're good enough for me.

My apologies if this turned into an elementary school English lesson. I started out aiming to tell you how I feel about some of the rules for writers, so I'll finish up this way:


Rules for Writers and How I Use Them

Even if lightning strikes the protatonist in the first chapter, I NEVER OPEN A BOOK WITH THE WEATHER--unless it's really important!

I NEVER write PROLOGUES--unless they're necessary!

I ALWAYS use "SAID" to carry dialogue--unless scream, moan, or whisper works better!

I ABSOLUTELY, REALLY, HARDLY ever use adverbs!

I'd run away like a greased pig at the county fair before I'd write regionally!

I avoid detailed descriptions of my characters, but my readers WANT TO KNOW about Callie's underwear!!!.

I NEVER use exclamation points because the rule says, "sparingly, no more than two or three per 100,000 words," and my books average 85,000 words, so I never get to use one.


I DO, HOWEVER, ADHERE TO THE "DOWN AND UP" RULE:


Write it DOWN, then clean it UP!




What about you? Do you have any rules you obey or any you ignore? What bothers you about rules for writers?


Until we meet again, take care of… YOU!