Sunday, August 30, 2009

How it all fits together....

Not long ago, I read an interesting review of Sean Beaudoin's Fade to Blue. The reviewer, Melissa Owens, made some interesting comments about how the plot of the novel was intricate but seemed to be scattered. Her excellent, balanced and thorough reviews, by the way, are at Melissa's Bookshelf; I highly recommend this blog/review site.

After I'd read her review, I got to thinking about how we mystery writers put it all together, so to speak. How do we hang the different elements of plot together? Many mystery authors use the chronological approach. It's efficient, it allows the author to build suspense, and it's logical, so the reader can follow the plot. Hugh Pentecost's The Fourteen Dilemma is an example of that style; so is James Yaffe's A Nice Murder for Mom. There are thousands of others; I'm sure that you can think of them yourself.

Other authors use slightly different approaches. For instance, Alexander McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies Detection Agency hangs together differently. That novel is almost a collection of short stories, held together by Mma Precious Ramotswe. Each story is more or less in consecutive order, but the novel doesn't take the reader from the beginning of just one plot to the end of it.

As I writer, I find that it's easier to write more or less chronologically. I like the reader to get to know the characters, and then follow the characters through the key events of the story. But, to be honest, writing in just chronological order leaves out something I think is very important: different perspectives on the same events. So in my own Joel Williams series, I follow different characters through roughly the same period of time. That approach lets me share a little more about the characters with the reader. It also lets me give the reader a bigger perspective on what's going on.

I didn't invent this, of course. Agatha Christie did it frequently, especially later in her writing. It's very clear in Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance. In that novel, the overall plot is told more or less in consecutive order, but the reader follows different characters in different places. Robin Cook does the same thing. In Foreign Body, for instance (and it isn't the only example, of course), the reader follows Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery, as well as the main character, Jennifer Hernandez, and a group of people who are behind a scheme to use medical tourism to India for their own purposes. Cook keeps the reader focused on the chronology by giving dates and times to his chapters, but we get everyone's perspective on the story's main events.

As a writer, it's hard to keep a plot focused at times, because the characters themselves are very interesting to me. I want to follow their line of thinking and share more about them with the reader. Of course, that can be distracting, so I also try to keep the main plot in mind. For me, it all fits together through the main event in the story - the murder (or murders). Everything else has to relate to that, and I generally do that by telling the main events more or less chronologically.

Do you think a chronological plot is important to a good mystery? What really good mysteries do you know of that aren't written that way?

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