Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writers #7: Use Regional Dialect, Patois, Sparingly

Welcome to the seventh in a series of posts covering Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers. Leonard started his career writing westerns, then switched to hard-boiled crime, which became his specialty. His skill as an author was widely praised by both the literary community and the general public of readers. Many of his works were made into famous movies, and he received the National Book Award in 2012.

Leonard developed ten rules for writers (and a bonus eleventh rule that sums up the rest). I love his books, so when I learned these rules, I applied them to my own writing. I think they’ve made the single biggest positive change to the quality of my work.

So, in this series, I’m going to take you through all of them. Continuing with…

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Readers learn a lot about a character from the way he/she sounds. For instance, in a crime novel, you might have a southern cop, a New York mobster, and a street gangster interacting with one another. Each of them will have a different sound to their speech, which helps give the reader a sense of who these characters are.

One way to accomplish this is by using dialect. Often this involves clipped words and apostrophes. The language reads phonetically.

Patois, by the way, is a French word meaning, “regional dialect.”

For example, you might see “running” changed to “runnin’.” Some writers make that change for every such instance in a character’s speech. So, the southern cop’s dialogue would be full of “-ing” verbs ending with “-in’.”

Here are a couple of reasons this can be bad:

1. It’s hard to have an ear for dialect. Authentically capturing the sound of a type of character or even a geographical region is no easy task for a writer. You must develop an ear for it. It’s hard to bring the details of, say, the cop’s southern accent to the page in an authentic manner if you don’t have an ear for that specific dialect. It’s easier (and often more effective) to use sparse dialect to add flavor to the character’s sound.

Another consideration is that you don’t want to stereotype characters. Not only could this be offensive to some readers, but typically a character that is merely a “type” is one-dimensional. In other words, they are not realized as an individual human being. Give personal flare to your characters’ speech to bring each one to life, rather than relying on copious usage of dialect.

2. Many readers find too much dialect annoying. If the page is full of apostrophes, as Leonard described this problem, it becomes clunky reading. The reader must recreate all the dialogue in their head so that they can understand what the characters are saying. It can kill the pacing of your writing, especially in dialogue-heavy scenes, which are supposed to move quickly. We can prevent this problem by limiting our use of dialect.

Of course, none of this is to say you should never use dialect. It is a powerful tool when executed well and sparingly. Leonard’s point is simple: we just shouldn’t over-do it.

I like the way Mark Twain handled dialect. He would use it liberally at the beginning of his works, then gradually remove it as the story progressed.

The result? He was able to train his readers’ ears early in a work. Then, when he took out the dialect later, his readers still HEARD it, even though they weren’t reading it anymore! Twain figured out a method of using dialect without disrupting the flow of his writing. Genius!

So, go ahead and use dialect. But use it sparingly. And consider trying out Twain’s technique.

Liked this post? Sign-up for my MAILING LIST for articles, updates on my writing, and more!

The Crime Fiction Masters: Dashiell Hammett vs. Raymond Chandler

-1

When you hear the term “hard-boiled crime” you might think of these two names: Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. They are considered by many to be the founding fathers of the genre.

Hammett is credited with writing the very first hard-boiled story, “Fly Paper,” published in Black Mask in 1929. His iconic private eye, Sam Spade, became the model of the detective in every crime subgenre. His most famous book, The Maltese Falcon, features Spade and is widely considered to be a great American novel. It had just as big an impact on crime writing as did its main character.

Chandler cited Hammett as one of his major influences. His private eye, Philip Marlowe has also inspired countless others to write such characters. Chandler developed philosophies on crime writing than ring true today. He defined what it means to “walk these mean streets” of literature.

Since I love reading both of them, I was surprised to learn that the Hammett and Chandler fan-bases frequently debate which of these crime fiction masters was better.

Let’s join in the fun!

Hammett

Dashiell Hammett worked as a private detective in San Francisco before getting tired of the job and becoming a writer. He lived the life of his character, Sam Spade. It shows in his work.

Hammett’s writing has a realistic edge to it. Spade’s clients and villains are members of the criminal world. They’re tough people with plenty of motive to murder, steal from, and con each other. They live in the underbelly of San Fran. They are professional crooks who make little effort to hide their criminal natures.

Spade joins in the schemes and double-blinds, as well. He’s not a pure hero seeking justice. Far from it. In The Maltese Falcon, he sees an opportunity to score and tries to make a deal. He has an affair with his partner’s wife, to the extent that she suspects him when his partner turns up dead—she thinks Spade killed him so he could marry her.

Hammett’s private eye is as tough as the people who hire him. And as ruthless as the adversaries he faces. This is the edge with which Hammett crafted his stories.

Chandler

Raymond Chandler worked in one of the most corrupt American industries of the day: big oil. He rose to the top in his company before becoming an author. And corruption became his favorite subject to write about.

His novels, set in Los Angeles, portray city officials, the wealthy, and the police as flawed, often villainous people. He points out the corruption in the systems on which society relies for justice.

His famous private eye, Philip Marlowe, is the knight-errant who makes up for the failing system. He deals with clients and villains who are respectable members of society… on the surface.

Marlowe uncovers their transgressions. They are often two-faced, personifying Chandler’s point that we cannot trust the system or the people running it. These characters are morally grey, not wholly villains but certainly not “the good guys” of the story. They have complex reasons for committing their crimes, which typically go beyond the heists and hustles of Hammett’s stories.

Unlike Sam Spade, Marlowe does care about finding the truth. Halfway through Chandler’s most famous novel, The Big Sleep, Marlowe contemplates quitting his case. He’s fulfilled his obligation to his client. He’s expecting his fee the next day. There’s no reason for him to continue. But he goes on to solve the mystery for the sake of justice.

He is the common man, working for every meal, up against a deceptive establishment that can’t be trusted. Readers could relate to those ideas in 1939, at the tail end of The Great Depression. People had lost everything to failing systems. They saw Marlowe, the hard-working tough guy with a sense of virtue, as an American hero.

So, who’s the better author?

1. Hammett’s mysteries are simpler than Chandler’s. Spade’s task is to identify the biggest villain in a cast of villains, then face-off against all of them. Marlowe, by contrast, has a taller order. He must unravel complicated series of facts in order to determine which “respectable” socialite is guilty. The result is that Chandler’s mysteries are more complicated puzzles for Marlowe (and the reader) to solve.

2. Hammett is more hard-boiled. Chandler is more literary. What I mean by this is that Chandler sought to bring the classic, British literary tradition to the American hard-boiled story. His work features healthy amounts of expository narration and detailed description, elements of classic literary fiction. Marlowe delivers first-person accounts of everything he thinks, does, and feels. Chandler was so descriptive, in fact, that his editors often had to cut passages so that his crime readers wouldn’t complain about slow pacing.

Hammett’s third-person omniscient narration is far sparser. While his description is quite vivid, he uses short paragraphs for his expository writing. Additionally, we never know Spade’s thoughts, just his body language and actions. We infer what he’s thinking from how he behaves and from what he says.

We’re interested in Marlowe because of what he tells us. And we’re interested in Spade because of what he doesn’t.

3. Spade is realistic. Marlowe is heroic. There’s no denying that Sam Spade is the more accurate portrayal of a private eye. His edge makes him real. He’s not a police detective who gets a paycheck for closing cases and finding the truth. He’s a P.I. who’s in it for himself, always looking for the next shady client to pay him to fix a problem. Put Spade in The Big Sleep, and the novel would have ended halfway through.

Marlowe, on the other hand, fits Chandler’s definition of a crime fiction hero, which he outlines in his nonfiction work, The Simple Art of Murder. He says:

Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.”

Marlowe is a good man who knows how to play it tough when he must. He is a common man who uses that to relate to the people he encounters on cases. He speaks the common language, complete with the slang of those mean streets. But Marlowe also understands honor and justice—he fights for them in a world run by the corrupt.

While he is not the most accurate depiction of a private eye, especially at the time these books were written, it makes for classic and compelling fiction. And let’s not forget that we are talking about fiction, a type of writing meant to inspire our imaginations with powerful stories. Marlowe’s quest for justice in a corrupt city is certainly that.

So, who was the better writer? I still don’t have an answer. The works of both men are revered for good reason.

I recommend that you read each one and make up your own mind. My hope, though, is that you enjoy and love their novels as much as I do.

But if you do have a preference, leave me a comment!

Liked this post? Sign-up for my MAILING LIST for articles, updates on my writing, and more!

 

References:

The Great Detectives: The Simple Art of Philip Marlowe. Perf. Nigel Williams. BBC, 1999. YouTube Upload.

 

Novel Update – 5/7/17

Since the last update in March, I’ve written six more chapters, bringing the total to sixteen. The manuscript is at around 200 pages and 50,000 words. My target is about 300 pages and 75,000 words.

Last update I mentioned that in the first hundred pages, I wrote in as many different characters as I could, then decided who was interesting and which scenes advanced the story.

In the second hundred pages, I developed subplots for each of the major characters. All of them work for something in this part of the book. Their paths cross in the process. As characters meet, they connect each other, leading to interesting situations when certain people fail to get along.

The other goal for this section of the novel has been to set up the final hundred pages and the ending. Those connections and subplots from the second hundred will culminate in every character coming together for the exciting conclusion… the final showdown.

I’m keeping up my daily writing schedule of two to five pages. I still do the first drafts in long-hand, then edit and rewrite as I type them into my manuscript document on the computer.

The key to being a writer, I’ve found, is to write every day. Treat it like a job, because that’s exactly what it is. A very enjoyable job, too.

More updates to come!

Liked this post? Sign-up for my MAILING LIST for articles, updates on my writing, and more!

 

Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writers #6: Never Use the Words “Suddenly” or “All Hell Broke Loose”

Welcome to the sixth in a series of posts covering Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers. Leonard started his career writing westerns, then switched to hard-boiled crime, which became his specialty. His skill as an author was widely praised by both the literary community and the general public of readers. Many of his works were made into famous movies, and he received the National Book Award in 2012.

Leonard developed ten rules for writers (and a bonus eleventh rule that sums up the rest). I love his books, so when I learned these rules, I applied them to my own writing. I think they’ve made the single biggest positive change to the quality of my work.

So, in this series, I’m going to take you through all of them. Continuing with…

Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

The problem with these words is that many authors (amateurs and professionals, alike) rely on them to create suspense in their scenes. But there’s a better way to do that. Let’s take a look…

You might see: “Vinnie walked down the dark alley. Suddenly, all hell broke loose.”

It’s always more effective to describe the action in vivid language, rather than to fall back on over-used words and phrases like these.

Ask yourself: what specifically happens to Vinnie in this scene? What does he see, hear, and feel? What are his thoughts? Does he say anything? Including that information leads to a much more interesting sequence.

Let’s remove “suddenly” and “all hell broke loose” from the example and then take a second look:

“Vinnie walked down the dark alley. He felt the gun in his back. ‘So,’ he said, ‘you found me, huh?’ ”

Notice how it’s clear that all those actions happen suddenly, so we don’t need to include the adverb. Instead, we hit the reader with one action after another. That’s how you build suspense and keep the tension up.

And instead of using the generic phrase, “all hell broke loose,” we now give the reader an account of every single thing that happens in the scene. Our character is in an alley. He feels a gun in his back. Oh, no! Then he gives a slick line of dialogue to the person who’s holding that gun.

See how much more exciting that is? And we didn’t need over-used words like “suddenly” to make it work.

So, banish these words from your writing vocabulary. When in doubt, use vivid language, not clichéd phrases, to make a scene dramatic.

Liked this post? Sign-up for my MAILING LIST for articles, updates on my writing, and more!

Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writers #5: Keep Your Exclamation Points Under Control

Welcome to the fifth in a series of posts covering Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers. Leonard started his career writing westerns, then switched to hard-boiled crime, which became his specialty. His skill as an author was widely praised by both the literary community and the general public of readers. Many of his works were made into famous movies, and he received the National Book Award in 2012.

Leonard developed ten rules for writers (and a bonus eleventh rule that sums up the rest). I love his books, so when I learned these rules, I applied them to my own writing. I think they’ve made the single biggest positive change to the quality of my work.

So, in this series, I’m going to take you through all of them. Continuing with…

Keep your exclamation points under control.

It’s common to find an overuse of exclamation points in the work of beginning authors.

But Leonard believed that we should limit ourselves to no more than three exclamation points per 100,000 words of prose. It’s both a helpful and humorous commentary.

It’s always better to find words to express exclamatory thoughts or actions.

As an example, you might see: “Vinnie drew his gun and fired twice! He had to land the shots just right!”

Instead of using the exclamation points there, you can give the reader Vinnie’s thoughts as he shoots. Let’s change that to: “Vinnie drew his gun and fired twice. It was either him or the other guy. And it all came down to these two shots. God, he hoped he didn’t miss.”

Use words and not punctuation to create emotion in your scene.

Additionally, Leonard believed it’s best not to have characters screaming at each other. In fact, I don’t think anything builds tension better than silence.

Let’s say you have a scene in which a husband and wife are sitting at the table. The husband says that he’s been sleeping with her sister and he couldn’t deal with the guilt anymore.

Now, how should the wife respond?

Well, she could slap him. Or she could scream and yell at him, with lines ending in exclamation points. Maybe we could even have her call him names.

But my choice would be to have her stay absolutely silent. She doesn’t say a word and just sits there and looks at him. The reader (and her husband) are wondering what she’s thinking. What’s she going to do? What does she want to do? And maybe the husband keeps talking to fill the silence and he keeps making it worse with every word. But she still doesn’t respond.

See how much tension you can create by using silence? Instead of raising the volume with exclamation points, try keeping a character quiet. I consider that one of the best methods of building suspense.

So, limit your exclamation points. Try avoiding them altogether and see if you can find better ways to express the excitement of a scene.

Liked this post? Sign-up for my MAILING LIST for articles, updates on my writing, and more!

 

How to Write a Book: First- and Third-Person Points of View

Narrative point of view is one of the major ways in which your readers interact with your story. In this post, let’s talk about the two most common points of view, first- and third-person.

In first-person, a character narrates the story directly to the reader. You could have something like:

“I felt the gun in my back. I thought, man, why’d this kind of thing always happen to me? Why was I the one always getting in trouble with some punk wanted to pop me, huh? I turned around real slow and said, ‘So, you gonna do it or what?’ ”

Some advantages of first-person:

  • It creates immediacy. The reader is right in the moment with the character, experiencing the scene right along with the narrator. It places the reader in the middle of whatever is going on, which is key to building immersion.
  • It feels instinctive. Many writers find first-person more natural than third-person. It’s the way people instinctively tell stories, and this often translates to the page during the writing process.
  • It lets the reader interact directly with the narrator. The reader hears the character’s voice all the way through the story. We can learn A LOT about a character from the way they sound. And from their attitude. How do they see themselves? How about the people and the world around them? First-person narration brings the reader into close contact with the character and his/her sound.
    • Notice that in the example above, our narrator (let’s name him Vinnie) sounds like a mobster. You hear his voice in the narration, because he is directly telling the story to you. Grammar is sacrificed in this instance to portray Vinnie’s rhythms of speech.
    • My favorite example of great first-person narration in the voice of a character is Mark Twain’s Huck Finn. You probably read it in high school, but I recommend revisiting it if you want a refresher. If you want a crime fiction book, try anything by Raymond Chandler.

A disadvantage of first-person:

  • It limits you to one character’s point of view. Unless you want to use a mix of first- and third-person in your work, which I’ve seen done successfully many times.  Usually, though, it is incredibly clunky for a writer using only first-person to switch between narrating characters. The best approach is to stick with one narrator.
    • This does limit you, however, to one character’s perspective on the story. You have to develop the other characters through your narrator’s opinions and descriptions of them.
    • You also can’t give the reader any information that remains unknown to your narrator. You are stuck with their point of view and ONLY their point of view (again, unless you want to mix first- and third-person). For a good example of the POV switch, try Michael Connelly’s The Poet. Scenes about his hero are in first-person, while scenes about his villain are in third.

There are two types of third-person narration that I’ll cover in this post. First, let’s tackle third omniscient. In this case, the writing is done from the perspective of an omniscient narrator and uses he-she form. The narrator knows everything about the characters, including their thoughts.

So, let’s change the above example to third omniscient:

“Vinnie felt the gun in his back. This kind of thing always happened to him. He was always getting in trouble with punks who wanted to pop him. He turned around and said, ‘So, you gonna do it or what?’ ”

The grammar is cleaned up, because we’re no longer hearing Vinnie’s voice. It’s now a distant narrator telling you the story, not the character.

Some advantages of third-omniscient:

  • It lets you switch between characters. You have the option of using different characters’ perspectives, because the narrator knows all. You’re not limited to one character’s point of view. This can be immensely freeing for authors. Especially those with complicated plots.
  • It gives the reader an unbiased view of the characters. In first-person, the reader sees everybody else in the story from the narrator’s biased point of view. But in third omniscient, the all-knowing narrator can be unbiased, giving the reader the facts of the story and letting them make judgments on their own. This can be an interesting tool. A good example of it is Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Unless classic Russian literature is your thing, I recommend only reading Part I to see this on display.

Some disadvantages of third-omniscient:

  • The distance sacrifices immediacy. Remember how first-person creates immediacy by placing the reader right into a scene with a character? Well, third omniscient does the opposite. The reader experiences the story through a narrator that is distant from the action. It provides a wider perspective, but that can destroy the immediacy.
  • You lose the character’s voice in the narration. The unbiased narrator often has a straight-forward, classic writer’s voice. Instead of hearing the character’s voice tell the story, as in first-person, the reader hears the plain, untarnished take of the omniscient narrator. It’s another kind of distance, in this case from a character’s sound, personality, and thoughts.

Finally, let’s look at my preferred narrative point of view: close third limited. It’s a combination of the two we’ve already seen.

It uses the he-she form of third omniscient, but the narration is in the characters’ voices.

Let’s change our example one more time to close third limited point of view:

“Vinnie felt the gun in his back. Man, why’d this kind of thing always happen to him? Why was he the one always getting in trouble with some punk wanted to pop him? He turned around real slow and said, ‘So, you gonna do it or what?’ ”

Notice that the character’s voice, complete with grammatical errors and his rhythms of speech, has returned. It’s Vinnie telling the story, but with he-she form instead of I-form.

Why do I like it so much?

  • It has the same immediacy as first-person. While also giving you the freedom to jump around between characters. We could put a scene break after Vinnie’s line of dialogue and switch to the point of view of the guy holding the gun. His voice would, of course, be different from Vinnie’s, but we’d execute the narration the same way. You get the best of first-person and third omniscient all in one.
  • It lets the reader interact with more than one narrator. Just as first-person allows the reader to get close to one narrator, close third limited makes that happen with several characters. You interact with Vinnie’s voice and attitude in one scene, then with the guy holding the gun in the next. And the author has the freedom to do that with any character interesting enough to have a point of view. Again, combining the merits of first-person and third omniscient.
    • For my money, the best close third limited author is Elmore Leonard. If you follow the blog, you know how big a Leonard fan I am. And this is a major reason why. Check out any of his crime novels to see this technique on display.

So, those are some basics on point of view. Is one the best? I like close third limited, but it really depends on what you’re trying to write. First-person or third omniscient might be just what you need.

Hope this post will help you decide. Happy writing!

Liked this post? Sign-up for my MAILING LIST for articles, updates on my writing, and more!

Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writers #4: Never Use an Adverb to Modify the Verb “Said”

Welcome to the fourth in a series of posts covering Elmore Leonard’s rules for writers. Leonard started his career writing westerns, then switched to hard-boiled crime, which became his specialty. His skill as an author was widely praised by both the literary community and the general public of readers. Many of his works were made into famous movies, and he received the National Book Award in 2012.

Leonard developed ten rules for writers (and a bonus eleventh rule that sums up the rest). I love his books, so when I learned these rules, I applied them to my own writing. I think they’ve made the single biggest positive change to the quality of my work.

So, in this series, I’m going to take you through all of them. Continuing with…

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.”

This rule goes right along with number three, which told us to only use the verb “said” to carry dialogue.

It’s common to see adverbs modifying the verbs in dialogue tags. In many cases, you’ll see something like:

“That’s a nice suit, buddy,” Vinnie slyly lied.

So, what’s the problem with using adverbs like this? Well, there are several.

First, many writers rely on adverbs to convey the meaning of their dialogue. But the goal is to have your dialogue be strong enough to convey the meaning by itself. The adverb in this case is the author telling the reader how a line is spoken rather than showing it.

Your dialogue should be able to carry its own weight, without your help. This is also one of the reasons you should only use “said” in your dialogue tags. The principle applies to both rules.

Additionally, adverbs modifying dialogue tags take up space in your scene. When you have something like, “…slyly said,” the adverb is just one more word the reader has to sit through before moving onto the next line. Keep the flow of the conversation natural. Don’t let your voice interrupt by telling the reader something with an adverb. Let your reader be alone with the characters in the scene, without you entering into it.

And, again, the adverb shouldn’t even be necessary. The context of the exchange, the personalities of the characters, and the words themselves should explain the meaning of each individual line.

It’s a much more immersive experience for the reader to transition from one line to the next without the author’s intervention. Adverbs only get in the way of that immersion.

Since banning adverbs from my own writing, I’ve noticed that my scenes and dialogue have improved. The same thing occurred when I stopped using verbs other than “said” in my tags. By removing these crutches, I forced myself to become a better writer. That’s why I recommend following these rules… I tested them on myself before asking others to take my word for it.

So, refrain from using adverbs in your dialogue tags. You simply don’t need them.

Liked this post? Sign-up for my MAILING LIST for articles, updates on my writing, and more!

Why You Should Join a Writing Group

People always say that a writing career is a marathon, not a sprint. I’ve never liked that analogy. Both types of races imply serious competition with the other writers around you.

Certainly, the marketplace is competitive. But I don’t believe you should try to beat your personal network of writers.

I also hear people say that a writing career is a journey. I prefer this idea, clichéd though it may be. A journey doesn’t imply competition. It is simply getting from a starting point to a destination. Beginning with a dream and reaching a goal.

And journeys are always better when you take them with friends.

Writing group members can help each other on their collective journey by:

  • Offering feedback on each other’s work
  • Guest posting on each other’s blogs
  • Sharing information they learn about writing and marketing
  • Beta reading
  • Proofreading/editing
  • Cover design (if one of them knows graphic design)
  • Blurb writing
  • Contributing honest, thorough reviews on Amazon
  • Emotional support when things get tough
  • Etc. There are countless other ways your group can assist you, and you them.

I think that having a writing group is like Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, in which a fellowship of characters makes a pilgrimage to Canterbury. Along the way, they each tell a story that represents who they are and from where they come. In doing so, they pass the time and make the journey more enjoyable. There is a competition between them to tell the best tale, but it’s all in good fun.

My writing group functions in a similar way. We have a variety of genres represented: literary fiction, crime fiction (that’s me), science fiction, young adult fiction, and historical fiction, to name a few.

We share our work with one another, in effect telling stories that represent who we are. Just like Chaucer’s characters. And we help each other ready our stories for publishing. There’s no competition between us. Only support. We make our collective journey, our literary pilgrimage, better by taking it together.

Being an author is a long and often difficult road. We do it because we love it. We couldn’t imagine life without storytelling.

But having a strong network to support you can make all the difference. So find a writing group, and enjoy going on this journey together.

Liked this post? Sign-up for my MAILING LIST for articles, updates on my writing, and more!

How to Write (and Read) a Mystery: The Mechanics of a Whodunit

If you’re a fan of mystery novels, you’ll know just how addicting they can be. You find a book with a plot that draws you in. A crime, perhaps, that begs to be solved. And you ask yourself, Can I solve it? Of course, you happily accept the challenge.

The mystery is both one of the most popular forms of crime fiction and one of the most challenging to create. I see aspiring writers ask for advice about how to write them all the time. So, let me tell you the number one thing you need to know about writing a mystery. And, it applies to reading a mystery, as well.

A whodunit is both a work of literature and a game. That’s right, a game. When Sherlock Holmes famously says, “The game is afoot!” his meaning is quite literal. A mystery is a battle of wits between the reader and the writer. And it goes like this…

The writer spins a complicated puzzle. The writer holds all the answers to the puzzle and doesn’t reveal them until the end of the book (the end of the game).

Meanwhile, the reader begins with no answers but has the desire to find them. The reader scours the book for clues. They try to solve the puzzle before the writer tells all at the end. If they figure it out, the reader wins the game. If they don’t, the writer wins.

Think of it another way. In a mystery, there are typically two primary characters facing off against one another: the investigator vs. the villain. Like the reader, the investigator begins the story without the answers they need to solve the crime. The villain, however, commits the crime, so they have all the answers.

So, a mystery works by allowing readers to substitute themselves for the investigator character.

In effect, the detective is a proxy for the reader, and the villain is a proxy for the writer.

And that’s how the reader gets to play the game. They try to beat the writer by solving the puzzle before the reveal, just as the detective tries to beat the villain in the fictional story.

It’s important to note that a reader must, by the reveal at the end, have all the information they need to solve the case. Otherwise, it’s not a fair game. In fact, T.S. Eliot wrote an essay about classic detective fiction, in which he emphasized the importance of this idea, which he called, “fair play.” So, don’t conceal any crucial information. You can save an important detail until right before the reveal. But, all the clues must be in place by the time you tell the reader “whodunit.”

This competitive dynamic between reader and writer, this game, is the primary mechanic of a mystery. If you write your story with this mindset, you’re in good shape. And if you read a mystery with this mindset, you’re in for a fun experience trying to beat the author. And it’s a blast when you win against the best mystery writers out there.

So, get reading and get writing!

Liked this post? Sign-up for my MAILING LIST for articles, updates on my writing, and more!

There Is No TL;DR When Learning How to Write

The Internet is full of advice for writers. People will tell you how to write scenes, how to outline, and even how to structure a single sentence. Much of this advice can be helpful (though not all). But, there is one thing I hear successful authors say to aspiring writers again and again:

Read.

Read widely and deeply—try a large variety of books and stories and study each one. This is the way we learn how to write.

In doing so, we expose ourselves to the voices, styles, and techniques of authors who have satisfied others with their stories. And their works give us demonstrative examples of how to do the same. We see their expertise in action.

We live in a day and age when the Internet provides us the opportunity to condense large amounts of information into short summaries. You want to know about the Spanish American War? The Wikipedia page on the subject will give you a general knowledge of it.

But, for aspiring writers, it is not enough to go online and search for summaries of authors’ books. A Wikipedia page on the style of a great writer will not teach you how to develop your style. A SparkNotes plot summary of an Agatha Christie mystery will not show you how to create a complicated story-line in 300 pages of prose.

It comes down to a simple fact… we must read well in order to write well.

So, I encourage you to get reading. It doesn’t matter if you want to write crime, romance, westerns, fantasy, sci-fi, literary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, screenplays, and on and on.

Reading is the key to writing anything.

And writers are incredibly lucky. Most of us love to read and want to create the same kinds of novels we enjoy. Our training is FUN! Our homework isn’t a chore, because we’re happy to have a good book in our hands anyway. As a crime writer, I’ve had a great time studying Chandler, Higgins, Leonard, Baldacci, and others. I was reading their books even before I decided to write… because I love the genre and always have.

Don’t rely on summaries or online articles that condense entire books into short write-ups. Don’t try to learn the techniques of an author from some third-party who’s publishing posts about that person’s work. Take the time to READ.

Because, there’s no “Too Long; Didn’t Read” when learning how to write.

Liked this post? Sign-up for my MAILING LIST for articles, updates on my writing, and more!