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Archive for October, 2010

Red Herrings

I just finished reading a 370-page novel in which the nasty banker was revealed as a double murderer in the end. The thing is, I knew the banker was the baddie after the first fifty pages. Why? Because nobody else in the book had been set up as a possibility. So unless the writer wanted to break with romance tradition and pick a likeable character as the villain, the banker was it. QED.

Now to me, this ranks as a serious flaw in the book’s plot, but that may be because I began reading romances after long experience reading mysteries. One of the cardinal rules of mystery writing is that you have to have more than a single suspect. There must be at least two or, preferably, three or four people who could have done whatever nasty thing has been done. That means constructing multiple red herrings.

A “red herring” is a false scent that supposedly diverts a hound from the true scent of its quarry (although this meaning has been challenged, according to Wikipedia). Creating alternative solutions to a mystery depending on alternative villains is standard for mystery writers. Agatha Christie is probably the past master of this—in Murder On the Orient Express she provides an entire trainload of suspects, all of whom had motive, means, and opportunity.

Romance writers don’t need to go to that extreme because we’re usually more interested in the romance than the mystery, but we do need to at least suggest alternatives so that the reader doesn’t lose interest in the other parts of the plot. In Be My Baby, I spent a lot of time figuring out how I could conceal the identity of the nasty kidnapper. I wanted my readers to feel concerned about what was going to happen, and that meant leaving them in the dark about exactly which person they needed to fear.

If only one person in a book could have performed a particular nefarious action, I’m likely to assume that person is innocent, based on my long experience as a mystery reader. In mysteries, the bad guy is never the one you initially suspect. If it later turns out that that person is, in fact, guilty, and no doubt has ever been cast upon his guilt in the course of the novel, I’m going to be more than slightly annoyed.

Now it’s possible to have the villain clearly identified from the beginning. He’s the serial killer you know is on the loose or the international criminal whom the hero has been tracking for years (although in that case the identity of said criminal may, again, be the mystery). This is the usual MO for thrillers and here the plot hinge comes with how the heroine/hero is finally going to come face-to-face with the villain. This means a skillful writer is going to set up several opportunities that don’t pan out in order to build suspense for the one that does (think of Clarice Starling knocking on Buffalo Bill’s door in Silence Of the Lambs after all the scary preliminaries).

But whatever the plot hinge is, the reader shouldn’t see it coming a mile away. The greater the surprise, the more deeply the reader is immersed in the story. And that brings me back to that nasty banker. Because I figured out the mystery so quickly, I lost interest in the plot soon thereafter. It didn’t help that the romance was also pretty routine. I found myself skimming through the pages, trying to get the gist without having to read everything. And I had no problem skipping to the ending. I already knew what it was, and all I had to do was confirm my guess.

That’s not the way you want your readers to feel, believe me. You want those readers to avoid looking at the ending at all costs because they don’t want to spoil the suspense. And without red herrings, there’s simply no suspense to spoil

 

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Romance and Politics

It’s campaign season and it’s killing me. In “real life” I’m a very opinionated person—just ask my friends and family. I can fulminate with the best of them and I have very definite political beliefs. All of which I have to leave at the door when I become Romance Writer.

When I taught at Enormous State University, I was always careful to keep my political opinions to myself. I didn’t want my students, many of whom held political opinions that were radically different from mine, to feel that they were in any danger of being persecuted for their beliefs. This was easier for me than for some of my colleagues since I taught things like document design and Web writing, where the subject of politics rarely came up (my friends in the history department were more hard pressed). Even so, I worked to keep my own opinions in the background. I knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of teacher prejudice more than once (when I was a kid, one teacher ridiculed me in front of my homeroom class for having a book about dinosaurs, which obviously meant I believed in (gasp) evolution).

Now as a novelist I’m in a somewhat similar position. I don’t want to limit myself to any particular group of readers, and I don’t want to exclude anyone from my books if I can help it. I’ve had some people complain about the sex scenes in my books, and I can’t do much about that (or anyway, I don’t intend to). Others have complained that my characters take the Lord’s Name in vain, and again I’m not going to change that since I want my dialogue to sound the way most people talk. But I try not to make my characters reflect any particular political agenda because as a reader I’ve been annoyed when authors did that. Some authors, like Jane Haddam, can get by with having political discussions in their work, but most of us can’t do it. I’ve found myself exasperated by characters in romance novels who suddenly start preaching about a particular social philosophy, and even more exasperated if the author inserts a hateful or absurd character who happens to share my own social philosophy. I abandoned one popular series when the author went out of her way to slam some political programs I happen to believe in. And that, of course, is the danger: when you step up on a soapbox, you risk alienating all the readers who don’t agree with you.

But my beliefs do show up in my books. My characters share my values—how could they not? When they stand up for something or against something, they’re reflecting my own ideas. So my leanings aren’t exactly a secret, even though they may not be blatantly expressed in my writing.

Still, at times like these I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut. Every day I hear things that I find outrageous and wrong. I’m longing to say something about it on Twitter or Facebook or MySpace, or to write a really blistering blog piece about the stuff that’s in the wind. But I won’t. Or anyway, I don’t think I will. The sound you hear is me, gritting my teeth so hard it hurts.

 

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