Former actress and theater director Christina Hamlett is the published author of 16 books, 98 plays and musicals, and over 200 magazine and newspaper articles on the performing arts, humor, travel, and publishing. She is also screenwriter for an independent film company and is currently teaching an online script-writing class through WRITER ON LINE. Her latest book, a humorous essay collection called "HOW TO TELL IF YOURCO-WORKERS ARE FROM MARS & Other Tales of the Workplace," is available at www.zeus-publications.com
Inklings: Writing Well & Profitably for Books, Film, and Stage
This Month -- PLOTS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT: Defining the Difference Between Mystery and Psychological SuspenseWho says that crime doesn't pay? For every writer who can craft a compelling mystery and bury clues with the panache of Agatha Christie, there's a readership eager to play armchair detective and go dig them up. There's also a hungry following for authors who take skullduggery down a darker path to the genre of psychological suspense.
On the surface, these two categories look a lot alike. A closer inspection, however, reveals the particulars necessary to target your plot to the right market.
My own introduction to mysteries began when I became hooked on the adventures of Carolyn Keene's plucky girl detective, Nancy Drew. If I didn't know better, I'd almost swear this fictional heroine eventually grew up, changed her name to J.B. Fletcher, and moved from River Heights to Cabot Cove, Maine. Why? Because wherever either one went, (1) a crime was in the making and (2) the local police had absolutely no clue how to solve it.
Mysteries, of course, aren't just about amateur sleuths being in the right place at the right time. Do the following protagonists sound familiar?
It's a popular trend to have a character investigating a crime scene in one book eventually wander off and starting building his or her own clientele in a separate series. These spin-offs revolve around tough-but-vulnerable, busy-but-usually-broke PI's in a single-handed fight for truth in a gritty city. Forensic coroners and insurance adjusters are also gaining ground as beloved sustaining characters, as are a new breed of female heroines with a passion for justice.
These plots often find their roots in actual front-page crime stories and rely heavily on the details inherent in by-the-book law enforcement and investigation; the lead characters are usually connected to a police department. Like their counterparts in film and television, they are guaranteed to do their best work within the 48 hours immediately following their being suspended or ordered 'off the case'.
Pour some tea, grab a scone with clotted cream, and immerse yourself in manor-house intrigue that involves titled guests (with dark secrets), snooty servants, expansive grounds (a maze is always a nice, spooky touch), conveniently inclement weather and--Hello! What's this?!--the phone lines have just been cut...
SOME DO'S AND DON'T'S
The #1 rule of mystery writing is Accuracy. Detail management is crucial to reader satisfaction, whether it's articulating the effects of curare, explaining the hierarchy of The Mob, or tying up loose ends after you say, "Book 'im." Hide your best clues in plain view at the very beginning of the book. Why? Your readers will be too involved learning names and getting into the story's flow to pay as much attention as they will in later chapters after the victims start adding up.
Be liberal with red herrings and keep your readers guessing all the way to the denouement. A warning, though: readers like to be tricked, not cheated. If you pepper your plot with lots of false clues, make sure they're the kind that can stand up to multiple (mis)interpretation on the reader's part. Likewise, balance the red herrings with genuine clues that (1) seem much too obvious to possibly be real and (2) are also subject to ambiguity.
Introduce the initial crime as early as possible. I once had an English teacher who insisted, "I want to see a dead body by the end of Chapter 1." Good advice. There's no time to waste in grabbing the reader with something juicy to try and start solving.
Keep your murderer/thief/blackmailer visible throughout the entire plot. Readers hate it when the felonious behavior all gets tacked to a minor character who doesn't even appear until the final pages. It's also important to give your villain a believable motive for his/her behavior, whether that answer lays deep in childhood or in a more immediate association with the various targets of wrath.
Buy yourself some seasoned accomplices: specifically, any of the selections in the HOWDUNIT series published by Writer's Digest. Whether your method of choice is poison, pistols, or a pool of piranhas, these references provide the know-how to make your crime scene--and its resolution--credible. (Not to mention the effect it has on your spouse or roommates if you leave any of these books laying around on the kitchen table!)
If at all possible, avoid the following clichés (which nevertheless continue to show up no matter how much we groan):
1. Conspirators who find it necessary to keep explaining the game-plan to each other. (i.e, "As you know, Reggie, we agreed that you were going to kidnap Vicki and make it look like a bungled burglary while I distracted her husband Winston--the brother of my supposedly dead business partner--with a round of canasta...")
2. Arrogant murderers who not only feel compelled to explain themselves as they hold the hero at gunpoint but recite all of it as if they are being paid by the word. (i.e., "Before I kill you, Inspector, you're probably wondering why I pretended to be Count DuBois at the Embassy masquerade party last October 4th, or what I did with all the stolen gold which, by now, you've assumed is on a steamer en route to South America..."
In defining the difference between mysteries and psychological suspense, I'm reminded of a college professor's 3-point summary of storytelling's evolution: Man vs. God, Man vs. Man, and Man vs. Himself. It is the last of these conflicts--Man vs. Himself--which is a key element of psychological suspense, a category that falls to the right of Mystery but to the left of full-scale Horror. Whereas the hero or heroine of a conventional mystery is a pursuer, seeking to unmask the villain by story's end, the protagonist in a psychological suspense is usually the pursued, taking a darker journey in which flesh-and-blood adversaries take wicked advantage of internal fears and imagination. Both genres are replete with plenty of dangers from external forces; it's a fragile psyche, though, that makes such forces all the more frightening to the hero in a novel of mind-manipulating suspense.
HOW TO MESS WITH A READER'S MIND
Although many of the following plot devices can be found in other genres, they represent a key component in crafting a thrill-packed scenario that will leave readers breathless. Psychological suspense also lends itself well to stage and film--VERTIGO, GUILTY AS SIN, MARATHON MAN, CAPE FEAR--something to keep in mind if you plan to expand your publishing horizons!
1. Phobias. A common theme is to have your main character deeply afraid of something. Whether real or imagined, the pervasive threat of heights, snakes or drowning is the weakness that he or she will ultimately be forced to deal with big-time before the plot is over. Flashbacks are essential in filling in the blanks of the protagonist's life and, thus, provide a frame of reference for the current sense of danger and vulnerability. The best phobia to ascribe to your lead character? Whatever personally gives you, the author, a bad case of the willies! It's not enough to just "write what you know;" you also need to "write what you feel".
2. Recurring Nightmares/History Repeating Itself. In both of these themes, the protagonist is haunted by some terrible occurrence from the past. Perhaps it's the unsolved murder of a friend or relative and the accompanying dread that the killer has not only been watching from the shadows all these years but intends to return to the scene of the crime. Or maybe your character is consumed with guilt for not having reacted quickly enough to an emergency; i.e., the inability to save someone from a burning building or a moment of casual neglect that resulted in a child's kidnapping. In the present-day story, he or she must rise above the paralyzing fear of reliving that terrifying moment in order to achieve some level of redemption.
3. Credibility/Alienation. If you were seated on an airplane next to a man who had just been released from a mental hospital and he told you there was a furry monster dancing on the wing, would you believe him? Of course not! A character whose sanity, morals or judgment have ever been called into question is a prime candidate for calculated mind-games. Like the curse of Cassandra, the protagonist's insistent truths fall on deaf ears, fulfilling the villain's agenda to destroy all credibility and, in tandem, create isolation. The escalating sense of panic that ensues in trying to find someone to listen before it's too late is a guaranteed, pulse-pounding read.
4. The Prey. While a mystery novel might spread out the mayhem over a variety of random victims, the antagonist in a psychological suspense is usually only stalking one person/household or a particular "type" in order to exact vengeance or gain an edge (i.e., jealousy about the victim's popularity, eliminating the competition for an inheritance). Additionally, the cat-and-mouse slow torture of the victim's mind seems to bring more sadistic pleasure than an actual kill. Toward this end, profilers will sometimes figure into a storyline as supporting characters, attempting to second-guess why such twisted schemes are going on in the villain's head.
5. Prior Knowledge/Association. It has often been said that our worst enemy is someone who was once a friend; those with whom we share the most intimate relationships would seem least likely to ever make the list of "The Top Ten People Who Might Be Trying to Kill Me." Yet time again we're shocked when the killer turns out to be the adoring husband, the perky babysitter, the kindly neighbor. The insider knowledge these people possess--whether from a past liaison or a current position of trust--gives them the power to not only strike at their victims' insecurities but also be first on the scene to extend the false comfort of 'protection.' Because the protagonist has become unraveled enough by now not to discern any coincidence, he or she steps ever deeper into the trap.
SOME LAST WORDS ABOUT HOMEWORK
While a psychology class or two aren't required for writing either genre, they certainly wouldn't hurt, affording you an overview of why people act--and react--as they do. Another option is to engage professional experts and spin your hypothetical plot for review and professional revision. (People are passionate about their area of expertise, especially if you can also promise an acknowledgment of their contribution!)
As always, whichever genre you choose in which to tell a tale of jeopardy, it's important to familiarize yourself first with what has already been written, as well as who publishes it. Additionally, membership in organizations such as Mystery Writers of America isn't just a valuable network in terms of contacts and contest information, but also a good source of energy and support from fellow 'partners in crime'.
Paying attention to detail, whether clinically or artistically painting the backdrop for your plot, is essential to the success of your project. If you strive to heighten the reader's sensitivities to the unfolding drama you are creating, make certain you've created a page-turning thriller that will cause a definitive, can't-put-it-down-even-though-it's-3 a.m.- reaction. Otherwise, a gaffe here or an incongruity there could wind up making your literary effort the unfortunate victim...and your storytelling the prime suspect.
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