Tuesday, October 23, 2018

How To Plot a Mystery: How to Get Your Hero Into and Out of Trouble

The hardest part of thriller writing is getting your hero into and out of trouble in compelling and believable ways. The easiest way to get your hero into trouble is to have him do something stupid. Blunder into danger. You see this in genre fiction all the time and readers hate it. We want to admire your hero. We want to feel that we’ve picked the right hero to handle this situation. Your hero can make mistakes, of course, but it’s always better if they’re not dumb mistakes.

We love to see our heroes fall into traps, but only if they’re clever traps.

“Killing Floor” accomplishes this just fine. Our heroes have a series of unexpected reversals throughout, but not because they do anything dumb. The biggest reversal happens on schedule around the ¾ point: Our heroes know that the local cops can’t be trusted, so they bring an FBI agent into the loop, but then, by bad luck, it turns out that the FBI guy is in league with the bad guys (as we discussed before, coincidences are more acceptable is they hurt the hero.) They show up to meet the fed in a motel room, only to discover all the bad guys waiting for them with guns.

But then we get to problem #2: How do the heroes get out of trouble?

At this point, in the book, Child has me where he wants me: I’m thinking, “Uh oh, how are my heroes ever going to get out of this one?? The good guys did everything right, but they made one mistake and now they’ve lost everything! The bad guys have all the cards!”

So now Child has several questions to answer. The most obvious is, “So why don’t the villains just kill the heroes straightaway?” Thankfully, he has a good answer for this: The bad guys falsely (but logically) assume that the good guys know where one of their missing confederates is. They intend to hold the good cop hostage while Child leads them to the missing man.

(Now we get to the first odd thing: It’s important that your hero get out of things cleverly, so Reacher should instantly say, “Yup, we’ve got him stashed away and I’ll take you to him.” Instead, Reacher says, somewhat idiotically, “I thought he was dead. I don’t have him.” But thankfully they don’t believe him and Reacher catches on that he should pretend he can lead them to the man.)

They send their man Picard and two gunmen off with Reacher. Now the odd decisions multiply. The two gunmen take their own car and Picard has Reacher drive his own car. Should they all get in one car so Picard can drive and the others can hold Reacher at gunpoint in the back? But fine, let’s go with it.

Then they stop for breakfast, which again, seems odd, as the bad guys are under a big deadline, and it gives Reacher a chance to pocket a knife, but fine I’ll go with it.

Reacher leads them far out of town until they run out of gas, refills it himself, punctures the tire with the knife and gets back in the car, and drives off: So far, so clever.

When the tire eventually flattens on the highway, Reacher does another thing clever: It’s been well established before that Reacher has a box full of counterfeit hundreds in the trunk, so Reacher causes a distraction by cutting it open and letting the hundreds spray over the highway. That’s great.

Then something crazy happens: Reacher suddenly has his big-ass gun in his hand and shoots Picard dead!

What?? Reacher had his gun on him this whole time?? They never searched him?? It’s the most jaw-dropping moment in a jaw-dropping book, and not in a good way.

I went back and reread it for this blog post to see if I could figure it out.  On second readthrough it still made no sense.  But on a third reread  I scanned back through the book to find the last previous mention of the gun. Sure enough, I found a mention 50 pages before of putting the gun in his coat, and then I found a mention 10 pages after that of putting the coat in the trunk. So I guess it makes sense, but there’s two big problems here:

  • The first is that they never searched Reacher for a gun, which would have reminded us to wonder, “Oh yeah, what did happen to Reacher’s gun?”
  • Second, when Reacher finds himself at the trunk, Child never tells us that he finds the gun in the trunk! He just says that Reacher shoots Picard without mentioning where this gun came from!

Child needed to say that they searched Reacher in the motel room and found no gun and then he needed to do one of two things:

  • Either make it clear right then that the gun was waiting for him in the trunk, and then have everything from that point be a conscious series of events to get that gun back (but then that would have called attention to the fact that it made no sense to take Reacher’s car. Maybe have Reacher cleverly trick him into taking his car.)
  • Or Child could let us forget about the gun, but then reveal when he opens the trunk: “But there was one thing Picard didn’t know: That morning I’d put my gun in my coat, then I put my coat in the trunk, and it’d been waiting for me there the whole time. I picked it up, but to be safe, I needed a distraction, so I cut open the box…”

Instead, Child just gives the impression that Reacher could have whipped out a gun at any point, and it’s a laugh-out-loud moment. He’s really starting to convince me that he’s telling the truth when he says he didn’t revise the book!

The moments where your hero gets into and out of trouble are very tricky. Your reader is watching you like a hawk to see if they believe it, each way. You have to make it clear how the villain cleverly gets the jump on the hero and how the hero even more cleverly gets the jump on the villain. You have to play fair. After carefully rereading, I see that Child did have the elements he needed, but he just needed to revise so we could keep track of the gun, so that it didn’t seem to magically appear.


James Kennedy said...

So far all I know about this book is the implausible coincidence that you mentioned; the motivation hole that you mentioned; the inauthenticity of the research that you mentioned; and now, this ludicrous plot twist you just mentioned. You keep saying you like the book, but you seem to be building a rock-solid case of how it's terrible!

Eric C said...


If there's one thing that everything I've learned about writing for an audience, marketing, public relations, and pretty much everything about public appeal can be boiled down to, it's that it doesn't matter if what you're doing is objectively terrible, as long as it's terrible in ways that make enough people feel that it's meaningful - then they don't want to think about it too hard lest they have to question themselves.

Matt Bird said...

I thought it would be fun to look at a big, super-popular, somewhat-unintentionally-comical book that's equal parts how-to and how-no-to.

James Kennedy said...

> it doesn't matter if what you're doing is objectively terrible, as long as
> it's terrible in ways that make enough people feel that it's meaningful

Honest question: If it doesn't matter if what we're writing is objectively terrible, then . . . why should we bother paying attention to a writer's craft blog? I don't ask that rhetorically or cheaply. Maybe that's all there is to it. Maybe we're all chasing our tails here, worrying about second act reversals and character motivations, when really all we need to do is write about guns and tits, or whatever people want to read about. Who knows what people want? This country elected Donald fucking Trump.

I guess that's the unstated tension in this blog. Everybody would like to write something that's objectively good AND popular/beloved. The two cartoonish opposite extremes away from that would be "the well-crafted story that almost nobody reads" and "the objectively terrible story that is very popular."

Is Matt trying to elucidate a theory of what makes for a satisfying story? Or is he trying to teach us some rhetorical tricks that will fool the rubes into liking our story? I guess we can't always know the difference between the two. But sometimes it feels like the latter.

I quote Matt himself, from his last post:

> Readers eat this shit up. I know I do. And the crazy thing, as evidenced by my commenter, is that this
> might all be bullshit. The author is a tweedy English guy who’s never been in the police or the military
> or prison, never lived in America, and probably never been in a fight! But most readers (millions of them,
> anyway) don’t care.

Doesn't this imply a certain contempt for the reader? For oneself?

Is this why we write?

Matt Bird said...

But there's no such things as objectively terrible, as you'll see in today's blog post.

Eric C said...


Enjoyment is subjective, but the tools are objective.

There are basically two sorts of things that you work to improve as a creator: the stuff that makes you (and the people you personally care about the opinions of) enjoy your work better, and the stuff that makes people who have tastes you don't like enjoy your work enough that you're getting paid. These are subjective and vary from person to person, but there are basically objective ways to optimize for them, and the methods are the same regardless of which side of the divide something is for you.

Sort of like how any given die roll is unpredictable but a billion of them are extremely (if slightly fuzzily) predictable through statistics, despite there not being a clear universal standard of what makes a good story, there are, actually, pretty reliable ways to make stories that are both more likely to satisfy oneself and more likely to satisfy an audience. Nobody can tell exactly where and when lightning is going to strike years in advance, but actuarial tables sure make it possible to make a consistent profit insuring against it.

I think that unless a creator is able to coast on talent alone, it's important that they let go of any idea of buying into to their own glamor. It's not contempt, it's just... banality. Making sausages is dirty work, and trying to block it from your mind while you're doing it just makes it more likely that you'll end up giving someone food poisoning. Safe and delicious breakfast comes out of being honest with yourself that you're working with pig entrails, your hands were filthy when you came in, you can never be sure when the meat coming out of the farm is tainted, and having sane standards for consistently dealing with it all. Sunshine on shiny plates, the smell of fresh oranges and light rain is important for the customer experience, but for the back room that delivers that experience, it's sharp steel and the butcher's block.