Monday, October 26, 2009
About a year ago (or was it two? They all blend together sometimes), I was fortunate enough to hear a talk by crime writer Mark Billingham. For those of you who don't know, Mark is an actor, stand-up comic and bestselling crime writer. It wasn't surprising that his talk was entertaining, funny and on point.
Something he said stuck with me. More accurately, his remark bounced around in the back of my head for eleven-and-something months until it finally hit me in the bath tonight. And the nature of this wonder comment?
A murder mystery is like a joke. In both cases, the storyteller sets up a situation, carefully leads the audience down a false path only to deliver a big twist at the end. We know we're being duped, and we go along willingly, happily even! That gap between expectation and delivery touches some deep and primal sense of human enjoyment.
With a joke, the gap is a twist of words ('Nope, I'm a frayed knot'), of situation ('Shut up and keep swimming') or perception ('But this one's eating my popcorn!'). With a mystery, the twist is finding out who the *real* killer is, and why. In both cases, the storyteller is deliberately lying to the audience, and the audience is happy to go along with the lie.
The full truth of this finally occurred to me tonight. Call me slow, but there you are. :)
One further insight: I realized I also structure my chapters this way. I'm just coming up to the end of a chapter, and the cliffhanger-y, suspense-y note I decided to go out on is also something of a punchline-- a small reveal that shows the situation is not what the reader thought.
You see, story is a protagonist wanting something, and being frustrated in the getting. Each scene plays out need, action and frustrated desire. And as part of that old adage 'Enter late, leave early', I try to leave scenes at unexpected moments and in unexpected ways.
(And yes, I am feeling rather well rested at the moment: last night I fell away from the earth for eight or nine solid hours. Like a switch being thrown, it was though for a few short hours I ceased to exist...)