Our readers are often curious about the process of writing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts! In this installment of our Publishing U series, CWA Diamond Dagger–award winning crime writer Simon Brett discusses a topic he’s asked about most often when tutoring writing courses—one that’s especially important for mystery writers.
Simon Brett: As an author, you have one enormous advantage over your readers. You know the whole story, and they don’t.
Except in very rare circumstances, you don’t start off knowing the whole story. You begin with an idea, which hopefully leads on to other ideas, which in turn act as springboards for further ideas. Characters begin to develop, as do conflicts between those characters. Settings become more solid and pertinent in your mind. A plot emerges. Gradually your story takes shape.
There’s no right or wrong way of building a story. Some writers don’t start the actual writing until they have the whole scenario worked out in their minds. Others begin with a sentence that intrigues and see where it leads them. Some regard the first draft as the exciting part of the process—telling themselves the story—and resent any changes that have to be made afterwards. Others find the first draft a terrible bore, creating a great block of material from which, rather like a sculptor with a mass of stone, they will carve out and perfect their work of art. For them the fun of writing lies in cutting away the dross, refining, and reshaping.
But, by whatever process writers arrives at it, there comes a point when the whole story is known to them. And what they then have to decide is how much of that story they want their readers to know at any given point in the narrative.
Let your readers do some work for themselves.
This is true in all writing, but particularly in the area of mystery fiction. The effect of any narrative can be weakened by giving out too little or too much information. For example, I remember my sister once saying to me, “I’ve just heard this very good joke about the Lunchpack of Notre Dame.” I asked her to tell me more and she gave me the set-up question: “What’s covered in Saran wrap and swings from a steeple?” I said I didn’t know and she told me the punch-line: “The Lunchpack of Notre Dame!” She was disappointed at my minimal reaction to the joke, but then she had given me rather too much information too soon.
And that’s how storytelling works. The writer feeds out the narrative gradually, withholding clues and details until the optimum moment of revelation. A lot of a writer’s planning will involve thoughts like: “If that’s going to happen there, then it must have been set up earlier.”
For this reason one of the most difficult parts of any book is the opening, the exposition. A lot of information has to be conveyed in as short a time as possible. In the visual media it’s easier. The look of a person, the environment in which they live, their clothes, their possessions can all increase their viewers’ knowledge of their character. And all that information comes across the moment the character walks on stage or appears on the screen.
It is inept and tedious. So even the greats
had their problems with exposition.
In a book you don’t have that shortcut. Everything needs to be described, but it’s down to the writer to decide how much needs to be described. And here the general rule is: go for the minimum. If a character’s height is going to be important to your story, tell your readers how tall he is. If it isn’t, don’t bother. Two-page descriptions of every new character in the manner of Charles Dickens are completely unnecessary. The same goes for where they went to school, what their parents did for a living, how many siblings they had, whether their childhood was happy and an infinite number of other details. Let your readers do some work for themselves; let them create their own pictures in their minds. Only supply that kind of information if it’s going to be relevant in the story you’re telling.
Some writers, I am aware, say they cannot begin a novel without knowing all the characters in detail, without having built up lengthy dossiers of all their personal data. In my view that’s just another displacement activity—and no one is more skilled in displacement activity than writers. We all know anything is fulsomely welcomed that puts off that dreadful moment of actually having to write.
The importance of exposition generally means that the opening of any book is the bit that gets most rewritten. As new ideas emerge in the course of creating the story, new information has to be injected into the set-up chapters. And it’s a task with which most writers have difficulties. If you ever feel uncertain about your own skills as a writer of exposition, I recommend that you take down from your bookshelves the Complete Works of William Shakespeare and turn to The Tempest. In Act One, Scene Two of that classic play you will find one of the worst pieces of exposition you will ever encounter. The first 284 lines set up the backstory to the action in what is effectively a monologue by Prospero, with brief interjections from his daughter Miranda, on the lines of ‘What happened next, Dad?’ It is inept and tedious. So even the greats had their problems with exposition.
A mystery novelist has to find his
own means of distraction.
But there’s no way round it. Your readers or audience have to be given that information somehow. And it is in that “how” that the writer’s skills are really tested. Particularly in a mystery novel, the plot is often dependent on a detail which the readers cannot claim they haven’t been told of, but which is slipped into the narrative in a way that doesn’t draw attention to it. Something apparently trivial can frequently turn out to be of pivotal importance.
The skill required to shuffle in this kind of information can be compared to that of the conjuror. As he uses his patter to distract the audience from what he’s doing with his hands, so a mystery novelist has to find his own means of distraction to disguise the importance of certain details. All you have to do is to obey the basic rules of storytelling. Make your scene so dramatic—or so funny, or so intriguing—that your readers have an emotional response to your writing and almost unconsciously assimilate the facts that you have so subtly shoehorned into the narrative.
Never forget that a book is an interactive medium. The relationship between writer and reader may develop and change, but it never disappears. And a skillful writer will be constantly aware of the effect that his or her words are having on the reader at any given point in the action. That’s what storytelling is about.
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A former department store Father Christmas, BBC radio and ITV television producer, Simon Brett has been a full-time writer for over thirty years. He has published more than eighty books, including the Charles Paris, Mrs Pargeter, Fethering and Blotto & Twinks series of crime novels. His stand-alone psychological thriller A Shock to the System was made into a feature film starring Michael Caine, and Dead Romantic was filmed for BBC2.