How You Gonna Tell Your Story?*

Structures and DisplayingMost authors work very hard ‘behind the scenes’ to organise the characters and events in a story so that the reader can make sense of them. The better organised and ‘displayed’ the story line is, the more inviting it is to readers to get drawn into the story. There are a lot of ways this can be done, just as there are a lot ways to organise and display merchandise in a shop. But the best crime fiction stories ‘hang together’ in a structured way, so that moving among events and, sometimes, points of view feels seamless.

One of the classic ways this is done is of course the chronological structure. Many of Agatha Christie’s novels are written like that. For example, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is told more or less chronologically. It begins with the death of Mrs. Ferrars of the village of Kings Abbot. Then, Dr. James Sheppard, the local doctor and the narrator of the story, pauses for a bit to tell about some of the people who live in the village. Then the story goes on to tell about Sheppard’s introduction to his new neighbour, Hercule Poirot, who has retired to Kings Abbot. After that the story moves on to the stabbing death of Roger Ackroyd, a retired manufacturing magnate who also lives in the village. Captain Ralph Paton is suspected of the murder, but his fiancée Flora Ackroyd is sure that he’s innocent and asks Poirot to clear his name. The investigation, the clues and so on come up in a chronological way, and the very famous dénouement is the climax of the story.

A lot of other whodunits, whether police procedural, PI novel or amateur-detective novel are structured in the same way. For example, Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People  is more or less like that. Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin is pleasantly surprised when he gets an unexpected visit from his estranged wife Liz. He’s hoping this means that she wants to reconcile, but that’s not her reason for coming. She tells Devlin that she’s run away from her lover Mick Coghlan because she’s afraid of him. She needs a place to stay for a few days, and she wants Devlin’s help. Devlin reluctantly agrees. He doesn’t really trust Liz but he’s still hoping they’ll get back together. The next night, Liz is stabbed and her body left in an alley. Devlin wants very much to find out who killed the woman he loved – still does, really. And he becomes even more motivated when he becomes a suspect.

The chronological approach to ‘displaying’ the pieces of a story is only one option of course. There’s also the point of view approach. Some authors tell the same story through two or more different perspectives. So even when the chronology of events is a little fuzzy, it’s still easy for the reader to be drawn into what happens and to make sense of the events. For instance A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife tells the story of Jodi Brett, a successful Chicago psychologist, and her partner Todd Gilbert, an also-successful developer. The two have been together for twenty years when Todd begins a relationship with Natasha Kovacs, the daughter of his good friend Dean Kovacs. Todd’s strayed before, but this time it’s different. When Natasha tells him she’s pregnant, Todd decides to leave Jodi and marry Natasha. Then, Jodi gets another shock. She is served with eviction papers which require her to vacate the home she and Todd have shared. With nowhere to go, and already having to deal with the humiliation of Todd’s leaving her, Jodi tries to at least keep her home. But the lawyer she contacts tells her that she has no legal right to stay, since she and Todd were never married. Then everything changes when Todd is shot in a drive-by incident. This story is told from alternating points of view (Jodi’s and Todd’s), with each section clearly indicated. So even though there are several flashbacks, ‘side thoughts’ and reflections as well as the actual chronology of events, it’s easy for the reader to follow the story and it’s an effective way to ‘display’ what happens.

That strategy is also used in Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack. Superintendent Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano of the Buenos Aires police is trying to do the best job he can as a good cop in the dangerous and violent world of 1979 Argentina. The military junta in control of the country has taken extreme measures to get and keep power, and all sorts of people are disappearing. Everyone knows that asking questions can be fatal, so most people do their best to stay ‘under the radar.’ One morning, Lascano is called to investigate a report of two dead bodies dumped at a riverbank. But when Lescano gets there, there’s a third body. Two of the killings bear all the hallmarks of an Army ‘hit,’ and Lascano knows the risks of asking any questions about them. The third though is a different kind of murder. This one looks like a more personal murder so despite all of the danger, Lascano determines to solve it. This story is told from several points of view, including those of Lescano, Fusili the medical examiner, Elías Biterman the victim, and the other people involved in the case. Through each person’s eyes we see the sequence of events that led to the murder, and Mallo makes it clear whose perspective is being shared. The narrative itself sometimes weaves back and forth between past and present as the characters’ backstories are told. But the story itself is ‘displayed’ and organised through the use of different points of view.

Mallo also uses another strategy for ‘displaying’ the story: the use of past and present tense. The story of Biterman’s murder and its investigation and consequences is told in present tense. Backstories and past histories are told in the past tense. This helps to invite the reader to follow the story of the crime without getting distracted by the histories of the various characters. Interestingly enough, Åsa Larsson chose the opposite way to organise The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm). In that novel, Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson returns to her home in Kiruna when a former friend Sanna Stråndgard is accused of murdering her brother Viktor. Martinsson, who also knew Viktor, is reluctant to go to Kiruna but she agrees. She begins to look into the killing and soon finds that more than one person had a good motive for murder. The story of that investigation and its consequences is mostly told in the past tense (although that does change in the climactic scene). But the flashbacks in which we learn why Martinsson left Kiruna in the first place are told in the present tense. Although the use of different tenses might seem counterintuitive, Larsson uses this strategy effectively to organise the story and ‘display’ the events in it.

There are lots of other ways too to organise and present a story. We all have our preferences of course, but there isn’t one ‘right’ way to go about it, just as there isn’t one ‘right’ way to make merchandise in a shop appealing. What’s your preference? Do you like chronological approaches? Point-of-view? Use of tense? Something else? If you’re a writer, how do you ‘display your wares?’ What draws you to that approach?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Call’s With or Without Reason.


Filed under A.S.A. Harrison, Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Ernesto Mallo, Martin Edwards

32 responses to “How You Gonna Tell Your Story?*

  1. I’m not sure if this is quite what you’re getting at, but I wonder if as an author you think this is fair play. I read a book (a while ago, so I don’t remember what it was) where there were two points of view — a victim’s and the investigator’s — and it appeared that the victim was going to die. But then it was revealed that the two people were operating on different timelines, so the investigator was farther ahead in time as compared to the victim, meaning help was closer than it appeared. Although I was glad the victim survived, I did think it was “cheating” by artificially creating tension. What do you think?

    • Karen – Now that’s a really interesting question. I can see why you felt frustrated with that timeline issue. I think as a reader I’d probably think it wasn’t ‘playing fair,’ although of course I do understand the desire to add to the tension. I’d have to really think about it but my first instinct is, ‘No, not happy with it.’ Even as an author. There are other ways to build up tension. But that’s just a personal preference.

  2. I quite like differing POVs, but I really prefer things to be chronolgical in the main. A look back to the past at the beginning of the story is fine, but if the timeline jumps around too much, I find I lose interest after a while. And oh, I’m so bored with the present-tense…especially flashbacks told in the present tense. To quote that great literary critic, Spock, it’s illogical… 😉

    • FictionFan – LOL! I’ve noticed lately that there really have been a lot of novels lately that use the present tense. I’ll admit I prefer the past tense myself, although some authors (e.g. Elly Griffiths) do use the present tense effectively. As to timeline, I know what you mean about skipping around too much. I have to be ‘sold’ on a novel like that. Perhaps my brain is just getting too old to be nimble enough to make those kinds of leaps.

  3. Margot: Long ago I learned I remember events best chronologically. I did not find history hard as dates of major events were convenient memory markers for me. In crime fiction I usually find I can focus best on the plot and characters if it is a narrative.

    On how to present narrative I found that Jill Edmondson in her book, Dead Light District, effectively used the voice of Mary Carmen, the missing prostitute, for whom Sasha Jackson was searching in the book. The brief intense interjections of Mary Carmen provided a vivid contrast to Sasha’s breezy casual voice.

    • Bill – I liked that use of a different voice too. It provides an interesting counterpoint to Sasha’s voice and gives the reader information and background that fills out the picture of what happens in the story.
      And like you, I prefer chronology. I can read and sometimes really enjoy other kinds of story formats too, but in general, it’s easier for me to keep track of plot, characters and so on if the story is told more or less chronologically.

  4. I think chronology of events is possibly one of the hardest parts of writing and structuring a story. A writer can’t afford to lose track of what happened when and how far back and on what page. There is a chronological order in Christie’s novels and THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD is a good example. She may get off the track every now and then to mislead the reader but as a writer she is on a straight course from start to finish.

    • Prashant – I think you’re right about Christie. In some novels (e.g. Five Little Pigs) she stays a little less strictly with chronology, but even in those novels, she goes from start to finish. And it's true; a writer can't afford to lose track of the events and characters in a story, so chronology really does matter, even if the author plays with the timeline.

  5. So, that’s why I like Agatha Christie so much – the straight froward chronological approach. But I also like the flashback approach, so long as the flashbacks are clearly indicated, it’s most confusing otherwise and I also like the different points of view approach. What I do not like (although there are exceptions, Elly Griffiths being one) is the use of the present tense – it irritates me too much for me concentrate on the plot/characters.

    • Margaret – You’re by no means alone. A lot of people prefer the more or less directly chronological approach. They like to go from start to finish in a story. I think flashbacks can add both to character depth and to the story’s richness, but like you, I think it’s best if they are clearly indicated so the reader can put them into perspective. And I’m not much for the use of the present tense either. As you say, there are some exceptions, and Elly Griffiths’ work is one for me as well. But in general I don’t care much for use of the present tense

  6. The older I get the more I appreciate a fairly straight forward presentation. I really like to know where I am in time and in space.

    • Patti – Oh, I feel the same way. I’m a lot more likely to engage myself in a book if I can keep the timeline and so on settled. It’s easier for me to follow the story.

  7. I favor differing points of view, because I think it adds more interest. When I was younger I preferred everything in first person narrative, and would reject books if they were not told that way. I guess tastes change over time.

    Sometimes the differing threads of the story get confusing, but that rarely bothers me. The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza is a good example of telling the story from different perspectives, and I am eager to see how he approaches the story in the 2nd book.

    • Tracy – I’m so glad you mentioned The Silence of the Rain. It’s a terrific example of telling a story from several different points of view. I can tell you without spoiling the next story in the series that there are different points of view in that one too.
      You make an interesting point too about how our tastes change over time. I’ve learned to appreciate all sorts of different approaches to storytelling as I’ve gotten older. I don’t like them all equally, but certainly I think my taste is broader now. My guess would be that’s true for most of us.

  8. kathy d.

    Good point: Tastes do change over time, and also some readers, including me, go beyond our “comfort zones,” while perusing mysteries.
    I generally like one (maybe two) points of view, written chronologically. But where I can be more open to other set-ups, I can find valuable reading experiences.
    I find that I have to go along with Fred Vargas while she sets up a plot, and it may take several pages to get to the gist of the story. Or with Nicole Watson’s The Boundary, it took many pages to figure out characters and where the story was going, but it was well worth it.
    I’m willing to test new writing styles.
    Whatever Elly Griffiths does in the Ruth Galloway books is fine with me.
    In Denise Mina’s The End of the Wasp Season, there were several points of view, which for that book was good. The book was unusual in timeline and style, but it turned out to be an excellent read.
    What I can live without is too much of the villain’s point of view, such as in Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen. It like the Department Q characters, but the killer’s thoughts and behavior were so horrific that it may not all have been necessary.
    And this serial killer plot device: am getting tired of it. What about old-fashioned murderers like family members, neighbors, accountants, lawyers, financial schemers like bankers, brokers, etc. The serial killer device is getting tired. How many are there in Scandinavia?
    And also, is all this horrific, gory violence necessary? We get the point: murders are messy and brutal. But do we need the bloody details? And the mounting body counts?

    • Kathy – Some authors, and Vargas is one of them, do take more time to set up their plot lines. And others may use more points of view than readers might prefer, etc.. But if the story is really well-told, the reader can still be drawn in. I think that shows that there are many ways to tell a good story.
      You make an interesting point about the killer’s point of view. I’m not much either on reading too much of the killer’s view, especially in serial killer novels (which I’m not much for reading anyway). Like you, I like fictional murders committed for different reasons – reasons that readers can better identify with, if I can put it that way. And as to the violence? There are definitely ways to convey the horror of murder with a lot of gore or brutality.

  9. One of the most cleverly structured books I’ve read this year was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, told from two points of views — that of Nick and Amy, partners in a toxic marriage, both unreliable narrators — interleaving flashbacks with chronology. Quite brilliant.

    • Angela – That really can be a very effective plot tool and as you say, the unreliable narrator plot point is also effective. A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife is like that too.

  10. kathy d.

    An example of how multiple points of view are conveyed seamlessly is shown in the Jayne Keeney series by the Australian writer, Angela Savage. These books, the latest of which is The Dying Beach, feature an intrepid detective, a good story and an amazing sense of place in Thailand, not to mention the crackling wit.
    Also, many times I found myself googling more information about Thailand’s flora and fauna, cities and coastlines as I’ve turned these books’ pages.

    • Kathy – I couldn’t agree more. Angela Savage does a terrific job of conveying different points of view and at the same time, maintaining a solid story base. Hey, folks, do read Savage’s Jayne Keeney series if you haven’t tried it yet. An excellent series.

  11. A bit late to the party, but this is an issue that has been preoccupying me, as I sometimes find myself reviewing a book and saying ‘This was a bit confusing at first, with too many different points of view’ or the like. But it’s actually more nuanced than that: with some novels the multiple POV or skipping about with the narrative timeline are really irritating and spoil a perfectly good story, while in others it just works and I barely notice these devices.

    • Marina Sofia – That’s the thing. Sometimes the author really does an effective job with multiple POVs and it works well. Other times…not so well. I think when author does it subtly and with purpose, it can work effectively. And you are welcome here at any time.

  12. I share a lot of the views above – shifts in the timeline are a bugbear, but only when they are confusing. A really good writer can do it well, so it adds to the story. A book I enjoyed recently, StoneDust by Justin Scott, ( a fairly uncelebrated 1990s mystery) had a very nice structure when the investigator was trying to find out about the victim’s final evening. He was tracking him all over the neighbourhood, logging sightings of him here and there, filling in ten minutes at one point, then another hour from much later, recording his mood from the witnesses. I found this immensely satisfying and enjoyable!

    • Moira – Oh, it sounds as though it must have been quite satisfying. That sort of use of timeline can really be awfully effective. And I agree with you that shift in timeline and point of view are really only problematic when they’re not handled smoothly. I think that’s the key to it: telling the story smoothly.

  13. It’s so much fun for a writer to experiment with all these techniques…but as you noted, it’s important not to let the reader end up confused about where and when each element of the story takes place. It’s a challenge.

    • Pat – You’ve put your finger squarely on the balance the writer has to strike. How to try different ways of telling a story (and be innovative) without being confusing or worse is a challenge.

  14. Interesting your mention of ‘The Silent Wife’. I’ve read good and bad reviews of this book. It’s on my shelf ready to read.

    • Sarah – I can see why it would get both kinds of reviews actually. It’s not a book people tend to feel neutral about really. My personal opinion is that they style is nicely done (although people who don’t like present-tense writing won’t go for it). The characters are carefully developed too, and the crime makes sense. It’s a bit slow-paced for my particular taste, but your mileage may vary as the saying goes.

  15. In a great deal of classic mystery fiction, Margot, there is an additional element to the organization of the book: a challenge, direct or indirect, to the reader to find the clues planted by the author and race the detective to the correct solution. One of the masters at that game was John Dickson Carr. One of my favorite non-series novels by Carr, and one which introduced yet another element to the challenge, is “The Nine Wrong Answers.” The book appears, on the surface, to be a straightforward suspense novel with mystery overtones. But at nine points in the course of the story, Carr places a footnote. Each, usually after some dramatic plot point, says something like this (which is actually the first of those footnotes): “The astute reader will already have wondered whether the preceding scene was not a corporate conspiracy directed at [name of character] himself, who was intended to overhear the conversation. This idea is wholly wrong. Discard answer number one.” Carr, in other words, shapes his narrative by leading the reader along, from point to point, indicating “wrong answers” that the reader may be making. It’s quite effective in moving the plot along – and, by the way, the book itself is, for me, one of Carr’s most dazzling deceptions.

    • Les – What a thoughtful discussion of that technique! And Carr certainly did it masterfully. So, I think, does the ‘Queen team’ in The Roman Hat Mystery. There’s a really interesting point in that novel at which Queen challenges the reader to come up with the solution.

      • Queen did that in the first half-dozen or so EQ novels – a formal challenge to the reader. If I’m not mistaken, in the original publications, the rest of the story was “sealed” with paper bands. If you could solve the mystery at that point, you could return the book with the seals intact and get a full refund. I doubt strongly that many people did so!

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