Keep the Fire Burnin’*

Adding InterestIn an essay titled The Simple Art of Murder, Raymond Chandler wrote:

‘When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.’

He wasn’t offering this comment, really, as a piece of advice. Instead, it was written within the context of discussing his own writing process, and what he would do to move a plot along.

For Chandler, the ‘man with the gun’ was an effective way to move a story forward. He usually wrote hardboiled stories, in which a series of unexpected dangers (such as people with guns coming through doors) make sense. And we certainly see that plot point used effectively in lots of well-written thrillers. For instance, Deon Meyer’s Devil’s Peak features a thriller plot that weaves together the stories of former freedom fighter Thobela Mpayipheli; DI Benny Griessel, who’s got his own issues and challenges; and Christine van Rooyen, a prostitute who’s trying to free herself (and her daughter) from the unwelcome possessiveness of a client who’s from a dangerous and powerful family. Meyer develops the characters over the course of the novel. But the plot is also moved along by means of frightening and jolting events that keep the pace going.

Of course, not all authors write thrillers. And those ‘man coming through the door with a gun’ events don’t work in every kind of crime fiction. There are other ways, though, to move a plot along and keep the interest going. Many crime writers use the ‘second victim’ plot point. Certainly Agatha Christie used it. In novels such as Lord Edgware Dies, Three Act Tragedy, and several others, there’s a first murder. Then, another body is discovered (sometimes more than one other body). And by no means is Christie the only author to use this plot point. Colin Dexter used it in Death is Now My Neighbour, among others of his novels. And there are dozens more examples.

There are advantages to the ‘second/third/etc. murder’ plot point. It can add to the tension and build suspense. It can also make for a solid plot twist (e.g. the major suspect in the first murder is killed. Or the second murder is committed while the prime suspect is in police custody.). And it can fall out naturally from the plot, too. It’s logical to believe that someone who killed might then target a person who knows too much about the crime. It’s also reasonable to believe that a killer might target someone who’s blackmailing him or her. A killer could also target a specific set of people (say, all the other heirs to a fortune, or all of the people in the way of a top job).

There are disadvantages, though, to this plot point. It’s very easy for a high ‘body count’ to become gratuitous. And subsequent murders can take away from a story and pull a reader out of it if they do not contribute directly to a plot. Still, when used effectively, the discovery of that next body can add to a story.

Another way in which an author can move a plot forward is through a major revelation. A character’s real identity, or the discovery of certain information, or perhaps the discovery of a hidden relationship, can all add interest to a story, and can be used to move it along. For example, in Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, Kindle County prosecutor Raymond Hogan has a very difficult case: the murder of one of the attorneys on his team, Carolyn Polhemus. The case has to be handled carefully, to avoid the appearance of bias or coverup. So Hogan chooses one of his best, Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, to work with the police to build a case. But there’s an important fact that Hogan doesn’t know. Sabichwas was involved with Polhemus for several months. That revelation jolts the story, and changes everything. Hogan now takes Sabich off the case, replacing him with his nemesis. And later, when evidence suggests that Sabich may have committed the murder, the fact of their affair creates a possible motive. In fact, it’s enough to put Sabich on trial.

Those surprise revelations have to be handled carefully. Readers want the author to ‘play fair.’ What’s more, a surprise that pushes credibility too far will likely pull readers out of the story. So it’s important that if there is a major revelation, it makes sense given the story.

An interesting post from creative writing professor, writer, and fellow blogger Khanh Ho suggests another way to keep a story moving: have someone from the past make an appearance. Ho makes the well-taken point that a reunion like that can flesh out a character, add a layer of interest and create conflict. Peter May uses a reunion very effectively, for instance, in The Blackhouse. Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod grew up on the Isle of Lewis, but left years ago. Now he’s an Edinburgh police inspector. He’s seconded back to Lewis when Angel Macritchie is murdered. That murder closely resembles a murder that McLeod and his team are already investigating, and it’s hoped that if the two murders were committed by the same person, cooperation will help catch the killer. In the course of the investigation, MacLeod reunites with a number of people he grew up with, including old friends, an old flame, and old nemeses, too. Those reunions shed light on MacLeod’s character and history, create tension and conflict in the story, and add to character development.

There are a lot of other ways, too, in which authors can add interest – ‘zip – to their stories to invite the reader to stay engaged all the way through. These are only a few examples. Which ones keep your interest the most? If you’re a writer, how do you keep readers’ interest?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an REO Speedwagon song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Deon Meyer, Peter May, Raymond Chandler, Scott Turow

25 responses to “Keep the Fire Burnin’*

  1. One of the ways in which writers seem to keep the suspense going – especially of late, it’s become almost a fashion – is to have two storylines/timelines and keep alternating between them. So one chapter is in the past, one in the present, and the hope is that the reader will be have double the pleasure and thrill of finding out how each plays out. The danger, however, is that one of them is less compelling, so a reader can end up being resentful of the flip from one to the other.

    • You’re quite right, Marina Sofia. I’ve noticed that dual timeline a lot myself in recent books. As you say, it can keep the suspense and interest going, but you do risk reader annoyance if one of the timelines is more interesting than the other. And the thing is, because readers are all different, one never knows which timeline will be more interesting.

  2. Neither tarnished, nor afraid, the man who once walked down such streets remembered what made him turn hostile… -> Hinting at the ‘Simple Art of Murder’.

    I had, or still have, such a reunion in real life, forced upon me by one of my earliest stalkers, I found it dumb, retarded, and savage. To contribute a contextual point here:

    Your ideas, dear Margo, are splendid ‘as usual’, and actually thrilling. Still few have the ‘accomplished skill-pack’ to succeed with such. Contemplating & Daydreaming it is nice, but I fear ‘some of us’ know the longing to create on such a higher level, and be it only to set worthy standards and entertain well.

    My best wishes for you!

    • Thanks for mentioning more about The Simple Art of Murder, André. I think it’s a really interesting look at the way one author went about his work.

      • Ah, I still hope to see the day that rank one on the list is Margot Kinberg’s newest crime fiction approach. 😉

        Seriously I would need years, and others some months, of dedicated efforts to even attempt to achieve such a level of knowledge and a multitude of insights (the worthy ones). Can you forgive wanting to see them realized? I sure hope so.

  3. I’ve read some stories where the author has two plots going at the same time that almost appear to have no connection. As the story goes along I keep wondering how are they going to tie the two plots together and then all of a sudden it makes sense. I also like the ones were a second body is discovered just when you’re sure who the killer is but then it can’t be (but is the killer working with someone else). Another fascinating post, Margot. Thanks for helping me see books in a whole new light.

    • Thank you, Mason – that’s very kind. And I’m glad you’ve brought up the situation where the author has two major plot threads going, and then weaves them together. That moment when they are woven together can definitely keep the reader’s interest. That’s something I hadn’t thought of when I was putting this post together.

  4. Margot, one of the reasons I enjoy reading legal thrillers is because of the suspense. In a typical courtroom scene, for instance, the protagonist, usually the defence attorney, springs a surprise in the end which clinches the case and verdict in the defendant’s favour. Perry Mason apart, I have see this element in other novels too. Suffice to say, the knowing anticipation keeps me hooked to the book.

    • Those courtroom dramatic moments are definitely ways that legal thrillers keep the suspense going, aren’t they, Prashant? I hadn’t thought of those when I was putting this post together, so I’m glad that you mentioned that sort of plot point.

  5. Some great examples here Margot and another way to move the plot along is to have someone produce evidence that contradicts all that is known about a crime – Steve Robinson uses this device to good effect in his genealogical mysteries, especially in his latest one Kindred.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Cleo. You’re absolutely right, too, about the ‘introducing new evidence’ plot point. That can be really effective at keeping interest and moving plots along. And I’m glad you’ve mentioned Robinson’s work, too. He writes very engaging genealogical mysteries. Folks, if you haven’t tried Robinson’s work, I recommend it.

  6. One of my all-time favourites is Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying. There is a moment in that where the plot is moved on in a way that must surely confound all one-time readers – I still remember the combined shock and satisfaction I felt when I read it…

  7. That book has been sitting on a shelf at various houses for years. Maybe it’s time to pull it out.

  8. I do like a second murder! In fact, when I think about it (which I never do, till you make me!) I think it’s a good way to make the murderer a real bad guy. Soemtimes the first murder can almost feel justified if the victim is cruel or a blackmailer or suchlike. But when the murderer kills again, then they put themselves beyond sympathy – and I do like to be wholeheartedly glad when the murderer is caught! However, if the murders keep on going, then it begins to feel unrealistic – three maximum, I feel. Again, Christie just about has the perfect formula, I think – main murder, second murder to get rid of a witness who doesn’t yet realise what s/he’s seen, third murder prevented in the nick of time…

    • That formula does work, doesn’t it, FictionFan? And Christie was able to make it all fit together, so that the second murder doesn’t feel contrived at all. You make a really well-taken point, too, about the way our view of the killer changes if there’s more than one murder. Just one, and you’re right: you can sort of feel some sympathy, depending on the victim and so on. More than one, and the murderer doesn’t seem quite so sympathetic. And yes, too many murders and it’s not realistic. Or it falls into the ‘serial killer’ sort of category, which has to be truly truly excellent to work well.

  9. I often use the multi-murder method, because I write about serial killers. But I also like to include a slight cliffhanger in each chapter to force readers to turn the page. They’re not always easy to create and make them sound natural, but they’re effective. As Cleopatra pointed out, using a sub-plot adds a lot to a crime novel, too. I think it’s especially important in contemporary thrillers/mysteries. Or maybe, I’m a choosy reader. That could also certainly be true. 🙂

    • If you are a choosy reader, Sue, you’re absolutely not alone! And I’m glad you brought up the cliffhanger. Those have to be used very carefully, so the story doesn’t feel too ‘soap opera.’ But at the same time, they certainly can get the reader deeply enough involved to keep turning/swiping pages.

  10. Thanks for the Chandler quote, one of my favorites. I’ve got to admit he has a point, though. I’m a fan of second (and third!) murders. One interesting aspect is that the second, and subsequent murders, are often done in panic – inconvenient witness, cover-up – and this adds interest to the story. But a downside is it often makes the sleuth’s job easier, which takes some of the tension out of the story.

    • I love that Chandler quote, too, Bryan. It’s a classic. And you’re right about the second and third murders. On the one hand, given a story line, they can make sense. And, as you say, they do add interest. But on the other hand, it also moves the sleuth closer to the solution, which can take away some tension if it’s not done well.

  11. My husband is a big fan of Steve Robinson’s genealogical mystery series. He has all of the books, and just finished reading the third, The Last Queen of England. I have not read any of them, but I do plan to read the first one this year.

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