‘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.