Readers often get drawn into a story by identifying with particular characters or situations. That feeling of ‘That could be me!’ can add suspense to the reading experience. It can also help readers understand characters and their motivations. And plenty of authors use this approach.
For example, the real action in Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!) begins as Elspeth McGillicuddy is on board a train on the way to visit her friend, Miss Marple. She gets comfortable and drowses just a bit, as anyone might do. She happens to wake when another train passes her train, going in the same direction. As the train goes by, Mrs. McGillicuddy happens to glance into the windows of the other train. That’s when she sees a man strangling a woman. We’ve all been in situations where we were on trains, buses or planes, half-asleep and not paying much attention. So, it’s easy to relate to Mrs. McGillicuddy’s shock when she sees the murder. She tries to get the conductor and police to believe her, but no-one has been reported missing, and there’s been no report of a body on any train. The only person who really does believe Mrs. McGilicuddy is Miss Marple. She does her own experimentation to find out where the body might be, and soon enough, it’s discovered.
Gail Bowen’s The Wandering Soul Murders starts when Bowen’s sleuth, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, gets a call from her daughter, Mieka. It seems Mieka was getting rid of some dirty rags that had gotten soiled from cleaning up at the catering business she owns. That’s how she found the body of seventeen-year-old Bernice Morin in a nearby trash dumpster. Kilbourn goes to help her daughter and ends up getting involved in a case of multiple murders that has its roots in the past. We’ve all taken trash out, probably without thinking much about it. It’s one of those ordinary things that can make a reader think, ‘That could’ve been me.’
Peter Robinson’s Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks series begins with Gallows View. In the novel, Banks has recently moved with his family from London to the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. He’s not there long before he finds himself confronted with several cases. One of them is the case of a voyeur who’s making the lives of Estvale women miserable. In a couple of scenes related to that sub-plot, a character is changing clothes, and gets a creepy sense of being watched. It’s easy for readers to identify with that feeling. If you’ve ever started to change your clothes, and then suddenly checked to be sure the curtains or shades were drawn, you know that feeling. Readers can identify with hat eeriness, and it draws them in.
C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye isn’t part of his Joe Pickett series; it’s a standalone. In it, we meet Jack McGuane, a Travel Development Specialist for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. His wife, Melissa, works at a local hotel. They are also loving parents to eighteen-month-old Angelina. Then, one day, their world is shattered. They get a call from the agency through which they adopted Angelina, and it’s very bad news. It seems that the baby’s biological father, eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, never waived his parental rights. Now, he’s decided to exercise them, and he wants Angelina back. At first, it seems like a terrible mix-up. But then, the McGuanes’ adoption lawyer refuses to get involved, saying there’s nothing much that can be done. It’s clear now that there’s something more here than a change of mind. To make matters worse, Garrett’s father is powerful judge John Moreland, and he intends to do whatever it takes to support his son. In fact, the McGuanes receive a court order to surrender Angelina within twenty-one days. This they refuse to do. And before he knows it, McGuane finds himself doing things he never would have imagined. And it’s not hard for readers, especially readers who are parents, to identify with what it might be like to have your child taken from you. That connection adds to the suspense of the novel.
If you’ve ever taken a baby or a very small child on a plane trip, you can understand how Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson feel at the beginning of Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. They’re on the way from Scotland to Robertson’s native Victoria, a trip of some 24 hours or sometimes much more, depending on stopovers. With them is their nine-week old son, Noah. Even under the best of circumstances, Noah isn’t an ‘easy’ baby. And a long airline trip is not the best of circumstances. Any parent who’s been on a long flight like this will likely identify with the parents’ exhaustion and frustration as the baby refuses to stay settled and sleep. Several of the other passengers lose their tempers, and it’s an awfully difficult experience for everyone. The tension doesn’t ease up when the plane lands, either. On the drive from the airport in Melbourne to their destination, the couple faces every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of their son. There’s a massive search, and a lot of help and sympathy, too. Then, there start to be whispers (and then gossip, and then full-on accusations) that the parents, especially Joanna, might have been involved in this case. Matters get worse and worse, but in the end, we find out the truth about Noah.
These are only a few examples of the way authors can use events to draw readers into a story. When readers can connect with the characters (i.e. ‘That might have happened to me!’), they’re more likely to stay engaged in the story. And that’s what any author wants.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by John Martyn.