Written by Joyce Strand, author of Jillian Hillcrest Mysteries
“Why shouldn't truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction after all, has to make sense,” Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens, is quoted as saying.
Most books of fiction must “make sense” for readers to complete.
(We’ll ignore James Joyce and ‘stream of consciousness’ for this article.) Characters, setting, and plot work together to deliver a story that could happen, or at least the reader believes it could happen. If any of the three are out of synch in some way, we tend to dismiss the book.
I read and write mysteries, and heartily endorse the concept that a mystery “has to make sense.” We must believe that the crime could occur in the setting where it happens, and that our sleuth can solve it. We’ll allow for a little guess work and luck. Not only must the story make sense, but all the loose ends need to be “tied up,” extraneous characters and actions explained, and the villain or criminal dealt with in some way. That is, there usually must be a conclusion.
Let’s look more closely at plausible characters. Creating an engaging story assumes that readers will care what happens to the characters. If they can’t relate to them, they can’t care about them. We want to understand the characters, particularly the protagonist, in everyday life—their love life, friends, and most important how they’re related to the plot.
In a mystery we want to comprehend how our characters relate to the crime. If a crime fiction book’s main character is a police detective, such as Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, then we look for the accurate portrayal of police procedure. If the hero is a forensic anthropologist, such as Kathy Reich’s Temperance Brennan, we expect to read about the processes involved in solving crimes by examining bones.
If, however, our sleuth is an amateur, the author offers other capabilities to support the character’s ability to solve a crime—even without the qualifications of detective or criminologist. Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander is a credible sleuth, even though she is not a detective. Her computer and investigative skills, combined with her sly brashness, enable us to accept her as a believable crime-solver. Dick Francis’ thrillers about race track events sported credible heroes who solved the crimes of some very evil villains.
What about setting? How important is setting to “making sense” in a mystery?
Certainly crime can take place anywhere, but the type of crime will vary depending on background. It is unlikely that a ponzi scheme will occur in a poor area of town. We need a Wall Street background of some sort. On the other hand, we’ve become accustomed to reading about muggings and beatings in more rundown areas where gangs operate. I write about a publicist who works at a public Silicon Valley biotechnology company. She encounters insider trading in the next mystery FAIR DISCLOSURE (to be published in November.) Obviously she would be less likely to run into this crime if she worked in an independent book store, for example.
Finally, what about plot?
In a mystery, the puzzle is what it’s all about. Therefore plot is critical to determine if a story “makes sense.” A plausible mystery is one we care about solving. We eagerly follow the author’s steps to guide us to discover “whodunit” or catch the villain. We don’t like to encounter snags, like not allowing enough time for a crime or creating a scene where the protagonist can’t possibly participate because he’s visiting a suspect in another State.
Further, the crime itself should be plausible. I read Michael Connelly and have no difficulty accepting his plots surrounding either Harry Bosch or Mickey Baller. He creates a crime that could happen, his characters follow clues that are most often helpful, and he guides us to the conclusion. For my own mysteries, I draw on real California cases that a publicist in Silicon Valley might encounter.
Bottom line: our mystery must make sense. Crime fiction is indeed very different from true crime stories, which frequently are not solved, involve unlikely characters, and don’t lead anywhere. Although ironic, crime fiction makes “more sense” than true crime. I guess Samuel Clemens knew what he was talking about.