Writing Lesson #7—Making the reader care.

In old movies, newspapers sold their wares by shouting "Read All About It!" and, presumably, people rushed to do so.

Mystery writers don't want their readers to read about anything. Instead, they want to have their readers feel as if they've lived the events themselves. Their readers want that, too. They want to feel delight, horror, anxiety, excitement, relief—something. That doesn't mean that a mystery can't be chock-full of ideas, but it does mean that the ideas have to be given life and meaning by being dramatized.

Supposing your turned on the TV to watch the Olympic skating finals and instead of a picture, you had only the announcer's voice saying, "She's amazing, folks! The best skater in the universe! She just did a quadruple spin and flip and topped it with a cartwheel. Nobody's ever done that before—isn't this exciting?"

You'd feel cheated, wouldn't you? You wanted to see it, and if you had, you wouldn't need anybody telling you to be excited by the skating—you'd be feeling it yourself.

Now suppose you think a character in your mystery is so miserable a person that her nephew's attempt to murder her was (almost?) justified.

If you tell me that idea that way, my natural instinct is to doubt you, to at least metaphorically adopt a "Justified homicide? Never!" I've backed off into a "Says who? Prove it!" stance, and that means I'm out of your story world. And keeping me inside that world so that I forget it's "only a story" is what you want to be doing, because once I'm out, I'm not emotionally involved. In short—I won't care one way or the other.

But if instead you dramatize that idea—if you create a shy and vulnerable child and a sadistic woman, and if you let me see and hear her menacing him, and let me feel his reactions and his terror—then you'll never have to tell me how damaging she was and how warped he became because I'll have seen it myself. I'll understand your idea more fully than I ever would have if I hadn't lived through it myself.

This is another time when a picture is worth a thousand words (and it takes much fewer than that to create one.)

Notice how often I've used words having to do with sight. The reader wants to see the drama in his head, vividly, and when he does, when he's living the story with your people, feeling what they are feeling, he'll be emotionally involved. He'll care.

That's why we have the basic "rule" of writing: Show, Don't Tell. We dramatize all important events. We don't stand on the sidelines and tell what's going on or how your readers should feel about people or events. And we do this by using the same tools we use in real life—our five senses. In and out of novels, people experience life by seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling specific sensations. The more specific your sensory details, the clearer the picture for the reader.

Suppose you wrote, "the dog menaced the person." We might react by thinking oh, that's not good, but in a dull generic way. But if you said either: "the bull-mastiff growled at the toddler" or "the Chihuahua yapped at the Sumo wrestler," we'd react with two very different but distinct emotional responses. We'd feel something. We'd care.

Start a sensory data bank. Make notes of textures and tastes and smells and sounds. Try not to rely on descriptions you've read and heard—look at the world and experience it as if for the first time. Then pick the specific details that will create the effect you want.

Use only a few. (Look at a book you've enjoyed and notice how few details are sketched in for a person's appearance, or the setting, but how specific and capable of emotional impact those details are, so that you can finish up the image and have a sense of how to feel about this person or place through them.)

Your book is a partnership with your reader. You provide the specific cues and your reader, your partner in crime, will finish up the picture and make the story his own. And he'll care.

Next lesson: How do you write a murder mystery (and not go to jail) if you "Write What You Know?"

On to Lesson 8!

Adapted from: You Can Write a Mystery, by Gillian Roberts.


© Gillian Roberts.