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Guest Post & Giveaway: The Main Event by C.E. Lawrence

Silent Kills by C.E. Lawrence:

Everyone Has What He Wants: The killer picks her up in a Manhattan nightclub. Another trendy victim of the latest downtown scene. Young. Fresh. Healthy. Perfect. The police find her body in a Bronx park. Pale as a ghost. Peaceful in death. Her life has been drained away. Slowly. Methodically. Brilliantly…No One Survives What He Takes: NYPD profiler Lee Campbell has seen the gruesome handiwork of the most deranged criminal minds. But this is something new. Something unbelievably twisted. A blood-obsessed lunatic who chooses his victims with deadly, loving care – and forces Campbell to confront the demons in his own life. No matter who wins this game, there will be blood…

Today, author C.E. Lawrence is going to share some of her writing tips about plot, particularly for mystery novels. She shares tricks about providing backstory and clues for readers to get them invested in the story.

For US/Canada residents, there will be a giveaway following the guest post; so stay tuned. Without further ado, here’s C.E. Lawrence:

Back a few thousand years ago, a proto-human went out hunting.  Maybe he was a Neanderthal Man, maybe an member of Australopithecus – maybe even an early Homo Sapiens.  He found a herd of proto-antelopes, or gazelles, or maybe water buffaloes.  He managed to isolate and kill one, using a sharpened wooden spear, and brought it home.

But along the way, many things happened – he had to ford a river, almost drowned, was stalked by a tiger, bitten by a spider, or a poisonous snake.  In other words, in accomplishing his goal, he faced conflicts and obstacles.

That night he went back to the campfire, deposited his kill, and settled himself on a boulder to entertain his mate while she cooked the game, telling her of his day.  One by one, other members of his tribe gathered in front of the fire to listen.  Some of them left their dinners uneaten, or their chores undone, to listen to what he had to say.

What he told them that night was a story.  It had a beginning, middle and end, and it had drama, danger, and conflict.  And by the end of the evening, he had a sizeable audience.

So what exactly is story?

Story is action, in the here and now – not yesterday or next week or in some imagined future, but now.  Readers are most interested in a character they can identify with in some way and who has something at stake – preferably something to lose as well as win – now, before their very eyes. And if you give that character the ability and the will to influence the outcome of his or her situation, you will be on your way to creating a story people will want to read.

A story must have an Event.  In a mystery story, this is most often a crime of some kind, and the vast majority of crime stories these days involve a murder of some kind.  But again, go ahead and be inventive; a kidnapping can be interesting, and in a spy story, political events can take center stage.

In a crime novel, there may be as many as three or more subplots beyond this main event – usually the solving of a crime – each with their own protagonist.

Subplots are important in a novel, and can accomplish several things at once.  A comic subplot can be used to give the reader a break from the tension and briefly lighten the mood.  Shakespeare was a master at this – he would cut from the action of the major character in his tragedies to show some foolishness taking place between two grave diggers (Hamlet, which is a kind of murder mystery), giving the audience a chance to breathe before the next onslaught of tragedy.

Subplots can also be used to complicate the main plot – a common variety of this is using a romance or family subplot to raise the stakes for the protagonist when the bad guy kidnaps a love interest or family member.

In The Singing Detective the protagonist is struggling with a crippling skin condition, which, in addition to being a subplot, becomes part of the main storyline as well.

In Silent Screams my protagonist, Lee Campbell, is struggling with clinical depression.  His struggle functions as a subplot until his condition begins to impact his job performance, at which point it becomes a complication in the main story.

A subplot can also be used to show another side of a character.  In the criminal-as-protagonist film Monsieur Verdoux, Charlie Chaplin’s murderous wife-killer is softened by a romance subplot in which he cares tenderly for his real wife, gentle cripple, and their son.

A subplot should never overshadow the main plot – for instance, a thriller with a romance subplot must still read like a thriller, not a romance novel. Keeps subplots in their place, but have fun with them – they can be a welcome change of pace from your hero’s relentless search for the killer.

Backstory

The term “backstory” refers to anything that has happened in the characters’ lives before the curtain goes up – i.e., before your story proper starts.  This can be anything from a death in the family to a drug arrest to a psychotic episode.  Literally, anything in your characters’ past can potentially be part of the backstory.

The trick in mystery fiction is to choose the backstory elements that pertain to your story, and that you can use to twist, complicate, or move the plot.  For instance, in Silent Screams my protagonist, Lee Campbell, has lost his sister – she disappeared five years ago.  I use this to motivate him to solve crimes, but also to complicate the plot: he gets mysterious phone calls from someone – who may or may not be the killer he is chasing – who claims to know something about his sister’s disappearance.  This causes him to have an attack of depression and anxiety, further complicating his efforts to find the serial killer.

Skillfully used backstory can be used as a pivotal plot moment:  remember the “Luke, I am your Father” moment from Star Wars?  That’s backstory, and George Lucas used it at a climactic moment to twist the plot for Luke Skywalker, making his response to Darth Vader even more complex and emotional.

However, do NOT throw in large “info-chunks” of superfluous backstory just because you can.  Be wary of anything that interrupts the forward flow of action; remember, only tell the reader what they need to know when they need to know it.

Raising Cain and Raising Stakes

It has been said that a story is not about a moment in time, it is about the moment in time.  A traditionally structured story must answer the Passover Question: “Why is this night different from every other night?”

In a crime story, that question is usually answered by the commission of a crime.  But see if you can dig deeper – see if you can make relate this question to your protagonist in a more personal way as well.  Is the victim someone the detective knew?  (The plot of The Maltese Falcon is a play on this theme, of course: Sam Spade needs to find out who killed his partner).

And then, as the story continues, you must continuously raise the stakes for the protagonist – simultaneously making it harder to solve the problem he is confronted with, all the while making it more important that he triumph.

Not an easy thing to do, I know.  But here are some helpful ideas.  I already mentioned giving the protagonist a personal stake in the outcome – for Sam Spade it is solving the murder of his partner; the important thing is that it matters to him personally.  The second way to raise the stakes is to widen the importance of the story into the society at large.  If an elderly aristocrat is murdered by his nephew at a country house, the number of people affected by that crime are few, but if someone kills a world leader, it may just start a world war (which is in fact what happened in 1914 with the murder of Archduke Ferdinand of  ).

Another thing you can do is beat up your protagonist physically or emotionally.  It is a cliché of detective stories that the private investigator is ambushed on a dark street and given a thumping by the bad guy’s henchmen.  In Friedrich Durrenmatt’s interesting and dark novel The Judge and His Hangman, for example, the protagonist, Detective Baerlach, suffers from stomach cancer.  In the middle of trying to catch a criminal, he must deal with the ongoing attacks of pain from his disease.  Find interesting ways to accomplish this on your own: if your hero has a weakness, for example, you can play with that in making his life more difficult.  Imagine a detective who is afraid of heights, or elevators, or guns.

Combining the personal and the professional can be very effective – maybe your super spy has a problem at home, like the poor beleaguered George Smiley, with his ever unfaithful wife (who he very much loves – her infidelity would be meaningless otherwise).  Best of all, if you can give your protagonist an unconscious, contradictory desire which impedes him solving the crime or identifying the traitor, etc., so much the better.  A good choice to give a hero is love vs. duty – especially in crime fiction, this can be agonizing.  Maybe your detective is a young sergeant who suspects that his commanding officer is behind a string of murders – but he loves this man, who saved his father’s life more than once.  Elmore Leonard does something similar to this in his brilliant nouveau noir novel, L.A. Confidential.

Planting Clues

In mystery fiction, one of the things you have to do is plant clues and red herrings.  The number of each you decide to include in your story is up to you – but since mysteries involve a challenge to the reader to solve the puzzle, you must play fair.  In other words, you want to give the reader a fighting chance to solve the mystery.

Clues help them to do this; red herrings are there to get in the way and confuse them.  Ideally, red herrings and clues should look very much alike – only you know the difference.  If you want to make a mystery harder to solve, you bury the clues more (sometimes this is called “hiding them in plain sight”).  There are many ways to do this:  you can plant a clue so that it just looks like a story detail and not a clue at all, or you can put it right next to a red herring so that the red herring jumps out at the reader much more than the clue.

For example, let’s say you have a victim who was killed by her brother, but she also has a jealous boyfriend.  You might mention that her brother had written to her a few months ago asking for money – but right before or after you have a dramatic scene with the jealous boyfriend.  The fact of the jealous boyfriend will sink in more than the unanswered letter – thus you have buried the clue “in plain sight,” as well as obscured it with a nice juicy red herring.

Story is all these and more.  And as long as there are people on this planet, I suspect there will be stories, because we seem to need them as much as we need food and drink and sex.  No one knows why this is – Kenneth Burke said that stories are equipment for living, and that’s no doubt part of the answer.

But as long as people need stories, they will need storytellers.  That is fortunate for those of us who wouldn’t be much good at doing anything else.  So here’s to more stories, and more storytellers!

Thanks, C.E. Lawrence, for sharing your tips with us. 

Additionally, one of her short stories is receiving great feedback from the anthology edited by Lee Child, Vengeance; check out the Publisher’s Weekly article.

Click for her featured poem

About the Author:

Carole Bugge ( C.E. Lawrence) has eight published novels, six novellas and a dozen or so short stories and poems. Her work has received glowing reviews from such publications as Kirkus, The Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, The Boston Herald, Ellery Queen, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines. Winner of both the Euphoria Poetry Competition and the Eve of St. Agnes Poetry Award, she is also a Pushcart Prize nominee and First Prize winner of the Maxim Mazumdar Playwriting Competition, the Chronogram Literary Fiction Prize, Jerry Jazz Musician Short Fiction Award, and the Jean Paiva Memorial Fiction award, which included an NEA grant to read her fiction and poetry at Lincoln Center.

Now, for the giveaway, please leave a comment here about what you look for in a novel; what makes a good plot for you?

Deadline for US/Canada residents is June 3, 2012, at 11:59PM EST

  • Thanks, Anita – secrets are good, right? It’s funny about elaborate ways of killing characters – it seems it’s harder than ever these days to come up with something new!

  • Anita Yancey

    I like lots of suspense and secrets, and being very descriptive about the characters and the way they are killed off.

  • Thanks, Anna – will do! I totally agree with you about loose ends – drives me nuts! I hate them.
    Ellie,
    Good point about depth – quite so, as our British friends would say! ( :

  • Ellie

    A novel has to be captivating with a depth to it. Meaningful plot which is enthralling and dynamic characters that are unforgettable.

  • A good plot is well thought out so that all the various threads are tied up at the end. It doesn’t have to be neat, but I just hate when things aren’t wrapped up in some way by the end.

    Sounds like a book my mother would enjoy, so please throw my name in the hat!