Thursday, January 19, 2012

Writing DNA #7

We're tackling a pair of topics this week in Writing DNA. Motive & Magic...let's see what the detectives say:

Diana Renn: Motive. We mystery writers and readers are alert to it in criminals. Someone commits a crime, in life or in fiction, and we almost immediately wonder: why? Understanding motive puts us on the path to clues, or to catching the culprit, and we begin to solve the puzzle. But it's also important to think about an investigator's motive -- or motivation -- and that's the issue I'm sliding under the microscope today. Why is the sleuth getting involved in the case? If it's an adult mystery and the sleuth is in law enforcement, or a PI, it's probably just in the job description. And even so, there's likely some inner drive to solve the mystery or to serve justice. If it's an adult mystery and the sleuth or stumbles into the mystery, the writer may have to work harder to justify involvement.

And if it's a mystery for young people, and the sleuth is certainly an amateur, this becomes an even trickier issue. A child or teen sleuth may be breaking parental or school rules to get to the bottom of a case, and possibly even breaking the law (for example, driving without a license to flee an attacker; or hacking into a computer to get information on a suspect). The stakes seem higher with kids involved. Adults have to be pretty much clueless or gone to give young sleuths room to operate, and these young sleuths have to be pretty committed to the cause to risk the penalties they might incur. Yet successful kids' mysteries seem to present sleuths who have greater motivation than "I love a good mystery." Some motivations I've come across in recent reading:

  • A family member or friend of the sleuth has been framed, is accused of a crime, is in danger, is personally impacted by a crime.
  • The sleuth has been framed, accused of a crime, or put in danger.
  • The sleuth must prove his or her worth in the face of great skepticism.
  • The sleuth has screwed up, and solving the mystery will redeem him or her in some way.
  • The sleuth needs to save someone or something (a life, a reputation, a family business, a school, a legacy
Can you think of other motivations for young detectives? Can you think of examples of highly motivated young sleuths you've come across in fiction?

Kristen KittscherMagic. I always find it interesting to try to pinpoint what fuels suspense in a passage or book I love, but I often come up short. I can pick out the usual suspects -- the rhythm of its sentences, the atmospheric word choice, the foreshadowing – but when it comes down to it, I’m convinced magic is at work. In fact, I’m fairly certain Shirley Jackson was dabbling in witchcraft when she wrote the gothic masterpiece We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but that won’t keep me from trying to explain what makes its initial chapter one of the most suspenseful pieces of writing I’ve ever read. I think the crucial ingredient is how hard Jackson works to create a sympathetic figure of her utterly unreliable first-person narrator before, gradually – and with increasing frequency – having her toss out puzzling and potentially horrifying asides. “I must be kinder to Uncle Julian,” Merricat eerily reminds herself every few pages. “I’m not allowed to prepare food or to gather mushrooms,” she mentions casually not long after she’s let it slip that her entire has family died. Soon thereafter she's prattling on about her cat.  However, at first Jackson makes Merricat seem like a vulnerable, immature outsider whose dark thoughts about her fellow villagers -- though exaggerated – seem like justified rage at her treatment by them. It's only a bit later that Jackson begins alienating us from Merricat, cutting us loose gradually until we know we’re adrift in a sea of unreliable narration. We Have Always Lived in the Castle reminds me that suspense at its best is about rattling expectations and putting your reader on uncertain, shifting territory.

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  1. I devoured mysteries when I was a kid (not that I'm any different now when it comes to mysteries!) and I always liked the mysteries where the puzzle or the mystery itself was the main motivation. Curiosity, I think, was what really drove the kids in the mysteries I read.

  2. I liked those mysteries too, Belle; I seem to remember curiosity become enough motivation. It seems there is a shift away from that these days, as mystery has become more wedded to contemporary fiction and readers crave more "realistic" or fully developed main characters/sleuths. I'm always looking out for exceptions, though! Is curiosity enough motivation for middle grade mystery versus young adult mystery today?


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