Sunday, April 01, 2007

Too Predictable?

I've always been good at predicting movies. When I saw The Sixth Sense I figured it out halfway through and ruined it for everyone in the theater. Primal Fear and The Illusionist, which were known for their "twist" endings, didn't fool me either. For me, the mark of a good movie or book is the ability to surprise, for the ending to be unexpected but make sense at the same time.

So when I got feedback on my third draft of Street Walk, I was very disappointed to hear that both my mother and girlfriend figured out the mystery on the same page, chapters before the big reveal. Where I thought I was just dropping a hint, a seed to make the ending tie in later, I was actually giving it away. They both assured me that they still loved the book and there was still the suspense of how the killer was going to be caught, but it didn't change the fact that, in my mind, my book was predictable.

When I had lunch with Lee Child a few Bouchercons ago, I asked him about eliminating predictability in books and how important it was to him that people didn't figure out the mystery too soon. He said that even if a person thinks they've figured it out, they'll still read to the end to see if they're right and ultimately, you just want the reader to keep reading.

For someone like me who becomes a harsher critic with each book she reads, figuring out the ending too soon definitely changes my opinion of a novel, especially a mystery. If the whole attraction of the genre is to figure out the who and the why, wouldn't a predictable ending defeat the purpose of reading? While some people may find satisfaction in figuring out the killer before the big reveal, I get disappointed, thinking that it was the writer's job to fool me and fool me well.

There is certainly a fine line between revealing too much and too little. Give away too many clues and readers will figure it out prematurely. Withhold too much and readers will feel cheated, like it came out of nowhere. Authors use red herrings to steer readers in the wrong direction, but if a character is too likely of a suspect, it's a safe bet that they didn't actually do it.

Ultimately, crafting the mystery seems like every other aspect of writing: practice makes perfect. So I will return to my manuscript and make the necessary changes, not wanting my story to be predictable. But I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts. How important is the element of surprise? If you figure out the mystery too soon, does it change your opinion of the novel? Or does the saying ring true, is it about the journey and not the destination?


Rob said...

I am absolutely paranoid about this in my own stories. I want to shock the hell out of the reader with the revelation of the mystery, but it is dang hard to twist a plot in the right ways without giving away or holding back too much. I have, however, read some mystery novels where I guessed "whodunit" before the end and yet I was pulled along by the story enough to forgive this flaw. The truth is, there will almost always be someone out there who figures it out before the end. The trick, I guess, is in writing an engaging enough story on top of the mystery structure. If the story involves characters I care about going through the wringer, I can forgive some flaws.

I am not, however, a book reviewer. So maybe I'm easier to please in that respect.

Quinn said...

I generally like figuring out the mystery before the end of the book - but only if I feel like it was well hidden and it was my own cleverness that got me there. It's really a pride thing. But I also love when the author pulls the rug out from under me and I get a twist I never see coming, even though it was right in front of my eyes the whole time (season 3 of Arrested Development did this pretty beautifully; not a book, but still). So I guess as long as I feel like I'm in good hands, and that the author hasn't underestimated my intelligence, I'll probably enjoy the work regardless of whether I see the ending coming.

laura lippman said...


This may seem bizarre, dropping a comment on a month-old entry, but Sarah had a link to you today, and I was scrolling through all the entries.

At any rate, I think there's something to be said for writing the book as if everyone's going to figure it out, and then you end up thinking about what will keep them going in that eventuality. Write away from the "who" and toward the why/how, if that makes sense. I'm also a big fan of The Purloined Letter technique, putting things in plain sight. Mystery readers are very, very smart, and they interact with the text quite a bit. In fact, I think the advent of the Internet, and the ADD-quality it produces -- oh, shiny link, I'll go there -- is helpful to the crime writer. Give them shiny links, as it were, and they'll trick themselves. Give them a strong backstory, and the won't mind if they figure it out. My two cents. Not sure why I felt the need to intrude here today, but I'm finally off tour and enjoyed a normal morning, clocking a semi-respectable 1,700 words. Finally feel like a writer again, as opposed to a touring author.