Keeping people in the dark as an author is not without its complications.
Number one being, it’s hard. Readers are smart. And Mystery & Suspense readers are borderline genius in the genre. They open your book knowing this isn’t their first day in the game. They know the tropes. They know the clichés. They know the strategies authors use to obfuscate and, more often than not, they can sniff out the breadcrumbs you didn’t even know you’d left behind you. I count it a win if that group can’t guess my ending in the first chapter lol.
So how do you keep these literary detectives off your trail? Every author probably has a different tactic, but for me, I try to keep them in the dark by making sure I am in the dark too. I don’t start a suspense novel knowing ‘whodunit.’ To be perfectly honest, I rarely even know what it is that’s been done. I find that the longer I’m in the dark the less foot prints I’m leaving behind for the snoops to track.
Is that a risk? Sure is.
You can write three quarters of a good novel and still be in the dark, but eventually a chapter will come where your reader will expect an answer. And let’s be honest, they deserve an answer. They’ve trusted you enough to follow this wooded path. And once the forest trees clear, it might be okay to jump out at them and yell ‘Surprise!’ or maybe push them off a cliff or even run them smack into the killer’s knife, but it’s not okay to just leave them waiting.
For me, when I get to that half/three quarters way into a manuscript, I become the detective. I start looking around me for the fraud hanging around in the periphery of the plot wearing a false face of innocence. Or the motive I didn’t realize I’d hidden in the pages. For me, the twist, the killer, the bad guys and the good seem to reveal themselves if I just keep soldiering on. But I’m the first one to admit that it’s a gamble and you might just end up writing yourself into a trap of the Kobayashi Maru variety.
If you like to approach things with a little more strategy, I’ve heard other authors praise the ‘Work Backwards’ mentality. My understanding is that these authors start with the reveal, the twist. They’ve got their finish. They know how the story ends and like a reverse maze they start on the last page and then plot out every twist, turn, and dead end until they end up at a beginning so far removed and separated from the end by an ocean of questions that only a genius could trace how to successfully get from point A to point B. When I think of these authors, I think of the conspiracy theorist in his basement with his red yarn, thumb tacking it from picture to picture.
One of my favorite authors is Kate Atkinson and I often wonder if she is this kind of writer. I can never predict her absolutely unexpected endings, but even though I don’t know where she’s leading me, it always turns out to be exactly where I wanted to go.
There’s still one thing I want to say before wrapping up. If you’re an author and you’re reading this thinking the task of suspense is just too daunting, don’t worry. Your book isn’t good because the readers couldn’t guess the ending. Good writing makes good books. I’ve guessed the end in the beginning of a lot of books that I totally loved. Just because a savvy reader guesses where you’re going doesn’t mean they won’t still make the journey. Write well and it won’t matter. I mean, there’s nothing worse than a book that repeatedly axes characters and throws in twists just to mess with you. Kill, betray, or save who you want. Just make sure it’s for the wholeness of the story and not shock value.
What do you think? How do you keep your readers in the dark? Comment below to join the discussion. And while you’re here, be sure to stop on my CONTACT page and sign up to receive May’s newsletter for a chance to win the monthly prize.