Thursday, June 23, 2011

Rules? Why?

What I'm reading: Mystery, by Jonathan Kellerman

Remember,Ellis Vidler is giving away a book to one commenter, and you have until Friday to leave yours on her post. Scroll down to Tuesday.

There was a very interesting discussion at the Mystery Writers of America Yahoo group about when a dead body should show up in the book.

This puzzled the heck out of me. I know when I started writing romance, people told me I broke the "rules" because the first male character on scene wasn't the hero. Rules? I'd never read a romance, but the mystery I thought I was writing was, according to my daughters, turning into one, so I thought I should start reading them.

At first, looking at the short category romances (I tend to think of them as romance Garanimals because of the color and design coded covers), that seemed to be true. Now, I have no problem accepting conventions and reader expectations. If it's a romance, then there's going to have to be a hero and a heroine, and figuring out who's who is part of the reading experience. And in those very short books, I could understand why you had to get there early on.

Luckily, I had just about finished my first draft of my novel or I might have given up. I expanded my reading horizons and found there were very successful rule breakers out there. Allison Brennan even killed off a character that seemed to be set up as the hero. And Linda Castillo didn't bring her characters together into anything resembling a relationship until well into one of her books.

Another romance "rule" I broke was bringing Randy and Sarah back as the hero and heroine of a second book. I wasn't done with them, and I didn't see why they couldn't continue, especially since I'd broken the "they get married and have children in the epilogue" rule.

Now, if readers are expecting a murder because the book is classified as mystery, then maybe there should be one. However, I don't recall a murder in every single Sherlock Holmes story, and I defy anyone to dispute that Doyle wrote mysteries. I still regard my books as "mysteries with relationships" and rely as much on the structure of a mystery as that of a romance when I write them.

In Finding Sarah's first draft, there was no murder at all. The closest was the death of her husband, which happened well before the book started. When I finished, I did have a murder, but it wasn't on the page and wasn't the focus of the book by a long shot.

Hidden Fire did put a dead body up front, but it was because I needed a logical reason for Randy to abandon Sarah on their first night together after a 3 month separation.

What's in a Name? Another romantic suspense, but the mystery had nothing to do with a dead body. Nowhere to Hide. A body did show up, but well into the book.

When Danger Calls. More of an action adventure, so maybe I'm forgiven for not having a murder in the book. Where Danger Hides. Some deaths, but solving them wasn't the point of the book.

I guess I'm confused. But I'm not stopping the writing. Right now, I'm in chapter 7 of a WIP and there's still no dead body. Stuff is happening, but nobody's died. When I re-read the book for pacing, I might move it up, but …

When I was working on the cozy mystery proposal I discussed here some time back, I turned in the first 3 chapters, with the body discovered, per what the editor seemed to have requested, on about page 6. When she asked for revisions, she wanted me to introduce all the players and hint at motives, and to move the discovery of the body well into chapter 3.

And, when I added my response to why I objected to being told that a murder had to show up in the first pages to the Mystery Writers group, another member sent me this link. I think it's a delightful example of breaking the "rules." (And getting another look at a youthful Redford and Newman doesn't hurt, either.)

Have you read anything recently that defied "convention" but turned out to be a good read anyway?


Linda Poitevin said...

Honestly, I'd rather read good writing than a book that follows the rules so closely that the story becomes stifled. Excellent post.

Anonymous said...

I had a lecture in university about exactly that question - does it have to be a murder? Of course there are exceptions that prove the rule, but I think it was Friedrich Schiller, who said that only a murder, ending a life and the finalty of that crime, can move people long enough to read through a story. You don't put the efford of reading through a novel if it's about theft... Unless, and that's the point, the detective or the criminal is interesting enough to follow him or her personally. That's the Sherlock-Holmes-Phenomenon. Or it's something as final as murder. Rape, child abuse, something that shatters your reader's heart. And I guess that's really true.

So if you write mystery you should try to push your readers to the limit where they won't be able to turn their backs on you. If you can get that without a body - congratulations. If you don't - stick to the rules, most of the time they have a reason.

Regards (and as always apologies for my poor English, native German speaker...),

Vonnie Davis said...

Ah, yes, the rules of romance. A man in our writers group, shrugged his shoulder in an arrogant way as he sneered, "Romance is formumatic. Boy meets girl. Boy looses girl. Boy gets girl." Had he been sitting close enough, the group would have witnessed "girl strangles boy."

Rules, boring and plain, are put in place for a reason. Creative people bend them into something gorgeous. BEND ON!!!

Terry Odell said...

Linda - a good story with good writing will trump all, I think.

EMK - interesting points. When I read (or write) it's all about the characters for me, and I don't need something as "compelling" as a murder to hold my interest.

Anonymous said...

If it's about your characters it's perfectly fine if you play your own game. But if it's about the crime - and that's the point in MOST mystery novels I know - you should not follow but master the rules.

I'm not that into romance, but I guess literature is more than anything the desire for something you can't get. The people who stick exclusively to one genre have very explicit expectations most of the time. If you read fantasy, you're looking for romantic or honor or magic. If you read mystery, you're looking for something like justice or - if you're the philosophical type - you maybe want to "read on against" modern epistemology and want to find the security of identiy. And people who stick to romance want love.

And I guess if you're breaking the rules you're also breaking expectations and that's fine with me but you have to know that kind of stuff. Because then maybe the readers you want are not the readers you'll get. But in fact, if you're good enough, if you can figuratively capture your readers with your words and they can't escape from the places and worlds you've created no matter what - honestly - than you won't need rules. And if your characters are "full" enough to stick with them I really take my hat off to you. There are not enough writers who are willing to take that risk and follow their way. They should, though... So stick with it, the world need ist.

Terry Odell said...

Vonnie -- most commercial, or 'genre' fiction has those reader expectations, which are fine as far as overall plot goes. If there's a crime in a mystery novel, the detective had better solve it before the end. If there's a romance, h/h need at least the promise of that HEA.

It's when someone says, h/h MUST meet by page 5, or there MUST be a dead body by the end of chapter 1 that I get my feathers ruffled.

Anonymous said...

"It's when someone says, h/h MUST meet by page 5, or there MUST be a dead body by the end of chapter 1 that I get my feathers ruffled."

Yeah, those are the people who believe in the Philosopher's Stone of literature. Those are also the people who sell exactly one copy of their book - most of the time to their own mother. If they get published at all. That's sad. The market is filled with books far from being interesting because of those people. I tend to quote my room mate here: "Learn a little bit about the stuff you're talking about. And go home!"

Vonne said...

Frankly, the best books I've ever read did NOT adhere to the unspoken rules. And I get very, very sick of reading formulaic ones. Formulaic goes not just for romance but as discussed above, for mystery and also adventure books where you pile stress upon stress - there's an unwritten rule for you, one that keeps the reader guessing.

Now that Ive been writing for so long and attended endless lectures, belong to so many online groups, the rules bore me. Sick of hearing about them since the better writers ride roughshod over them and produce fascinating books e.g. say Karen Rose where her heroes and heroines are not all squeaky clean and the reader has reservations about them, but roots for them just the same.

Now when I read a book where the murder is committed on page one, the hero enters on page four and the heroine on page five, I think...yeah, yeah. Same old.

How's that for cynicism about rules?

Terry Odell said...

Vonne - Those books that go against the "rules" or "formulas" can be extremely refreshing, even though they're still going to adhere to the overall expectations of the readers. It's all about the journey, and having characters you want to travel with.

Ellis Vidler said...

I choose to interpret those rules differently. I like something to be happening in the opening scene, but as long as it's interesting, that's good enough. My characters don't meet in the first chapter and neither hero is the first man on the scene. Oh, well. Maybe that explains my track record with agents. Good post, Terry. Keep doing it your way. It works!

Terry Odell said...

Ellis - I like that. Your interpretation of the rules.

claudia celestial girl said...

Someone once told me that Agatha Christie was once presented with a similar set of rules when she started writing, she kept that list with her always, and broke every single rule in each and every book that she wrote.

Gee - if I had a choice (and I do), do I want to be a cookie cutter writer, or the next Agatha Christie!

BTW - to this day Christie represents a writer who took huge risks in their story telling, that other writer's have never done. Like ... well, I can't even tell, or I'd be giving it away!