Mystery Deepens When the Author is Truthful in Every Detail


John J. Hohn, Financial Adviser

John J. Hohn, Writer and Reviewer

The article that follows was published several months ago on a web site that promotes articles for authors of mysteries and thrillers. For the last several weeks, I have been reviewing books for Norm Golden’s web site Many of the books I am asked to review are an initial effort by the author. The reviewer, especially now in the brave new world of self-publishing, often finds that critical comments give way to simple instruction on the rules of good writing and the conventions that need to be respected in writing a novel or any other traditional literary form. Failures to be truthful in the detail, regardless of how minor, undermine the credibility of the work for the informed reader — if not all who have honored the author with their willingness to consider his or her work.

Verisimilitude: Creating a Sense of the Real

Fantasy and science fiction authors can engineer their own universe and populate it with creatures of the own imagination. Writers of realistic thrillers, however, need to put their story forward in a manner that allows readers to suspend disbelief as the plot unfolds.

The author who creates a realistic thriller accepts human nature and the prevailing laws of the known universe as they are currently understood. The protagonist contends with a human adversary or against a situation that is credible. Readers are expected to remain within the boundaries of their own experience to understand what is happening. The story needs to be an engaging semblance of the truth. The writer is obliged color within the lines, to keep the story credible, or the readers’ willingness to suspend disbelief is forfeit and the story may fail. A narrative may be presented as fiction, as the product of a writer’s imagination, but it reads as if it could or did actually take place.

A Hierarchy of Credibility . . .

Readers, consciously or otherwise, have a hierarchy in accepting the credibility of characters and events. Arrayed in the order, the hierarchy might list as follows:

  • Likely: Characters and events are credible; beyond questioning.
  • Probable: Characters and events open to some question but remain consistent with the circumstances of the story.
  • Plausible: Characters and events challenge readers willingness to accept but believable within the circumstances and experience of the characters
  • Incredible: Characters or events challenge the reader’s willingness to accept and may seem unbelievable and contrived.
  • Impossible: Character behavior or events violate laws of nature or common sense and are too fantastic to believe. The story is mortally wounded. Readers reject it as unbelievable.

Reading is not like watching TV, a movie, or a stage play. Watching is passive to the extent that audience members do not control the pace of the story. They must remain attentive. Readers, on the other hand, are free to question, pause to reflect, go the fridge, or put the book down at any time. Readers control the pace of the story. The criteria for realism, or verisimilitude, in writing fiction are much more stringent than for screen or stage plays as a result.

Demoting Believability at Any Level . . .

Writers can demote believability at any level of the story. Completely likely events can come off as incredible if sufficient detail is not provided or the characters involved are not well developed. Readers, however, rarely have problems with likely and probable events. The same cannot be said for a story line that is more challenging to believability. Writers need to take more care to overcome the inherent challenges that less likely events and characters present to readers.

Credibility concerns need to override plot and character. A plot that calls for an implausible major event to move it forward must to be redrawn. Characters need to behave in a manner that is consistent with their personalities or they need to be redrawn. The story’s the thing, to paraphrase the Bard. Writers must yield to the demands of the story to the same degree that they expect of their readers. The better informed the reader, the more stringent the requirement to be truthful.

“I feel I know these people,” reader will exclaim about the characters in a book when a writer succeeds at creating credibility. Or, “Man, I hope nothing like that every happens to me,” when the plot was realistic and engaging.

Serious Research — Lost of it . . .

Realistic thrillers begin with serious research—lots of it. A good, suspenseful mystery requires first-hand research with law enforcement, members of the medical profession, and other experts. Only in that way will a thriller be widely accepted as credible, and only then will readers be informed of how things work in the real world.

Television is not a good source. Detective shows would have viewers believe that DNA results can be produced overnight, whereas they usually take weeks. Forgeries are detected within an afternoon; but again, preparation of evidence for the court may take several weeks. Alone, an officer without a partner at hand would never pursue a gunman.. Delays and setbacks complicate solving a crime. Setbacks need to be part of a novel’s plot. They also provide opportunity for advancing subplots and character development.

Only about 30% of a writer’s research will find its way into a story. Properly conducted, research is open-ended. It seeks opinions and feelings from the interviewed subject in addition to the facts. Stories based upon the author’s experience broaden in the retelling and provoke additional considerations for a plot and the characters.

Dealing with the Extraordinary . . .

If the resolution of a plot depends on some extraordinary action on the part of a character, the character must be groomed for the critical event. In Deadly Portfolio, for example, the plot requires a forty-four year old woman to swim a great distance to rescue a swimmer. Early in the book, references are made to her good physical condition, her workout regimen, and her college career as a member of the women’s field hockey team. All of the detail building up the image of the character makes her near heroic rescue effort credible when it comes up in the plot.

Plausible or incredible events can be promoted in the readers mind to highly credible if the event is anticipated in the story also. Suspense depends largely upon withholding the resolution of the plot until the climax, but information that sets the stage can be shared. If a boat explodes, for example, early in the plot the owner can be concerned about finding the time to get it tuned up by a mechanic. A young man may have a heart condition that makes smoking pot very risky. His condition can be mentioned early in the story without giving away his future fate.

Finally, detail is essential. Credibility is measurably enhanced when colors, aromas, sound, and tactile sensations (wind in the hair or rain on the face) are bountifully present in the text.

Writers debate endlessly whether plot or character should drive a story. Both, however, are secondary for the realistic writer. Truth drives the story. Anything less is a compromise, a contrivance. Readers may wave off a minor inaccuracy or fail to notice altogether. The discipline is the author’s to assume. Doing so will result in a better, more believable story and personal and professional growth for person who tells it.

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