Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Playing Fair with Resonance—by Victoria Mixon

by Victoria Mixon @VictoriaMixon

I’m reading an Ellery Queen today, after a whole pile of other pulp mysteries, and I've also started re-reading Hillary Waugh’s Guide to Mystery & Mystery Writing. Waugh was one of the great American mystery authors of the twentieth century (he died only a couple of years ago), and he dissected the mystery genre with great insight and intelligence.

One of the things he discusses is a crucial aspect that was missing from some (but not all) of Edgar Allan Poe’s seminal works, from which the entire Western mystery genre sprang, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” “The Purloined Letter,” “Gold Bug,” and “Thou Art The Man”:

Fair Play.

But what is Fair Play?

Fair Play is letting the reader know what’s going on. Even more than that, Fair Play is planting the clue to the solution early—preferably on one of the first pages.

Now, the general understanding of Fair Play is that we have to do it to keep the reader’s loyalty. If we don’t Play Fair, the reader gets mad at us and goes away. Birdcages throughout the ages have been papered with books by writers who ignored the Rule of Fair Play.

But Fair Play has an even more important job than that. After all, writers get away with all kinds of crap with their readers, and if they’re good enough writers the readers take it, pay for it, and keep coming back for more. No. Fair Play is based on something even closer to the reader’s heart than fairness, and that is. . .

Having a good time.

As an Australian friend of mine discovered when he visited me years ago in downtown San Francisco, a grand adventure, whether real or fictional, is all about having a good time.

Whatever else goes on in our story, our reader wants to enjoy the experience of reading it.

Of course, people’s ideas of enjoyment vary widely, and readers in general tend to enjoy a lot more of being ejected from their chairs, dragged around, thrown against the walls, and smacked silly than you’d ever believe.

But, more than anything else, readers enjoy resonance.

That's when they get to the end of the story and find there, unexpectedly and yet inevitably, the beginning of it. That clue the writer planted on the early pages.

Putting our reader inside a brass gong and giving it a good, hearty clang.

Readers love this! It’s possibly the single most important reason for the popularity of mysteries throughout the past 150 years. A devastating event. And the key to that event.

Give the reader a whiff of something tantalizing, lead them a merry chase in all the wrong directions, and then smack them in the face with the whole tantalizing pie.

It’s that wonderful, visceral sense of familiarity, that whisper in the back of the mind: this ending was inevitable. It’s the seductive implication that, if they’d just paid close enough attention (and they will the next time they read it, they promise themself!) they could have figured the ending out before we showed it to them. It’s that magical authorial sleight-of-hand, creating a positive emotional response in the reader by what we’ve left out as much as what we’ve put in.

Planting a clue to the Climax in a story's Hook is the simplest, most powerful fiction technique I know.

It makes the story a relentless progression always forward toward a Climax both unexpected and inevitable, a living, breathing thing in the reader's hands, the story of an ending that appears to have been manifested out of thin air by sheer genius.

Thanks so much to Victoria for guest posting today and for sharing with us an excerpt from her insightful writers' resource, The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner's Manual.

Victoria Mixon has been a writer and editor for thirty years and is the creator of A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, voted one of WritetoDone's Top 10 Blogs for Writers. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner's Manual and the recently-released The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner's Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators, published by Prentice Hall, for which she is listed in the Who's Who of America. She spends a lot of time tracking clues on Google+ and Twitter.