My siblings and I used to be obsessed with playing Murder in the Dark. Like, obsessed.
There weren’t enough of us to play regularly, but every time we had house guests we’d always find some way to talk them into it. We’d put pieces of paper in a hat and draw them out: one for the detective, one for the murderer, the rest blank. Then the detective would go out into the kitchen and wait impatiently while we turned off all the lights, queued up some appropriately spooky music (getting the right atmosphere was essential), and blundered around in the dark until the murderer ‘murdered’ someone. The murderer was meant to walk up behind their victim and whisper, “You’re dead,” but a particularly enthusiastic murderer would pretend to strangle you, or stab you, or shoot you, or hit you over the head with something. And if you were a particularly enthusiastic victim, you always died as dramatically as possible. (Most of my family fell into the ‘particularly enthusiastic’ category, because we are nerdy like that.) Then someone had to announce, “There’s been a murder!” (Extra kudos if you managed to sound like a character from Taggart or Midsomer Murders when you did this.) (See: nerds.) And then the lights went back on and the detective came back to question everyone. If the detective successfully picked the murderer within three guesses, they won. If they failed, the murderer won. Either way, it was highly entertaining.
One night I was the detective, and the first person I questioned was my little brother, who had joined in the game even though he was still slightly too young to fully understand what was going on. He was jumping up and down and grinning from ear to ear.
“Where were you when the murder-” I began in my best detective voice.
But my brother couldn’t contain himself any longer. “MURDERER!” he announced.
And we all burst out laughing, and that was the end of the game.
The thing is, he hadn’t grasped how the game worked yet, that if you were the murderer and you wanted to win it was all about holding back, keeping a straight face, being strategic about what you revealed and how you revealed it. Revealing too much was a bad idea because that led to the detective suspecting you immediately. But revealing too little wasn’t an effective tactic either: if the detective couldn’t get any information from you, this was suspicious in itself. You needed to give them just enough that it seemed plausible, to answer questions but hold back your answers at the same time.
And this leads me to something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently as I try to reign in a particularly unruly draft of my work in progress: the art of holding back, of only giving away exactly what your reader needs to know and no more, of answering questions in a such way that your reader is left with even more questions. Because if your reader is the detective, you are the murderer, the pleasure of the game is in the gap between the questions and the answers, the moments when it feels like the answers are within reach but not quite attainable yet. And if you give all the important stuff away too soon, your reader gives up on your story because they already know everything worth knowing and there’s no need for them to read any further.
This analogy doesn’t just apply to stories that are explicitly mysteries, because there are so many different kinds of questions: will they end up together? Will she find an identity for herself separate from the person her mother wants her to be? Will the grief break him, or will he live through it? Will she ever make sense of her magic powers?
Here are some ‘questions about questions’ worth keeping in mind:
What are the central questions of the story? Which ones does this scene relate to? Every novel has at least one crucial question, a question that the story would not exist without: will Katniss survive the Hunger Games? Will Harry Potter defeat Voldemort? But after that, there are usually a bunch of other important questions too: will Katniss end up with Peta or Gale or neither of them? Who on earth is the Half-Blood Prince anyway? If you come across a scene which doesn’t tie in with at least one of the central questions of your story in some way, it’s probably a scene which needs deleting, or at least rethinking.
What questions does this scene answer? What new questions does it create? This can relate to the big questions of your story, but often there are plenty of smaller sub-questions as well, and sub-sub-questions: will Katniss find food? Why is Malfoy sneaking around late at night?
The next questions are particularly useful ones to discuss with beta readers, because when you’re the one who has the story in your head it can be hard to know whether what’s clear to you is also clear to your reader.
Is this scene confusing? And if yes, is it confusing in a good way or in a frustrating way? Does it feel like the answers are tangible but only just out of reach? Or is it so confusing that even the best detective is likely to give up and go do something else?
Alternately, is this scene giving too much away? Is there anything that is revealed here which might be more effective if it was revealed later on? Is my detective bored or intrigued?
Does the detective win in the end? Are the answers your reader attains by reading all the way to the end gratifying? Do they fit with the story? Are they bittersweet? Delightful? Aggravating? Devastating? Is that the effect you intended? Are there niggling lingering questions? If yes, are they meant to be there? The detective doesn’t have to win, of course: some stories end in cliffhangers that leave the readers desperate to grab the next instalment as soon as possible, and there is plenty of great literary fiction which ends as mysteriously as it begins. If that’s the case, are the questions the story ends with irritating? Exciting? Thought provoking? Is your detective satisfied enough that they can accept losing?
Image: motel money murder madness by derek raugh (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)