I Know Whodunnit

Maybe my dream is finally coming true, and I’m turning into Nancy Drew!

I’m here on Deep-Fried Friday once again, talking about story.

One of the drawbacks of reading a lot of mysteries is that you start being able to guess the killer. With surprising accuracy at times.

I was recently watching a season one episode of Bones (catching up with Netflix) and halfway through I said to myself, “That guy did it.” The next twenty minutes were filled with FBI Special Agent Booth and Forensic Anthropologist Brennen searching down other leads until they finally came around to my way of thinking and arrested the right guy. It was the third episode in a row where I had guessed the killer before the main characters figured it out.

I’d fault the writers of Bones, except that it happens with books and other shows too. I no longer fall for the red herrings like I used to. I can pull out relevant facts and ignore the irrelevant ones. I make relationship connections early on the story that inform me on motive and opportunity. I notice details.

Does this happen to you too?

Presumably, one of the worst things an author can do is write a predictable story. Twists and turns are considered a good thing. Rabbit trails are good fodder for the tale. Unexpected discoveries and surprise endings should keep us turning the pages.

However, the author simply cannot account for the reader’s part in all of this. What if your reader has consumed 200 romance novels and is now reading yours? Do you think she’ll foretell how the two will get together? No matter how well you’ve written your story, she might.

And if there is no way she possibly could predict, you might be hiding information from your reader that would help them connect to the story better. I don’t like being completely in the dark, like the author is being all cagey about releasing information just in case I might get ahead of him. Just tell me already. If I figure it out, I figure it out.

Suspecting how it will turn out, however, doesn’t stop me from reading. I watched the rest of the Bones episode not because I had no idea who the killer was. I knew whodunnit. I wanted to watch the characters interact and put the puzzle together. I enjoyed seeing them solve the mystery.

Indeed, every fairy tale and romance novel has a happily ever after (HEA), and heroes consistently defeat villains. What the reader wants to know is how the characters will get there. Did you doubt that:

  • The Rebels would defeat the Empire and the good side of the Force would prevail?
  • Frodo would get the ring all the way to Mordor?
  • Sleeping Beauty would awaken with a kiss from her prince?
  • Hercule Poirot would use his little grey cells to uncover the culprit?
  • Batman would thwart the evil plans of Catwoman, the Joker, the Riddler, Mr. Freeze, or whichever villain-of-the-week was around?
  • Bella and Edward would find a way to be together forever?

Of course not. So is a predictable ending always a bad thing? No.

In fact, while I remember sitting in the theater watching The Empire Strikes Back and being wowed by Darth Vader’s revelation, my kids already knew about all of that. I knew the overall ending, but they knew the whole story and still wanted to watch every minute of the Star Wars trilogy.

It’s okay for a reader or viewer here and there to know whodunnit. But in that case, you have to give them another reason to read or watch.

Why do I continue? Because I care about the characters. This is why superhero movies continue to be made and remade and we continue to watch them. Why the boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back plot never gets old. Why we read or watch police procedural dramas, knowing that they will solve the case. We want to know how these particular characters resolve the conflict.

Perhaps we’re less interested in whodunnit than howdunnit.

I have to admit that seeing Psycho without knowing the ending will make you gasp (see Tiffany A. White and Catie Rhodes for reviews of that creepy film). The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of my favorite mysteries because Agatha Christie stunned me with the conclusion. And the last episode of Newhart was the most brilliant surprise ending for a TV series ever.

However, not knowing what will happen isn’t necessary to keep me turning pages or tuned in. Give me relatable characters that I can follow as they uncover the twists and turns of their lives, even if they end up where I suspected they would.

What about you? Do you enjoy surprise endings? Are you disappointed if you figure out the conclusion? Do you care more about whodunnit or howdunnit?

Bonus Post: Flash Fiction

Flash Fiction is a style of writing for extreme brevity.  I found a great Flash Fiction challenge posted by fellow author Haley Whitehall.  Here are the rules of the challenge, with a May 1 deadline:

    • You must start your story with the sentence: “She had been warned, but now it was too late.”
    • The story must be 500 words or less.
    • I’ve read a lot of flash fiction stories that express an incomplete idea so for my challenge I am challenging you to make sure your story has a clear beginning, middle and end.

Without further ado, here is my first ever Flash Fiction story (at 497 words – 3 words to spare!): 

Just Desserts

She had been warned, but now it was too late.

Notes and printouts scattered across the floor like unraked autumn leaves.  Tracy had sifted through every page, gasping with each revelation.  She slumped against the wall, cushioned by dresses and coats on her side of the walk-in closet, and moaned.

The heady eight-week romance had dragged her from a mundane life to a miraculous one; Joe was everything she didn’t know she wanted.   When the tall, athletic accountant proposed, Tracy knew that Fate was finally delivering her just desserts.  In fact, Joe was a red-velvet cake with creamy white icing, chocolate shavings, and a scoop of French vanilla to boot.  Despite her sister cornering her after the engagement and insisting that “Something isn’t right about this guy!,” they eloped, honeymooned, settled in, and began married life with odds in their corner.

Now less than a year later, she studied her wedding ring in the dim glow of a 60-watt bulb and wondered where she owed allegiance.  Legally she couldn’t be forced to testify against her husband, but morally could she let a crime go unanswered?

Tracy’s cell phone rang and Joe in a Rangers baseball cap smiled at her from the screen.  She let the call go to voicemail, then listened to his message: “Hey, Sweetheart. Getting off early.  Be home soon. Love you.”

She gathered and stacked the papers in order, dropped them into the box, and sealed it carefully.  Using the stepstool, she returned the evidence to its place on the dusty shelf.

***

Her text to Joe was brief, “Found the papers. Called the police. Leaving.”  It had been a grueling week deliberating her options, but her conscience had prodded her like a woodpecker’s beak.  Principle trumped passion.

As Tracy ambled with her suitcase down the driveway, a taxi pulled up and Joe jumped free before it halted. “Thank God I caught you!” he yelled. “Got your passport?”

Panting and perspiring, he ran with eyes blazing and suit coat flapping at his sides.

“What?”

“Passport.  You’ll need it.”

“Joe,” she whispered.

“Tracy,” he said breathlessly, “I’ve been gathering that info to turn it in.  Our phones are bugged. They’ll be coming to kill us.”

“What!” she shrieked.  “Who?”

“Can’t explain now.  We’ve got to go!”

Joe grasped her wrist and pulled her toward the house.  Tracy’s brain vacillated between anxiety about Joe and the word “they.”  But familiarity trumped fear.

She ran up the steps with him, watched him toss basics into a duffle bag and grab the box from the closet, and wheeled her suitcase out the front door a second time.  Before exiting the house, Joe yanked passports from the study desk.

***

She held his hand and looked through the smudged airplane window.  Joe had insisted on getting out of the country before contacting the FBI.  Three times, Tracy’s life had changed in a moment – meeting her husband, calling the police, trusting Joe.

Time would reveal whether Tracy’s devotion trumped doubt.