When you start a new book do you know whodunit from the get-go? If so, how do you ensure you don't unconsciously give it away? And if not, when do you decide whodunit?
by Paul D. Marks
I have to start off sort of like I started the last blog post two weeks ago. Then it was 'yes' and 'no' to the question. Now it's 'it depends'. Because there is no right or wrong way to do anything most of the time. So sometimes you know who the badguy is from the get-go, and sometimes you don't.
Different stories generate from different ideas and sometimes those ideas are more "complete" than other times. Sometimes you might come up with a good villain and build the story around them, so you know whodunit right off and work up to that.
Sometimes you start with the main character or a peripheral character, so you might not know whodunit. And if you work like me, a "pantster," you just start writing and see where it goes—and can even be surprised by whodunit. And sometimes (there's that iffy word again) you have a plot idea or a hook or some notes or thoughts in your head about incidents or actions, character bits, dialogue, maybe an opening line or scene, etc., and you weave those into the story as you go and see whodunit from there.
And sometimes you might think you know whodunit...but your characters come to life and have lives of their own, take you in a different direction and surprise you. So the second part of the question—when do you decide whodunit?—works itself out one way or another, depending on which route mentioned here or above you take. At least if you're a pantster. Obviously, people who outline might have all of this worked out ahead of time.
As to how not to unconsciously giveaway who done it – that's where having other people read your story can come in handy. They can see the stuff that the writer is too close to notice. So you read and re-read and write and rewrite, and as you do, you try to catch and fix those kinds of things. And this is where it can be an advantage to be a pantster—since you don’t know who the bad guy is, you end up writing it in a way that doesn’t reveal too much and later, when you’ve figured out who the bad guy is, you can go back and add little hints earlier.
In my novel White Heat, not only do I know who the badguy is from the beginning, but so does the reader (sort of). Because he goes into the main character's office, private detective Duke Rogers, and hires Duke to find a "long lost friend." It's such an easy gig that Duke doesn't even do the paperwork, just tells the guy to come back in a couple of days. Duke gets the info for him, the guy pays for it and splits. Duke doesn't even know his name, or at least his real name. A short time later he's reading the paper, finds the "long lost friend" has been murdered and Duke knows he inadvertently helped the bad guy find her. Feeling guilty, he determines to track the badguy down on his own time. But where to start? As I say, we meet the badguy right away, but we don't really know who he is, where he's from, etc. And that's the main plot of the book, Duke trying to figure out who he is and find him and bring him to justice.
One Amazon reviewer complained that we "know" who the killer is too early on. But, as I say, we do and we don't. We see him, but we don't know who he is or anything substantive about him. This reader had a problem with that, and that's fine. But I knew who the killer was and Duke knew who he was (sort of) and that's the story. Sometimes the mystery is not in ‘who done it’ but in the why, where and how? What I'm trying to say is that for me the story and characters are often more interesting than the whodunit, though that's fun too.
In another example, in my short story Dead Man's Curve, from the anthology Last Exit to Murder, the main character, Ray Hood, is a guy on his uppers. He's old, he's a druggie and his glory days as a backup guitarist for Jan and Dean are behind him. So when he gets a chance to do an illegal favor for a friend that might lead to his eventually getting another shot at the spotlight he jumps at it. But what interests me is Ray's story, more than the overarching plot or whodunit, as we know who dun it early on. I was even concerned that the editors might want to take out a couple of "quiet" scenes that didn't necessarily advance the plot, but they didn't and I was glad. Especially because those were my favorite scenes in the story. The scenes where we get to know Ray, see what happened to him, see his day to day life. The rest of the story moves ahead at a quick pace, those scenes slow it down a bit, but in a good way, I think. I guess what I’m saying here is that even though I write mystery and noir stuff I tend to focus more on characters and the why rather than the who done it.
We all read mysteries for different reasons, but a lot of the time it is because we want a sense of justice and good triumphing over evil, as well as for character and the actual "mystery". Even in noir and hardboiled there is ultimately some kind of justice, though it is usually a little muddied and unclear. In real life murders go unsolved for years, sometimes never to be solved. The Black Dahlia murder is still unsolved, but in fiction it has been solved dozens of times. So the who-dunit is obviously important to us. We want resolution, but we also want to learn and experience something more than just whodunit. We want to know the characters on a deeper level and the why of it and that's important too.
And Happy Fourth of July to everyone: