Recently I critiqued a friend’s mystery novella. I thought her writing had a lot of potential; it was spare and clean, showcasing an eye for interesting detail.
Yet, well-written or not, the story lay on the page like a dead carp, limp and lifeless.
It revolved around the reporter heroine’s investigation of a twenty-year-old cold case. The suspected killer had been dead for years, the victim’s wife was dead, and no one, including the heroine, was all that interested in solving the crime.
It was obvious what the story’s problem was: need.
“A good story requires a character who desperately needs something and will suffer if she doesn’t get it,” I explained.
My friend considered this. “No, I don’t think so.”
I tried again.
”Strong plots are created by a character’s desperate struggle against the odds. If failure doesn’t really matter to the character, why should the reader care? Without high stakes, the story has no tension. Your heroine is motivated only by vague curiosity, she runs around for a hundred pages getting nowhere, and she only learns what happened when a cop finally tells her who did the killing. She doesn’t accomplish anything.”
“That’s the point,” my friend said.
“But it doesn’t work,” I said.
She shrugged. “That’s the story I’m telling.”
There was actually a very simple way to make the mystery work. The protagonist needed to need to solve the murder by herself, without having the solution handed to her. What’s more, she had to accomplish that goal.
A cold case only matters if it somehow affects people now.
If the killer is still alive, he could target other people. If the victim’s family is still alive, they may be tormented by the question of who killed their loved one. The cop who investigated may be haunted by a sense of failure.
(The world’s most famous cold case — the Jack the Ripper murders – matters only because armchair detectives are still obsessed with figuring out who the Ripper was. Otherwise, it would have long since been forgotten.)
But in my friend’s story, almost everyone involved — the victim, her family, and the suspected killer — were dead. The heroine only cared because she’d written about the story as a reporter twenty years before. But why investigate now? If it had really mattered to her, wouldn’t she have checked into it years ago?
Why should the reader care enough to spend her time reading the story?
As a novelist, you must give your protagonist an intense need to accomplish her goal. The stronger that need, the more powerful the story.
For example, I might have made the victim the heroine’s mother and her father, the suspected killer. That one change instantly makes it a whole different story, creating endless plot and character possibilities.
Perhaps the heroine has been haunted by her mother’s death because she was only ten years old at the time. We can imagine how something like that would have scarred her childhood. For one thing, the police would have suspected her father, as they always do a victim’s spouse. Other kids might have bullied her as the child of a murderer.
She would have spent the next twenty years wondering whether her father killed her mother. As a child, did she ever fear he’d do the same to her?
What if she loved him despite her terrible suspicions? Maybe he seemed to be a loving father, so she had trouble believing him guilty.
What if her father recently died himself, freeing her to investigate at last? He can’t hurt her, or be hurt by her investigation. She can finally solve the mystery that has haunted her.
But there are still huge obstacles. It’s been two decades. Memories have faded, evidence has been lost, and the cops and detectives who investigated the murder have retired.
Maybe the rest of the family doesn’t want her digging into old wounds.
What if she discovers her father is guilty? That knowledge will darken her good memories of him, making her question his motives for everything he ever did.
But if he didn’t do it, the heroine will have spent most of her life believing her innocent father committed a heinous crime. She will have to confront the pain she inflicted on him with her distrust.
You can see how giving the heroine a powerful motivation to investigate creates an entirely different story. Not only does it generate a set of external conflicts, but it also gives the character a strong internal conflict. The reader knows she’ll have to overcome not only those external obstacles, but her own mixed emotions.
And we all know internal struggles are often the hardest.
What’s more, the reader wants the heroine to solve this murder because she’s suffered horribly. She deserves to know the truth.
And since all of us have disagreed with our parents at some point, it’s easy to imagine how she must feel — and how it must hurt.
If you’ve got a story that’s refusing to come together, start by making sure your characters have a damn good reason to solve the problem.
If the conflict or characterization isn’t strong enough, brainstorm ways to make the character desperate for a solution. The more your character needs a solution, the easier the story will be to write.
And the more the reader will love reading it.