Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Crime Scene

By Chester Campbell

Nope, this is not another CSI treatise. It has to do with scenes, the building blocks of a mystery, or a crime story. Chris Roerden, free-lance editor and author of Don't Murder Your Mystery, and its sequel, Don't Sabotage Your Submission, writes:

"Without conflict there is neither progress nor setback; consequently, no scene."

I once worked with Chris on the opening chapters of a manuscript and learned how she works with an author on an edit. She wants each scene in the book identified with what the characters' goal is for the scene, what the obstacle is to that goal, and what is the outcome. In short, you need to show the conflict in the scene.

Conflict breeds tension, and tension keeps the reader on edge, turning pages to find out what will happen next. So how do you get conflict into a scene? Put two characters together, each wanting something different from what they're doing, whether it's dialogue or action, and you have the potential for conflict. And what happens at the end of the scene lays the foundation for later conflict.

It doesn't necessarily require two characters to create conflict. A scene may only involve the hero in conflict with himself over a choice he must make, which direction he should take, or whether he should or shouldn't pursue some course of action.

Like the electricity in a high tension power line, competition between characters keeps the tension high in a scene and leaves the reader anticipating the next crucial turn of events. Suspense comes about when we anticipate the approach of danger, or when we're unsure just what may lie ahead.

Give us a scene that surprises and our anxiety level goes up. But keep the surprises at a minimum. Too much of that and it sounds contrived. One measure of conflict is the higher the stakes, the higher the tension. In a mystery where someone's life is threatened, there's no question about how tense things can get.

If you want to create a scene packed with tension, use the ticking clock method. It doesn't have to be a  bomb with a ticking clock attached. As long as there's a deadline involved, a specific time in the near future when something must be done or else, you have built-in tension that will keep the reader glued to the pages long past bedtime.

There are other ways to create conflicts in scenes, such as misdirection, or the familiar red herring. But the important things is to give us characters with goals to achieve and roadblocks to foil them. That's what good mysteries are made of. Have you read one lately?

Mystery Mania.


Jean Henry Mead said...

I agree, Chester. I once read a writers magazine article that said a scene should be like a boxing match with a knockout at the end.

Beth Terrell said...

Great information, Chester.

Don Maass always says, "Tension on every page," and following your advice is one way to do that.

By the way, I'm a big fan of Chris's books too.