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Archive for the category “Reading”

Common Misconceptions about Classic Fictional Characters

There are some characters everyone knows about, even if they haven’t read the book. And then there are the characters we think we know so much about, and really, we know so little. Here are three fictional characters we probably all know well. But how well do we really know them?

Frankenstein is a monster

Oh, this one drives me crazy! Frankenstein must be the most commonly mistaken fictional character of all time. But please understand that Frankenstein is not the monster but the creator. ‘Dr’ Victor Frankenstein is the man who creates the regenerated creature. The creature goes unnamed throughout the novel, often referred to as just The Creature. It also seems pertinent to point out that the popular image of Frankenstein’s monster deviates greatly from the description Shelley gives in her book. The most recognisable characteristics of the monster – green skin and bolts in the neck – do not feature in the novel. The creature’s skin is described as yellow and no mention of bolts is made. Further, the creature is quite eloquent, ruminating on his place in the world and reading classic literature such as Milton’s Paradise Lost. It also seems slightly unfair to paint the creature as the monster of the piece. Instantly spurned by his creator and regarded as a monster by everyone he encounters, the creature really had no hopes of ever finding happiness. Yes, he does turn to violence and murder, but Shelley makes it obvious that these acts are the result of his unjust treatment.

Poor Mr Monster.

Oh, and there is no Igor, FYI. Frankenstein has no little hunchback minion.

Dracula vs. Edward

Dracula is perhaps the best known monster of all time but Dracula fans that dismiss Twilight as bastardising the vampire mythos may be shocked to discover Edwards isn’t so different from ol’ Drac. Yes, Dracula could go in the sunlight. Perhaps he didn’t sparkle but that number one rule of vampires – they are killed by sunlight – did not originate from Stoker’s novel. The sunlight weakened Dracula and drained him of his powers but it did not outright kill him.

That second rule of vampires – kill them with a stake through the heart – is again not present in Stoker’s novel. Having caught Dracula slumbering in his coffin, Van Helsing and his crew first cut the Count’s throat and then stab him in the heart – with a bowie knife. Wait, was Dracula killed by Crocodile Dundee?

There’s also the well-known image of Dracula as a tall, imposing man with slicked jet-black hair, a dapper gentleman with a sinister side. This image is probably based of Bela Lugosi’s famous 1931 portrayal. So it’s slightly incongruous to know that the Dracula of Stoker’s novel is actually described as an elderly man with a grey moustache.

The more you know.

Lolita is a seductress

This one really disturbs me. Lolita is a twelve-year-old girl who is sexually and emotionally abused by her step-father. To say that the twelve-year-old is the villain of the book is horribly misguided. Humbert rapes her, bribes her, considers murdering her mother and fondly contemplates impregnating her to create a new generation of Lolita’s. Lolita is not a temptress or a seductress.

This misconception comes from the term ‘lolita’, which does in fact refer to a female seductress, but which has totally bastardised the titular character of Lolita.

The idea we have of Lolita is also complicated as we only learn about Lolita through Humbert’s description. This is a highly unreliable source given he is the man molesting the girl. Yes, Lolita does initiate sexual encounters with Humbert and yes she does bribe him with sexual acts but she has little choice. Her mother is dead, she is under the complete control of her paedophilic step-father and she knows that this is the only way she can exercise and sense of control. Let’s not forget too that Humbert never declines these sexual offers. If we demonise the girl that ‘uses’ sex to get what she wants, what should we do about the man that forces her into this position in the first place?

Also, her name isn’t actually Lolita, it’s Dolores. Seeming ‘Lolita’ is such a trigger-word now that people will automatically assume ‘seductress’, it would be interesting to describe Dolores to people unfamiliar with the book and see what they thought of the character.

Death of the Author

This just in: the author is dead. Ok, this is old news. The author has been dead for 45 years.

In 1967 literary critic Roland Barthes wrote an essay titled ‘Death of the Author’, in which he claimed the author was no longer relevant to an understanding of the text. Anyone who has done high school English will probably remember writing copious essays about how an author’s context influences their values and beliefs, and how these in turn influence the text and the values it expresses. This traditional approach to literary criticism sees the influences on an author – their historical, cultural, geographical, political and religious etc. context – as shaping the author’s text. To understand a text we must first understand the author.

Barthes rejected this approach, saying that “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text”. Basically, Barthes was rejecting a definitive explanation of texts that relied only on authorial intent. I agree wholeheartedly with Barthes. Of course it makes sense when trying to interpret a text’s meaning, to look at what the author may have meant. They DID write it after all. Surely they’re the best judge of what the text meant. But mightn’t a text have more than one meaning? Mightn’t a text have no meaning at all?  If we focus only on trying to discover what the author intended then we miss many other interpretations. How do we know what an author intended anyway?

That’s what I dislike most about traditional literary criticism. It assumes we can definitively know what an author meant. How? How can we read a text, come up with a single explanation of it and decide that is what the author meant?

HOOOOOOOWWWWWWWW?

We can’t. Unless they tell us. And even then, that’s just their interpretation. We can have our own. And if they won’t let us, then there’s only one solution. Kill the authors!

Too late. They’re already dead.

Zombie authors? I’m going to stop writing now.

Literary vs. Popular Fiction

Generally, fiction can be split into two categories: literary or popular. Literary works are those that are critically acclaimed for their ‘literary merit’ and focus more on the inner story of the characters than the plot, whilst popular fiction is more mainstream and less ‘serious’. Someone, somewhere, at some time, decided that literary works were the only ones of any merit. Literary critics rave about how fantastic literary writers are, and it seems the more obscure and esoteric the writer, the better their work is regarded. Popular writers, these critics bemoan, are not of the same calibre. They are derided as hack who might be able to spin a good yarn but whose writing appeals only to the basest of intellectuals. I find this totally unfair.

Popular writers should not have to apologise for what they do. The fact that they are ‘popular’ and widely read does not necessitate low-quality writing. Surely, if they are so popular they must be doing something right? I would argue that story trumps writing. Writing is still important. Awful, uninspiring and clichéd writing is dreadful to read, but a book could have the most spritely, intelligent, sophisticated prose on earth and still tell the most dreary story that no one can be bothered to read.

In fact, I would say good writing is writing that you don’t even notice. If you are constantly stopping during a book to marvel at a turn of phrase then you are being drawn out of the world that the author has created. If you look at popular books such as the Harry Potter series, Hunger Games or 50 Shades trilogies, this writing isn’t fantastic but it isn’t bad (50 Shades might be debatable but I haven’t read it). What is so popular here is the story they tell, the characters we want to know, the places we want to visit. And an author that can manage to create all that is pretty good in my books.

To Solve or not to Solve?

The main game with a murder mystery novel is to discover the solution before the detective can reveal it. It’s a race against time, a battle of wits between author and reader. But what happens if the reader is able to emerge triumphant? Has the author failed in their task to deceive? Should the reader be disappointed if they solve the ending or commend the author for playing fair?

If the reader can solve the crime then the author is definitely doing their job of creating a puzzle to test the reader. I’m happy to be wowed by an author’s clever trick but I want it to be more than just a trick. If I fail to reach the solution I want it to be because of the author’s superior intellect at hiding the clues or my failure to find them, not because the author simply decided against planting any useful clues in the first place. I would be much happier prematurely solving the crime than having had no chance at ever solving it. If you can’t solve it because the author is withholding information then they have failed to play fair and that is when you should feel cheated.

But does the author actually grant the reader the chance to solve the crime before the detective or do they merely grant the illusion of having this chance? I read a how-to book for writing murder mysteries and in it, the author suggested that the solution should only be obvious once it has been revealed. Certainly, as an author you want the reader to go ‘Of course!’ when you reveal the solution, but they elaborated on this by saying that the clues should only reveal the solution once the clues’ true meaning has been revealed. Basically, they were saying that the clues would only be of use once you had the solution and worked backwards from there.

To me, that doesn’t seem fair. What’s the point of having the clues if you can’t even use them? Wouldn’t you feel more cheated as a reader if you had no chance of solving the crime than if you solved it prematurely? On the seldom occasion that I have deciphered a clue or discovered the solution before it was revealed, I was pleased as punch. If you’ve used some intellect to work out the ending then I think that you would be proud of yourself. Most probably, you would boast about how clever you are to have solved such a difficult puzzle (I know I would). You certainly wouldn’t want to diminish that by complaining about how obvious it was.

Sometimes, however, they are much too obvious. Badly placed clues or far too obvious hinting do make the reader feel cheated. If you are just handed the solution then you’re robbed of the fun of trying to work it out.

So I feel that the author has a very fine line to tread. They must certainly make the crime solvable. But they must also make the reader work in order to solve it. There’s no fun if you never had a chance at solving it and there’s no fun if there was no chance of you not solving it.

Jeez, it must be hard being an author.

Grammar Nazis: What are the Limits of Tolerance?

Everyone knows one: that person that takes their love of grammar too far. (how could such a thing be possible!) Their Facebook wall consists only of correcting mistakes in other’s statuses. They see mangled syntax as sinful, grow tense when someone uses the wrong tense, and are averse to misused adverbs.

On the other hand we all know someone who flies in the face of all that is holy in grammar. To them, punctuation is merely a suggestion, not a rule; there isn’t enough time in the day for spell checking; they have a strong affinity for the caps lock key.

But which is worse: those that defy any attempts at proper grammar or those that enforce its every rule?

The point of grammar is to achieve clarity when reading, writing and speaking. We need clarity if we are to effectively communicate with others. So grammar definitely has an important role to play. But does it matter if we occasionally misspell or misuse a word? No, as long as your intended meaning is still clear. The stakes can be high when it’s the difference between ‘Let’s eat, Sarah’ and ‘Let’s eat Sarah’.

I do have my gripes though. I can’t help but add ‘ly’ to everyone’s adjective when they meant an adverb. ‘I ran quick’, ‘I laughed loud’, ‘I spoke rude’ all make me want to hit someone. (Preferably the person saying these.)

Incorrect tense is also annoying. ‘I done this’ is probably my most hated saying of all time. ‘I done this good’ just makes me cry. ‘I done this real good’: Now you must die.

I think we should also be more lenient with informal writing. I don’t care if somebody doesn’t capitalise the beginning of each sentence when they’re messaging me or there’s the occasional sentence fragment. Recently, a friend asked me ‘Weather’ I was free on the weekend, and I was able to cope with that because it was obvious what she meant. Abbreviations are usually fine as well when writing informally. You can take the ‘g’ off of ‘swimming’ and I’ll still understand what you mean, but I draw the line when ‘U start talkn Lyk dis cOs u a ganGsta’. And please, don’t just take the vowel out of every word. That’s not how you abbreviate.

So yes, little mistakes are fine as long as the meaning is still understandable. We should all aim for clarity but not get too caught up in getting everything write all the time. See?

Agatha Christie: 5 Novels that were Almost Perfect

I love Agatha Christie. I may have made that clear from my numerous mentions of her work throughout my postings. She wrote a great number of mystery novels throughout her career and there exists a list of staple classics that people associate with her.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Murder on the Orient Express

And then There Were None

Death on The Nile

Five Little Pigs

Evil under the Sun

These are almost unanimously voted as her greatest novels: works of pure ingenuity. But I have my own list: a list of works almost as brilliant but fail to be deemed ‘classic’ due to one or two small failings. Below I’ve compiled my list of what could have been Christie’s best works, and what’s stopping them from being so.

Three Act Tragedy

How to fix it: Make the motive solvable.

This is one of the most original of Christie’s works. It features not one but two unique motives for murder, a very clever plot, a cast of interesting characters, and yet this is all let down by the ridiculous reveal of the murderer’s motive. There is simply no reason for suspecting the murderer because there is no way of discovering the motive. The motive itself isn’t awful (it’s certainly not one of the best) but it relies on the existence of a character that wasn’t mentioned until the reveal of the murderer. Even worse is that Poirot withheld this information from the reader: a big no-no in detective fiction. If Christie had given even the tiniest clue as to the motive, this could easily have found itself on the above list of works. But instead it finds itself here.

An extra point for those who know the ending: (Warning! SPOILERS! If you don’t want details revealed skip to the next title.)

With Mrs De Rushbridger (the third victim) being in a sanatorium, it would have made much more sense for her to be Sir Charles’ wife. It could then have been written to include some possible detail that would link her to Sir Charles, rather than the never-before-mentioned Gladys Mugg.

Dead Man’s Folly

How to fix it: Cut the conversation.

Christie wrote this novel in 1956, when her knack for plotting had not yet begun to slip but perhaps her writing had. The plotting is quite brilliant, quite original and quite-well executed, except that it is totally lost amongst the banality of the investigation. Poirot becomes bogged down in lengthy interrogation with the characters, of who provide scant important details and many unnecessary ones. There is also too much focus on unsavoury and unlikely motives for the murder. Due to the young age of the victim (unusual in Christie’s work) the investigators involved continually push the angle of the murder being sexually motivated, which is far too tawdry for a Christie. No reader actually believes it was a sex-crazed lunatic so stop bringing it up. (The same goes for Evil Under the Sun, where Poirot proposes for the entire novel that two of the only four possibilities for the murder was that it was either perpetrated by a gang of smugglers or a ‘religious lunatic’. Murders in detective novels are never committed by outsiders!)

The Hollow

How to fix it: Remove Poirot.

As shocking as it sounds, this novel would have worked far better without her famous Belgian detective. Indeed, her play adaptation removed him and was far better from it. His inclusion is unbelievable. Poirot, the fastidious man who hates dirt and uncleanliness has moved to the country next door to where a murder is to take place. He also has little to do. The book focuses much less on the mystery element than the majority of books written at the same type and subsequently has little detective work for Poirot to do. As a detective novel it is fairly weak but as a novel in its own right it is one of Christie’s best. The novel would work far better as a psychological analysis of people affected by murder than as a whodunit.

(Warning! Possible Spoiler!)

Also, the murderer is one of the most sympathetic Christie has ever written and Poirot effectively killing them at the end is quite jarring and very out-of-character.

Murder in Mesopotamia

How to fix it: Change the motive

This book is technically flawless. It works brilliantly as a plot but as a novel it begins to fall apart. The problem lies in the reveal of the murderer’s true identity. It is just totally unbelievable for the character to have gone unnoticed for so long. A simple change of motive would have made the fake identity unnecessary and thus credible.

The second problem is how the murder is conducted. Again, as a bare plot it is genius, but totally unrealistic. There are too many possibilities for error and it unbelievable that a person would ever plan to commit murder in this way.

(Warning! SPOILERS!)

The murderer relies on the victim holding their head out a window to be bludgeoned to death. The victim then seems to defy physics by being knocked back through the window and into their room rather than slumping over the window. It is then vital to the murderer’s alibi that no one discovers the body for over an hour. And there is apparently no blood spatter anywhere near the window. Why would a person ever plan a murder like this? Egad!

Elephants Can Remember

How to fix it: Write it 30 years earlier.

Elephants Can Remember is one of the last books Christie wrote, and while her grip began to slacken towards the end of her career, Elephants Can Remember is uncharacteristically clever and original. In it, she makes a final and original reworking of the love triangle theme that she used for some of her greatest novels. It is also well-clued and solvable: a rare feat amongst her later works. The problem lies with the writing. Christie was 82 at the time of writing and the writing is rather slack. Similar to Dead Man’s Folly, characters waffle on about irrelevancies for much of the book. Details are hazy and often confused. The death being investigated is sometimes said to have happened ten years ago, other times it is fifteen or twenty.

It is also irritatingly unbelievable that all along there was one character who knew exactly what happened. They are brought in at the end to confirm Poirot’s theory but after the reader has had to sit through so much unnecessary questioning of people who knew nothing why was this the last person they asked?

How to Solve a Murder Mystery Without the Clues

‘It was you,’ Inspector Flimsy said dramatically, ‘Lady Melchett!’

‘No it wasn’t!’

‘Damn it!’

I love a good murder mystery. Not only do you get an engaging story but you get a fun intellectual puzzle thrown in as well. What a bargain! In saying that, I don’t often solve the mystery. But that’s the point. The author doesn’t want you to actually solve it, only have the illusion that you could have if you’d been a little less dunder-headed. But never fear! My years of research have given me a great insight. Sure, the clues they provide are far too cryptic for anyone to actually decipher, but we don’t need them. Because in providing clues, the author is really providing you the answer. Not in the clues themselves but in how they are placed. I am going to show you how to solve a murder mystery novel without using any of the clues, only by using the novel itself.

The Characters

Just looking at the characters that might have done it, we already start to formulate an idea. Of course there’s the ‘least likely suspect’ trope but now that everyone’s aware of that, what constitutes the least likely suspect? If everyone suspects the least likely suspect doesn’t that make them the most likely? On the other hand, no one really suspects the most likely suspect (too obvious!) so do they actually become the least likely suspect? Then does that mean they’re again the most likely suspect? Never mind all that, let’s move on to my character clues’.

One-off suspicions will never apply to the actual murderer

This is a way of sharing the suspicion around. Authors don’t want you to actually suspect the murderer so they’ll never explicitly state a clue that helped the detective solve it in the end.

If the detective finds somebody’s glasses at the scene of the crime then that person didn’t do it. It’s just too obvious and way too disappointing if what led you to the murderer was simply the fact that they left something of theirs at the crime scene.

The same usually applies with motives. If somebody has an obvious motive for killing someone, it’s unlikely this will be the actual motive, even if that person does end up being the murderer. Focus on those who have seemingly no motive or those whose motive is very stock-standard. If somebody’s motive is that they’re the sole beneficiary of the dead person’s will, that’s not likely to be the reason why. It may be realistic in real life but in a novel, the reader expects more ingenuity than that.

Of course, the murderer may be suspected by the detective at one point. Pay attention to anyone who becomes too obvious. Disregard the explicit clues that point to them though. The author isn’t going to serve you up the murderer and the clues halfway through the novel. Look for other clues or other interpretations of the given clues to see if it still fits with the person. If all the evidence is stacked up against one person early on, usually that person will have been ‘framed’ and be cleared later on. Don’t stop suspecting them just because the detective does. Could the suspect have planted obvious clues that would be proved false so that the real evidence pointing to them would also be considered false?

Just How Suspicious?

A good author won’t concern themselves with the ‘least likely/most likely’. They’ll focus on trying to stop you ever suspecting the murderer. So rather than ‘least suspected’ it’s ‘never suspected’. Sometimes the ‘never suspected’ trope can backfire on the author. If they spend a lot of effort convincing you that one person could definitively not have committed the crime, then double your suspicions on that character. If a character was observed somewhere else at the time of the crime, incapacitated so that they couldn’t physically have done it, or somehow have some unimpeachable alibi, then they’ve done it.

If your detective doesn’t consider them a possible suspect or remarks that they couldn’t have done it, that person did it. Look for characters that are above suspicion: The investigators, the person who asked the detective to investigate, the person who insisted what everyone thought was an accident was really murder, the person someone’s trying to kill, the helpful but bumbling sidekick. If someone is above suspicion not based on evidence but simply because of their character or suspicion then it’s most likely them.

The Clues

You’ll never be given clues – at least not in their proper form

Of course you’re given clues, but not in their meaningful form. You’ve got to do some of the work yourself! Therefore, never judge a clue on face value. You need to think creatively as to how else the clue could be interpreted. When Poirot emphasises the importance of the calendar in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, it is not the calendar that’s important at all. Whilst the reader is considering the implications of whether the calendar had the wrong date or a particular date circled, its real importance is that the butler has to look at it up-close. The calendar establishes the butler’s poor eyesight, and then we can start to question whether he has mistaken one of the characters for someone else or an object for something else. Also consider Sherlock Holmes’s interest in ‘the curious incident of the dog in the night-time’. You may be confused because the dog seemingly did nothing curious. Then you begin to consider all the curious things that the dog may have done and what they mean. Of course, the dog didn’t do anything, and that’s important because usually the dog would do something, which points to who the perpetrator was.

The Narrative

This is more about the book itself then the actual plot. If you can solve what sort of book it is (what’s special about it) you can probably solve the murder.

Its reputation

Have critics lauded it as one of the most shocking endings of all time? Well what kind of ending would it have to be to constitute that? It’s obviously not going to be a plain-cut solution. Look at which characters would prove a shocking murderer. The detective’s assistant? The detective? Is the victim really dead?

Does it remind you of other books by the same author?

If an author uses a successful trick in one book, it’s easier to try to reuse that trick than come up with a new one. I’m not saying mystery writers are unoriginal hacks but they may look for ways to reinvent or remodel a past solution to provide a new one. When reading a book by an author you’re familiar with, look for variations on a theme. Agatha Christie often used the theme of the love triangle. This is when three people are involved in a complicated love affair. A loves B but B is in love with C. A and B were in love but now B and C are together. A and B are in love but C is capturing the attention of B. When you start to notice a recurring theme or similar plot, consider how you could fit the old plot or theme into the new novel. Two of Agatha Christie’s novels, Death on the Nile and Evil under the Sun, have the same relationship at the heart of the novel. A happy couple’s relationship is threatened by an interloper. In Death on the Nile, the interloper is an ex-lover, In Evil under the Sun, it is a shameless ‘man-eater’. Without trying to spoil either plot, the relationships revolve around the similar idea of not being the relationship that is suggested, although executed differently.

So these are some of the ways that you can get a kick-start in finding that pesky murderer without having to do any difficult clue-finding and interpreting. Unfortunately, it’s a lot easier to apply these rules to a book once you’ve already finished it and know who did it. But perhaps that’s for the better. Because sometimes it’s fun to just go along for the ride and let yourself be fooled.

He Said, She Interpolated

It’s a debate for the ages: is ‘he/she said’ enough or is there room for alternate speech tags?

There is some heated discussion over this question and most people seem to have a very firm belief about which is correct. As I’ve shown before I believe all rules should be used as a guideline; there is always room for interpretation and it usually comes down to a writer’s individual assessment of the particular situation.

Personally, ‘said’ will usually be enough to get by on. Due to its commonality ‘said’ is almost like a punctuation mark: readers instinctively know how to read it and it doesn’t distract from the story. This is essentially what the debate boils down to. A reader is interested in the story, not how many variants of ‘said’ you know, and they will respect you for your commitment to the story over the showing of your eloquence.

There are variants of ‘said’; however, that are appropriate in the proper context and are actually more appropriate than ‘said’ in these contexts. ‘Asked’, ‘exclaimed’, ‘shouted’, ‘whispered’, ‘laughed’ and ‘interrupted’ are all useful, suitable replacements for ‘said’ that are clearer and less conspicuous where appropriate.

It is easier to read:

‘What’s that?’ she asked.    than

‘What’s that?’ she said.

Similarly,

‘There’s something I need to tell you’, he whispered.     and

‘Don’t go in there!’ she shouted.    easily convey a tone of voice that mightn’t be apparent with ‘said’.

So common variants of ‘said’ are fine to use where the situation calls for them but lesser-known speech tags can create confusion and distract from the story, especially when a reader doesn’t know what the word means. Therefore it’s probably best to stay away from tags such as ‘enunciated’ when you mean ‘said’, ‘tittered’ when you mean ‘laughed’ or ‘elucidated’ when you mean ‘explained’.

But what about adverbs? Is it alright to spice up plain old ‘said’ with a few modifiers like ‘she said: softly, harshly, quickly, quietly or hesitantly’. Some might say it’s unnecessary and that what a character says should make it clear how they said it but I still believe adverbs can be used, as long as they are used properly, effectively and sparingly. A few adverbs can make apparent exactly how somebody spoke when ‘said’ just doesn’t cut it but, like anything else in writing, if they’re covering the page it soon becomes distracting for the reader.

Remember also that sometimes a speech tag isn’t needed at all. In brief conversations or when there is only one or two people speaking, the reader is able to determine who is talking without the use of a speech tag every time somebody speaks.

Like Stephen King once said, ‘I didn’t say that!’

Who Murdered Detective Fiction?

I love detective fiction, and it’s no mystery why: the mystery of it! It’s really exciting to have this puzzle put before you that you race to solve before the author can reveal it. Detective fiction creates such a dynamic relationship between the author and the reader. As a reader, you are wary of the author’s attempt to deceive you, and yet you are also trusting that they will ‘play fair’. Meanwhile, the author is judicious with what they give away. Not too much so that the reader is disappointed to find they have already solved the crime long before it is revealed, but just enough so that when the ending is finally revealed, the reader will be able to look back and go, ‘Of course. It all makes sense now’.

And as long as the author does play fair, the reader won’t begrudge being outsmarted by the author. In fact, they respect their ingenuity and the surprise of the dénouement. Disappointment or frustration only occurs when the author refuses to play fair: when they hold back information made freely available to the detective or when the solution flies in the face of logic.

Yes, I love the classic detective story. I yearn for its golden age back in the 20’s and 30’s when it reigned supreme. When writers like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers dazzled with their brillaint plots. Now, the classic detective story has all but vanished. It has been taken over by the ‘crime’ novel. ‘Whodunnit? ’ has been replaced by ‘Whydunnit?’. Thrillers and serial killers – the hot new thing – are strangling the struggling efforts of the classic detective story. And yet, while authors may be turning away from the traditional murder mystery, readers can still keep it alive. As long as the detective story lives on in the hearts of its readers, it shall never truly die.

Beginnings

Where does a story begin? Can you ever truly define the beginning of something? When can you stop, look back over an event, pinpoint an exact moment and say ‘This is it. This is where it all began’?

Where does my story begin?

A beginning should capture the reader’s attention but it shouldn’t promise what it can’t deliver. What I mean by this is a false start: a beginning that is designed purely to catch attention rather than as an organic introduction to the rest of the story. These often take the form of ‘prologues’ and are perhaps most commonly found in thrillers. The type that begins with some brazen crime to show just how serious a criminal we’re dealing with. Many a time I have been tricked into reading an action-packed opening that ultimately leads nowhere. Action is fine – it propels the story along – just as long as it isn’t being used as a gimmick. If no important characters are being introduced, if the opening is just ancillary action and there is no connection or relevance to later events then the opening is a false start. And I feel cheated.

But is there such a thing as the perfect beginning? Writers will often spend many wasted hours fretting over the perfect opening sentence, which extends to the perfect opening paragraph, the perfect opening page, the perfect opening chapter…

A perfect beginning simply begins the story. It gets the ball rolling, so to speak. Of course there are many ways to begin a story. So the best advice would probably be to pick one and go with it.

‘Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’ Perfect advice.

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