This question popped up on a discussion group recently and it’s one I’ve pondering of late.
Here was the abbreviated question, posted by Shalanna Collins:
“I'm wondering how you feel about the ‘invitation to the game’ that constitutes the mystery opening trope. What I mean is . . . when you pick up a mystery, do you expect the normal trope of (1) the sleuth's normal life, some intriguing thing happening, and then (2) the call to action signaled by her/his finding a body or witnessing a death that is suspicious? … I don't read only for the mystery plot and only for action. I've been dinged for including deeper stuff in my books. What say you?”
What I say is this:
I am starting to like books that set their own rules.
I think, within the first few pages of a novel, we can tell if the writer has one eye on a paint-by-numbers formula.
I think we’re all eager for a strong book that wrecks the formula—and has a good time doing so.
I give you William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. There’s nothing formulaic about it. Murder mystery? Coming of age novel? Literature? Forty years after a series of powerful deaths in a small town in Minnesota, a grown man named Frank Drum remembers the series of events, all intertwined with memories of his religious father and agnostic mother. The book just flows, suspense mounts, and there’s no sign of paint or numbers.
I give you Untouchable by Scott O’Connor, published a few years ago and widely praised. I was shocked—shocked—to discover it had been reviewed as crime fiction in the New York Times. The book is about a man named David Darby who cleans up messes after, well, death takes its toll. It’s also about the man’s mute-by-choice son Whitley, who fears that he’s responsible for his mother’s death. These are two of the strongest character portraits I’ve read in a long time—even though O’Connor uses a ton of adverbs (not my favorite) and relies on the passive tense. I didn’t give a lick. I was completely sucked in by the story and a thin “plot” (and I use that term loosely). Near the end is one of the saddest chapters I’ve read in a long time and it introduces us to a new point of view on page 362.
I didn’t care.
I give you David Corbett’s Mercy of the Night, another character-centric novel that might look a bit like a crime or mystery on the surface but is one of the most deeply felt and human books you’ll ever read. (I reviewed it in depth here). There’s a prostitute, a counselor and a former litigator, Phelan Tiernay. Again, vivid and human portraits against the backdrop of crime. Formulas nowhere in sight.
So I think the recipes are a rough guide.
I think some stories need more air underneath them—more contemplation.
Not every book is skipping-stone compilation of plot points.
More and more I find myself more drawn to character studies. It’s the people I remember, not always the clue-finding and the guns-drawn face-offs.
Some weeks, you want the comfort and ease of that formula.
At other times, you find yourself more open to more variety in voice, tone, style and pace of the plot and action.
To me, the invitation to the game starts with cracking open a new book and being welcomed to a new story, a new point of view.
I want to see the plot points disappear.
I want to get to know new people so well I can imagine what they’re thinking and understand how they act.