There is considerable genre bending going on now, particularly in the paranormal arena. This is great! Not only does it allow us to reach new readers, it lets us add new tools to our writing toolboxes and to use them in imaginative new ways.
My background is in mysteries and thrillers, mostly funny mysteries. Now I write humorous urban fantasies, too, and I’ve taken to fantasy like a duck takes to bread thrown upon the water. But I’m glad I have an in-depth understanding of the crime genre because its principles provide unseen girders in my cross-genre works.
I’m a longtime writing instructor and freelance editor, and I’d like to share with you some of the worst mystery-writing mistakes I’ve seen in my students’ and writing clients’ works. Not because I think many — or even any — of you are writing traditional mysteries, but because a crime or danger or puzzle element is often involved in many of the cross-category fantasy sub-genres, including urban fantasy and paranormal romance. Even if yours does not, an understanding of these principles may help you to better work with whatever struggle sustains the narrative drive in your WIP. The principles are the same whether a story involves a body found before the fireplace in an Agatha Christie-type vicarage or if a time-traveling pharaoh is secretly creating unrest in Egypt to reclaim his throne. (Hey, that’s not a bad idea.).
One of the biggest mistakes I see is that there are no false trails. In mysteries those are called red herrings, but false trails are a necessary part of most novels. If your protagonist knows precisely how to meet her goal easily and instantly, the journey is unlikely to engage too many readers or to fill an entire novel. Strangely, though, I’ve had more students fight me on this point, insisting that false trails aren’t realistic.
Actually, they’re precisely the way real life works. With any problem, we pursue the most obvious solution first, and only try less obvious solutions when that fails, usually because, at the start, we can’t see the full extent of the problem. To use a real life example…imagine you’re ready to leave your house, but you can’t find your keys. You look where you usually put them, then you check your purse, eventually removing everything in the purse in search of them, then you look in rooms that you might have carried them into…. Finally, it occurs to you that you changed to another purse briefly yesterday. (Why did you do that? I don’t know. Work with me here.) When you look into that alternate purse, you find the keys slipped into a pocket. You see, you didn’t remember changing purses, and until you factor that into the equation, you don’t see the full picture.
That’s the way it works in a novel, too. Our characters don’t always understand the full extent of the problem, and they grasp what seems to be the most obvious solution AT THAT TIME. As long as the false trails are organic to your story, and not some device you’ve created simply to slow your protagonist’s success, they will engage your reader.
Another common problem is that newish writers sometimes share too much and the wrong kind of relationship backstory. In the crime genre, that usually means the history shared between the victim and villain, or the heroine in danger and the bad guy pursuing her in a suspense novel. New writers often justify their backstory faux pas in terms of fairness to the reader, but full disclosure at the start doesn’t actually benefit readers. Readers want their vicarious adventures to involve both struggles and surprises. If you lay out precisely what’s coming, with a detailed explanation of why, you can kiss surprise goodbye.
And this principle has broad implications for every kind of novel. If you want any element to play out with a strong, surprising impact in the climax, you can’t push that element into the reader’s face. The element has to be there, sown in carefully, but you don’t want to draw attention to it. Not too early anyway. We novelists are like magicians, engaging in slight-of-hand, luring attention away from true nature of the trick, so the surprising outcome will have greater impact. We’re always saying, “Look HERE, don’t look THERE.” Until, that is, we’re ready for THERE to take center stage.
To me, the best part of genre crossing isn’t just the fun of creating new beings and new worlds — although those are some of the best things I’ve discovered since I first found words written on pages — it’s that no techniques, no conventions, no tools are off-limits. It’s that I can take well-used tools, twist ‘em around and use them in a brand new way.
I hope you’ll find something you can use in what I’ve shared here today.
What new tools have you found lately, and how do you use them?
Kris Neri writes funny urban fantasies featuring fake psychic Samantha Brennan and genuine Celtic goddess/FBI agent Annabelle Haggerty, HIGH CRIMES ON THE MAGICAL PLANE, a Lefty Award nominee, and MAGICAL ALIENATION. She also writes the popular Tracy Eaton mysteries. Kris teaches writing online for the prestigious Writers’ Program of the UCLA Extension School, and with her husband, owns The Well Red Coyote bookstore in Sedona, AZ. She welcomes friends to her website, http://www.krisneri.com, and her blog, http://krisneri.blogspot.com/
A spaceship crash in Roswell…a rumored alien…the mysterious Area 51…a harmonic convergence in Sedona. No connection, right? With its rock stars and shape shifters, gods and militia leaders—Magical Alienation will turn what you think you know upside down.
Fake psychic Samantha Brennan and Celtic goddess/FBI agent Annabelle Haggerty team up again. While the rock people twist the surface of the earth and Sedona heads into the darkest night the planet has ever seen, Samantha wonders which, if any of them, will survive it. But when Celtic gods are involved, nothing is ever as it appears.