Tuesday, March 2, 2010

It's All About The S-T-O-R-Y

It happened again. I was at a social event, chatting with an aquaintance, a woman who knows I write crime novels, and she began, "I have a great idea for your next book."

I said, "I'm intrigued. Tell me more."

She said, "I was at my hairdresser and she has women in her shop as old as ninety and as young as her little four-year-old granddaughter. All the stories they tell and the wonderful lives they've led... I thought that would be just perfect for your next book."

I'm thinking, She's never read one of my rather gritty crime thrillers. I've discussed writing with this woman before and I know she'd like to write fiction. So, I said, "I think that's a great topic for you to write about. Think up a ticking time bomb. Something that happens to a couple of the women. Something life-altering. A story."

She gave me a blank look.  Story.  That's the rub, isn't it?

I have a rather crusty friend, a former law enforcement guy who's been around the writing biz, putting out novels and screenplays, for decades. He loves to give advice. More than once over lunch, he's turned his steely gaze on me and said, "Never forget, it's all about the S-T-O-R-Y."

I've been around this block a few times myself and have to agree. And this is especially true when it comes to writing mystery and suspense fiction. Of course characters count. Of course the quality of the writing counts. But what really keeps readers turning the pages is the story.

But, you counter, if I don't care about the characters, I don't care about finishing the book. True. But those characters have to be doing something that reveals their essence that propels the reader to care about them. They don't exist in a vacuum, or just in a beauty shop.

Think about the authors who are accused of having wooden characters and flat prose but who can tell a rip-roaring page-turner. Tom Clancy and John Grisham come to mind. Contrast them with authors who pen gorgeous character studies, as perfect as tiny jeweled boxes, such as... Hmm... I can't think of any . Can you?

Yes, we must love the characters, above all, but they must do something, act out some sort of drama to interest us, to move us, even to scare us, on the page as in life, no?


  1. Example: I recently read Daphne DuMaurier's "The House on the Strand." I like DuMaurier--very atmospheric. But I had never read that one before. It was first published in 1972 and, typical of her, incredibly atmospheric, a wonderful sense of place. But not one of the main characters is the least bit likable.

    Yet I couldn't put it down. What a story!

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  3. P, I'm begining to be clued into how women in particular get attracted to negative people in their real lives. If only the attraction were limited to between the covers - books included.

  4. Petrea, DuMaurier is one of my favorites for that very reason. Remember the evil Mrs. Danvers in "Rebecca"? Hateful. Manipulative. But we're glued to the page.

    Cafe, I don't know what to say about that! I think that's true for some people of both sexes.