Friday, June 30, 2006

WTPEN -- Plot

Let’s pick up the writing the private eye novel thread and shift to our next major topic: plot.

Good plot is all about injecting conflict into the story in an ever-intensifying fashion. In private eye novels, the obvious conflict is the one that exists between the bad guy and the private investigator. A more interesting source of conflict may be between the PI and others who don’t want him involved in the investigation. For example, in The Big Sleep, Eddie Mars and Vivian Regan oppose Marlowe’s investigation of Carmen’s blackmailing because they don’t want him to discover what actually happened to Rusty Regan.

One “monotonic” conflict is not enough to drive a novel. The original conflict must get stronger over time and/or a new one must be created to hold the reader’s attention. Although the plot of The Big Sleep is so convoluted that even Chandler couldn’t remember key details when Howard Hawks queried him about a plot point during filming of the movie version, it does provide a classic illustration of the principle.

We’ve established that conflict is required for plot, but that by itself is not enough. At some level, there has to be a “point” to the book—a premise behind it. For many PI novels, the premise is that the consequence of criminal behavior is punishment—sometimes punishment delivered in an extralegal fashion by the PI. Better books can have a deeper or more subtle premise.

A great example of a PI novel with a deeper premise is The Long Goodbye. Marlowe’s speech at the end lays out the conclusion I think Chandler wanted us to draw from the book: idealism is better than realism.

Note, by the way, that a premise doesn’t have to be true or provably correct in the real world. Nor does every reader have to agree with it. It just has to be consistent with the world portrayed in the novel.

Foreshadowing can be important to:

  • Help set the stage for later actions that might otherwise seem too coincidental or fortuitous. For example, in my novel Vulture Capital, we see Riordan using the knife on his ankle for mundane things in two early scenes before we see him pull it in a showdown scene later in the novel.

  • Create suspense through description.

  • Motivate characters actions so we appreciate and believe the rationale behind what they do. Their behavior must be consistent with their personality and their experience. For example, if a character murders to keep a job, we must be shown why having a job is so important to him or her earlier in the book.

In striking the balance between narration and scenes, portray something as a scene when there is character or plot development and keep in mind scenes must have some form of conflict in them. Narration should be used to summarize information that is repetitive or required to set background.

However, don’t be tempted to use narration for things that truly need to be shown in scenes. To use an example from outside of PI fiction, the novel Dune is justly criticized for having a lot of important action occur “off camera” and conveyed to the reader only through expository dialog.

While it needn’t be happy or bring the criminal to justice in the conventional sense, the ending must satisfy two conditions: 1) it must resolve the main conflict in the novel and 2) it must “prove” the novel’s premise.

The ending of The Maltese Falcon does both of these things very well. The main conflict, which is the murder of Spade’s partner and his need as a PI to bring the murder to justice regardless of his personal opinion of his partner, is resolved with Brigid’s admission that she killed Miles.

My take on the premise of the book—that love is less important than being your own man and living life according to your own code—is proved when Spade gives Brigid up after refusing to “play the sap” for her.

    Friday, June 23, 2006 is the address for the web site that the characters from my forthcoming novel, Candy from Strangers, set up to help pay their art college tuition. If you haven't read my earlier posts on the book, here's a thumbnail description of the plot:

    Caroline Stockwell has a secret: she and her best friend Monica are "cam girls." Soliciting cash donations and gifts via wish lists from anonymous admirers, the young women have put up a web site featuring still photographs, video and web diaries (aka blogs) to help pay their way through art college. But when Caroline goes missing and her mother Ellen engages jazz bass-playing PI August Riordan to find her, Riordan discovers her secret and it appears to everyone that someone she met through the web site is responsible for her disappearance.

    Set against a real-world backdrop of Internet predators who exploit teenagers and young adults through their personal pages on popular social networking web sites, Candy from Strangers is the first novel to explore this dark and dangerous corner of the Internet.

    As you might guess from the address, the web site has a heaven and hell theme--Caroline is the "angel" and Monica is the "devil"--and Caroline, at least, has an interest in Goth culture.

    Since the domain name was available, I went ahead and reserved it some time ago, but wasn't really sure of what I was going to do with it. The main thing I wanted to prevent was a real site going up with that address that readers might assume was somehow associated with the book.

    I recently decided to use to build a little promotional page for the novel, setting up it up in a way that mimicked the description of the web site (and associated blog) that is given in the book. I homed the domain name to the address, so when you enter in a browser you are taken to the MySpace page.

    To see all of the content on the page--in particular, the photograph of Monica--you need to have a MySpace login, but it's free and it's easily obtained.

    Speaking of the photographs, you may be wondering where they came from. The picture of "Caroline" was available with no rights restrictions from stock.xchng, a cool stock photo exchange site. (I've put up a photo or two myself on the site, including this picture of a door in Santa Fe.) I doctored Caroline's photo a little in Photoshop to add her angel wings and tint her hair purple. The picture of "Monica" I purchased from a royalty-free photography site.

    Sunday, June 11, 2006

    Candy from Strangers and

    There have been a number of stories about Internet predators using social networking sites like to find and ensnare their victims, but this recent one about a 16-year-old girl who was persuaded by 25-year-old man she met on MySpace to fly to his home in another country caught my attention because of the similarity to the plot of my forthcoming novel, Candy from Strangers.

    Fortunately, the girl was intercepted before she could make contact with her "friend," but as coverage of the story has pointed out, unless the man explicitly solicited the girl for sex, there may be nothing illegal about him engaging in a dialog with her or even in inviting her to visit him.

    I've found as I've started to talk about Candy from Strangers in the signings I'm doing for my other books before Candy's release in October that there is a lot of concern and fascination associated with—and by extension the sort of scenario contemplated in Candy.

    I don't think MySpace is an inherently bad thing. Like a personal web site or a blog, it provides a place to "brag" a little about oneself, one's activities and interests, but unlike a standalone site or blog, it provides tools and community to easily network and “meet” people of similar interests. is a similar sort of service, with the only difference that the bragging and the networking are about professional accomplishments and career aspirations instead of what bands you like and whether or not you ride horses.

    In my opinion there are two aspects of MySpace that encourage or contribute to the potential abuse. The first is that the barrier to meet and interact with someone is much lower than it would be in real life. Difference in social backgrounds, geographical separation and even shyness are all reduced or removed as obstacles to meeting, and the act of becoming someone’s “friend” is boiled down to a couple of steps in on-line transaction.

    The other aspect that I think encourages abuse is the fact that everyone who joins MySpace is made to package him or herself like a commercial product. Pictures, videos, personal information and even the way you “decorate” your space with web formatting are all part of the marketing you do for yourself as a product. You are “selling yourself” as you would do on a resume, and the problem is that it encourages the “buyer” to lose sight of the fact that he or she is dealing with a real person—and in some cases, a very young and immature real person at that.

    In Candy from Strangers, I try to explore this objectification process in particular by showing its impact on the motivations of the characters whom private eye Riordan thinks may be to blame for the disappearance of the kidnapped girl.

    Wednesday, June 07, 2006

    WTPEN -- Character Development

    Well, after a little hiatus, I’m moving on to the next topic in writing the private eye novel: character development.

    Even though PI novels are traditionally about action, present day readers are also interested in character. In fact, developing strong characters may be the only way to overcome the current bias against PI books and have your novel stand out to agents, publishers and readers.

    So how do you build strong characters? The old saw applies: show, don’t tell. Let readers draw their own conclusions based on the clues you leave for them in what a character does, what he says, how he moves and dresses, what possessions he has, and even how he appears.

    Conveying character by appearance may draw upon assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices to some extent—for example describing someone as having a high forehead might suggest intelligence—but it can also be done by giving details about grooming and hygiene that let the reader know how fastidious or vain someone is.

    Traditionally, the PI character has not always been developed to the same extent as other characters. He was often portrayed as the stoic lone wolf who is more the catalyst for action than someone on whom the action works.

    Later writers have moved away from that approach and made the PI and his life an integral part of the story. For example, one of James Crumley’s PI characters—Milo Milodragovitch—is battling alcoholism, a family history of suicides and is only killing time until a multi-million dollar family trust is available to him and he can go on a partying spree to end all partying sprees. His family history and his struggle to stay alive and (somewhat) sober until that time are key elements of the first two books in which he appears.

    One way to enrich your PI’s character is to give him a vocation or outside interest. Similarly, as in the case of PIs Sid Halley and Alex McKnight, he can come from another career that manages to intrude upon or inform his current one.

    Character flaws or physical weaknesses can give your PI something to battle against in addition to plot conflicts. For example, Sid Halley’s hand has been crushed in a racing accident, and in one book, the villain threatens him with a debilitating injury to his other hand.

    And, as mentioned earlier with Milo Milodragovitch, background or life experiences can shape his character and current motivations.

    But you can’t simply pick one attribute from column A and another from B to form character—it’s not a list making exercise. It’s an exercise of imagination where attributes must be synthesized to form a whole person in whom readers will believe.

    Also, in this day of anti-heroes, keep in mind that while the PI character must not be likeable per se, he must retain stature in readers’ eyes. He must have skills, qualities or strengths that the reader can admire.

    Finally, be aware that if your PI is intended to appear in a series, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to have a full arc of character development for him in each book, such as you might find in a traditional literary novel. You will need to pace yourself.

    Next up: plot, part I.