WTPEN -- PlotLet’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.