SUSPENSE, WITH PICKLES PLEASE
By Merry Jones, author of The Trouble with Charlie
Don’t you love a good plot? A thrilling mystery? A mysterious thriller? I do. And I always try to figure out the ending before I get there. Sometimes, I can; sometimes, I can’t. Either way, when I finally finish the book, I sometimes feel unsatisfied. And here’s why:
I want more from a story than just the story. Here are five examples of what I mean:
I want meat. Something fresh to chew on. Something that feeds my mind. As the plot unfolds, I want it to provide me with some fascinating facts or nuggets of new knowledge.
For example, in his mysteries, Dick Francis taught readers about the world of horse-racing. Not just racing, but breeding, betting, trading and training. Faye Kellerman exposes readers to Orthodox Judaism. Robin Cook provides medical information. And so on.
No matter what the genre, sustained tension, suspense or tragedy can be exhausting. And characters who take themselves too seriously can be both exhausting and difficult to embrace. A dash of humor offers relief, lets the reader breathe and regroup for the next surge in action or heartbreak, and makes the character more human and appealing.
For example, Ken Kesey made readers guffaw nonstop even as he led Randall McMurphy to defeat and tragedy in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. And in my first mystery series, Zoe Hayes is in the middle of tracking a serial killer when her six-year-old interrupts because she can’t find her pink sweatshirt. The intrusion of a “normal” crisis into the middle of a “life and death” crisis provides some comic relief.
The arc of a plot is simply more engaging when it’s not entirely linear. Like the rest of us, characters have to deal with more than one issue at a time; it makes sense that another story thread will unwind parallel to or interwoven with the main yarn.
Here’s an example: in the Harper Jennings thriller, BEHIND THE WALLS, a subplot about a crime committed during the Iraq war emerges as Harper copes with the main plot about murders surrounding archeological relics. In THE TROUBLE WITH CHARLIE, Elle Harrison investigates a subplot stalker as she unravels clues about her husband’s murder.
To me, creating a subplot is like adding cheese to a burger; suddenly, you’ve got a whole new sandwich.
4. Sexual Tension
The resolution of the plot should affect the characters and their world in some significant way. This is true even in a series, where characters have to reappear in the next book. Maybe the protagonist prevented a disaster, preserved a relationship, rescued a maiden, overcame a villain, or saved the world. Whatever the character has done, the struggle to do it should somehow change him or her. Maybe the change is subtle, like new wisdom or enhanced confidence or emotional scars. Maybe it’s overt, like a gaping wound, a lost friend, or a physical scar. But even fictional people should learn, grow and change.
Of course, some may disagree. Sherlock Holmes didn’t change much. Nor did Poirot. But I believe that, in the course of the novel, the protagonist should evolve, however subtly, in order to make her more complex, interesting and believable.
So there they are: five things plots need besides the plot. In school, teachers used to say that stories needed characters, conflict, crisis and resolution. But, as both a reader and a writer, I want more. If a book doesn’t include at least some of these five items, I’ll find it disappointing. At the end, I’ll feel as if I’ve ordered a cheeseburger special but been served an empty bun.
The Trouble with Charlie
Author: Merry Jones
Paperback: 272 pages (also available in e-formats)
Publisher: Oceanview Publishing (February 5, 2013)
The biggest trouble with Charlie is that he’s dead. His soon-to-be-ex-wife, Elle Harrison, comes home from a night out with friends to find his body in her den, her kitchen knife in his back. And, oddly, Elle has no memory of her activities during the time he was killed.
Another trouble with Charlie is that, even though he’s dead, he doesn’t seem to be gone. Elle senses Charlie’s presence–a gentle kiss on the neck, the scent of his aftershave wafting through the house, a rose that seems to move from room to room on its own. And a shadow that appears to accuse her of murder–and with whom she argues.
In the process of trying to prove her innocence, Elle investigates Charlie’s death–and his life. A psychiatrist diagnoses her with a dissociative disorder that causes her to “space out” especially when she’s under stress. This might explain the gap in her memory, but it doesn’t clear her.
As Elle continues to look into Charlie’s life, she uncovers more and more trouble–an obsessed woman who might have been his lover. Siblings with unresolved bitter issues. A slimy untrustworthy business partner. And wealthy clients with twisted, horrific appetites.
Before she knows it, Elle is involved in more murders, a struggle for her life, and a revived relationship with Charlie, whom–for all his troubles–she has come to appreciate and love only after his death.
The Trouble with Charlie is….well, I didn’t have any trouble with Charlie. I’m not a paranormal fan so it was fun to have a “ghost” in the story who wasn’t actually a ghost…or was he? The Trouble with Charlie threw out lots of fun questions to puzzle over as you read. Not only who the killer was but why and where (Ok, not so much where he was killed but why he was where he was when he was killed). Then there were questions about Charlie’s widow Elle. Was she really the murderer? And everyone — with the exception of Elle’s three best friends — seemed to have hidden motives. Got to love those hidden motives!
The Trouble with Charlie really captured my interest. In fact, my handy Kindle told me that the first night I read 80% of the book. Elle was a fascinating character as were Charlie and Joel and the many other people that crossed Elle’s path. I loved Elle’s friend Susan (also her lawyer) but wish the other two friends has personalities as strong. When they were together the three women seemed to blend together, indistinct.
But over all I really enjoyed The Trouble with Charlie and like Merry Jones’s writing style (not to mention her name!). And now I’m wondering if I should sample a few of her other books because she has quite few.