Thursday, May 26, 2011

Writing Contemplations: Justifying the Impossible Or the Unlikely In Fiction

Note: When I do book reviews or appreciations, I've started to note points of interest to writers. I thought I'd also do  occasional posts with thoughts about the writing lessons found in books and film. Here's the first. 

In the recent Blue Bloods season finale Jamie Regan (Will Estes), youngest cop in the show's featured family of New York cops, reveals to dad Frank Regan (Tom Selleck) that he's been quietly conducting his own investigation into the death of his brother Joe.

"Why didn't you come to me?" asks Frank, voicing the viewer's question as well. Why would the youngest and greenest member of the family not turn information over to his father, the police commissioner, and older brother, a seasoned investigator?

The question is the kind writers for the screen, tube and page deal with every day. The real answer of course, is that there'd have been no story, or a different story, if he'd made a different decision. 

Often the easy answer is not the one the writer or the story wants, nor is it the one the reader wants. When people turn to fiction, they don't want a newspaper account of  a worried neighbor who phones the authorities. They're looking for an extraordinary story of extraordinary individuals. 

Sure, the amateur sleuth could just phone the police and wait for them to handle the mystery of who poisoned the headmaster's breakfast, but if the story's about the bookish spinster who solves murders that just won't do. 

Jamie explains in Blue Bloods he felt his brother had left him information about a rogue band of cops as a passing of a torch, and in pursuing the truth alone he was honoring his brother. It fits his character, established over a season's worth of episodes. He's a Harvard grad who decided to eschew law practice to enter the family business, law enforcement, that's steeped in tradition and a sense of duty and honor. 

What reason could the bookish spinster have? Well, maybe like with Joe, something personal could drive matters. Maybe the murdered headmaster's the lover who broke her heart when she was a young school teacher. Maybe that's why she's a bookish spinster and maybe there's a strong sense of need to find out the headmaster's secrets. Maybe some of the reasons years ago that spurred him to break her heart without explanation have contributed to the cause of his murder. 

Say, that sounds intriguing. A little finesse and  layering of ideas can justify a lot in a story and make it richer and more interesting in the process. 

Victims of circumstance
Circumstances as well can force characters along the desired course. A few years ago a friend saw the movie Cellular before I did. It's the story of a woman trapped by kidnappers. Her damaged cell phone makes a connection with a young man who has to stay on the line or risk losing her call. Fortunately he's not an AT&T customer.

"How'd they explain him not going to the police?" I asked, because I always think about the writer at the keyboard behind a story.

Police after all, would be able to trace calls and end the story in a hurry.

"He did go to the police," my friend said. "But there was gang riot and..."

And the young man couldn't risk losing the connection, so as distracting hordes of prisoners were hauled into the police station he had to move on and handle things on his own. Is that how things might really unfold? Meh.

That point in the story did introduce William H. Macy as a dedicated desk sergeant, representing authority and  ultimately helping out. But the gang riot kept the story from being hijacked and  becoming  one of the FBI and vast technological resources being called in.

It's a contrivance, but it's a polished one with great presentation. It also serves as one of those rocks writers are supposed to throw at heroes.

Back to the amateur sleuth
So what could plague our bookish spinster? Even with her personal ties to the murder, she'd likely grow discouraged, hit a few speed bumps, discover some clues out of reach.

What might keep her going against those rocks we're tossing her way?

Suppose the police detective assigned to the case doesn't have a gang riot on his hands? Say she's in a small town, a quiet spot where murders might not roll around every day. The detective might not have the experience of a seasoned homicide investigator.

Suppose the bookish spinster's chief suspect is from a rich and influential family? When she turns in what she's found,  the local cop might not be inclined to tackle the firestorm and go the extra mile to build up the evidence.

Even though she'd like to get back to that copy of Infinite Jest, the sleuth's got to see justice done for her former lover, and clues may not be enough. She's got to find a way to...

And with a few layers, she'll be believable.


Charles Gramlich said...

It's a delicate act. And technology changes it all the time. When I first wrote COld in the LIght there were no cell phones to cause a problem. By the time it was published there was so I had to come up with some quick fix that sounded reasonable while to myself it seemed like what it was, a tag on.

Sidney said...

Yeah, technology comes quickly and sometimes in subtle ways. You blink and then cell phones and tablets are everywhere.

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Libby Hellmann said...

Maintaining credibility (whether technically or just within the character's actions) is one of the reasons I stopped writing my amateur sleuth series (the Ellie Foreman mysteries) and veered toward a PI character instead. By the 4th book, I was turning backflips trying to find a credible reason for a video producer to get involved in a murder investigation. Just wouldn't happen.

Sidney said...

I read a review of a series of books about a hotel detective, and that was the reviewer's big complaint - that the guy would always handle things himself when he really should have turned information and evidence over to the cops. I guess on an ongoing basis that's always the struggle with any non-professional series lead.

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