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Archive for September, 2013

author photo 1 Dear Readers,

I am pleased to once again welcome Ms. Anne Cleeland, author of the newly released Tainted Angel, Murder in Thrall: An Acton and Doyle Scotland Yard Mystery and the soon to be released Daughter of the God-King (November 2013).

Ms. Cleeland holds a degree in English from UCLA as well as a degree in law from Pepperdine University, and is a member of the California State Bar. She writes historical fiction set in the Regency period as well as contemporary mysteries set in New Scotland Yard. A member of the Historical Novel Society and Mystery Writers of America, Ms. Cleeland lives in California and has four children.

TRI: Welcome again, Anne. Great to have you here.  I am looking forward to your talk about the promise of the premise.

AC: Thank you, Lina. It’s great to be back.

Hollywood screenwriters have a term to describe what the audience expects from the story: “the promise of the premise.” The phrase reminds the storyteller to deliver to the audience what it expects—or at least, what it expects within certain broad parameters.  A failure to deliver on the promise results in a disappointed audience, who knows how the premise of the story is supposed to go and will be disappointed if the storyteller fails to deliver—although the trick is to faithfully fulfill the premise without making the story stale and predictable.

I think this idea is especially applicable to the mystery story, where there are certain time-honored tropes that mystery readers have come to expect.  Here are a few:

1.  The solution can’t be too obvious, but still must make sense.  Someone is dead, but the murderer can’t be the obvious suspect because there is nothing more satisfying for the reader than working through the puzzle and having that “aha!” moment.  On the other hand, there is no satisfaction in solving the puzzle when the answer is obvious—or only thinly disguised—from the get-go.  (By the same token, everyone understands that if the story is set up so the suspect seems obvious, this is actually a red herring, and that that person is not, in fact, the murderer.)

2. The solution can’t be too obscure.  The reader has to be given a fair chance to solve the puzzle, and so there can’t be an undisclosed actor who shows up late and changes up the premise.  We love mysteries because they are engaging; we look for motive and opportunity right along with the story’s protagonist and— in the best stories—once we’re done we’ll go back to the beginning to re-read the clues that the writer left along the way.  The villain might be unexpected, but he or she should never be someone not featured in the story.  By the same token, the murder’s motivation should make sense in the context of the story, and not be dependent on undisclosed clues (the evil twin!)

3.  There should be twists, danger, surprises and red herrings, but the story can’t be too weird or hard to follow.   The mystery premise also includes an understanding that there will be a winding road to the solution, with some personal danger thrown in for the protagonist and a few red herrings to help with the “not too obvious” premise. However, the story can’t be swimming in so many red herrings that the reader loses track or even worse, loses interest due to too many distractions.

In addition, the premise cannot be so weird that the reader recoils—although the grittier mysteries seem to aim for this “recoil factor,” so I suppose this ends up being part of their  premise, if you know what I mean.  But whether gritty or not, above all, the solution has to be satisfying, so that the reader feels it’s been “earned,” and this is hard to do when there are too many subplots, extraneous characters or shocking developments.

So the good mystery promises a satisfying puzzle that engages and intrigues the reader—a tricky balance of not too hard, not too easy, and not too unexpected.   

**********

Great thoughts on delivering on the premise. I hope you enjoyed Ms. Cleeland’s talk. To learn more about Ms. Cleeland, please visit her at  www.annecleeland.com  or visit Amazon.com to purchase her books.

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