I’ve read a few books lately where I feel used.  Manipulated.  Tossed around like a puppet on a string. Actually, the last three I’ve read have made me feel that way.

Why?  Because of three things–shifts in time, placement of the inciting incident, and very fast shifts in viewpoint.

One book’s Chapter One starts in September.  The next chapter starts in April of the same year.  Of course, we quickly realize Chapter One was a prologue.  But the common wisdom, the heck with the timeline, is to call a prologue Chapter One.  Next in this novel we have other chapters going in the right direction, but with back story, of course–always needed, but it IS hard to keep track of what happened when because the story didn’t start at the beginning–I mean the beginning of THIS story.  Sure, the characters have back stories and those need to be told.  But when the author also fools with the story’s timeline this way, it’s confusing—I don’t know if the flashbacks relate to the fake Chapter One or to Chapter Two. I know the reason for this is because the current wisdom is to start with something exciting.  The heck with getting to know the characters and setting first.  Start with a fascinating action, and then fill it all in, going backwards, then forward.  Is that really a good way to tell a story?  Obviously, I don’t think so. 

And this thing about inciting incidents?  My books have more than one.  I hope most books do.  Part of the excitement should be the build-up to the incident.  Anyone can put a dead body on page one.  And go backwards.  For a police procedural, I expect that, because it’s the police’s story.  For almost all the other sleuths, I want to know a bit about him or her, the other people in the story, and the setting before someone stumbles over the body.  I wish I had a library full of Agatha Christi’s books so I could see how they start.  The few I’ve read haven’t started with what I would call an “inciting incident.”  And she’s sold more fiction books than anyone else, right? She’s still selling.

The next problem is the shifting viewpoints.  I’m fine with that–do it myself.  What I don’t like is whiplash.  We have two pages with VP #1, then ten with VP #2, then four with VP #3, then we get into just sections where they go from one to another.  How can a reader feel as if she is getting to know the characters in this mishmash?  I like to spend some time with each one.  And I hate it when the VP shifts right in the middle of a scene.  There might be two people on the planet who can do this well–the author of the book I’m reading while writing this is not one of them.  So, again, I feel manipulated. 

Of course, it’s entirely possible that readers who are not writers don’t notice any of this stuff, or if they feel uneasy about the way the story is unfolding, they don’t know why. And there are good reasons to start with a big inciting incident (I do in my current work in progress), to play with the timeline, and to shift viewpoints rapidly (near the end of the story is better, though, in my opinion, than at the beginning). But we need good reasons for any of these tricks, and we have to be good enough writers to pull them off.

Yes, I know we manipulate the readers all the time–we hope to make them laugh and cry.  We hope to make them want to not stop reading until the very end, then be sorry it’s all over.  That’s good storytelling. 

The manipulation I object to is mechanical.  The scaffolding is showing, then falling, my  friends, in a lot of current novels.  And as it’s falling, I’m getting bruised and whiplashed.


A question came up in one of the groups about writing I belong to about what characterizes the noir genre. Lots of answers, lots of takes, but here’s what I said:

The thing I’ve always noticed when reading either hardboiled or noir is atmosphere and mood. The hardboiled character acts cynical and tough with an edgy voice, but he’s usually a good guy. But he can do some pretty bad stuff to reach the goal of setting something right, and he usually lives and works on the mean streets. In noir, the character can be either good or bad in the beginning, can live anywhere, but is usually a sad mess which only gets worse as time goes by and he or she ends up dead or even more of a mess. And the voice is entirely different in noir, more nuanced, and not as sure of itself as in hardboiled.

It is hard to describe. One of those things–you know it when you see (read) it. So, the best way to know what it’s all about is to read lots and lots of it.

This discussion got me to thinking about all the many subgenres in the mystery field. I decided to list as many as I could think of. Can you add any?

  1. Suspense
  2. Thriller
  3. Noir
  4. Hardboiled
  5. Cozy
  6. Softboiled
  7. Traditional
  8. Crime
  9. Amateur Sleuth
  10. Female Amateur Sleuth
  11. Romantic Suspense
  12. Private Eye
  13. Female Private Eye
  14. Locked Room Puzzle
  15. Historical
  16. Paranormal
  17. Police Procedural
  18. Western
  19. Regional
  20. Caper
  21. Whodunit
  22. Legal
  23. Medical
  24. Literary
  25. Pastiche
  26. Urban Fantasy
  27. Steampunk
  28. True Crime

What have I missed? And how do you decide what your subgenre is while either reading it or writing it? You just have to read a lot in the genre itself. After awhile, it’s pretty easy to peg what you’re reading. Then, if you want to write mysteries, think about the ones you liked best to read. That would probably be the one to write in, don’t you think?