Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Generating Suspense in a Mystery

A few unexpected twists or surprises can make a story come alive. A few novels begin with an unusual twist. Many good novels end that way.
The elements of Question, Sitation and Irony can make a story more exciting and add a twist to any tale. Examples from three masters of "the twist in the tale" follow.

Intriguing Questions

Robert Goddard is often called the "master of the tale with a twist". His novel Caught in the Light begins with an enigma. Ian Jarrett, a photographer, encounters and falls in love with Marian Esguard, a woman he met on a chance encounter in Vienna. After a brief affair, he leaves his wife and daughter for this new lover, but she does not show up at their designated meeting place. He goes in search of her, only to find she might either be the ghost of a woman who died long ago, or a troubled psychiatric patient. From the first page the reader is filled with questions. Who is this mysterious woman? A ghost or an impostor? And what impact finding her will have on Jarrett’s life?

Unusual Situations

In Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, two total strangers meet, share idle and drunken conversation, and agree to “exchange murders.” Since they do not know each other, neither one will be suspected of the murder they commit. One of the parties in this insane agreement is joking; the other deadly serious. When Guy Haine’s wife is murdered, he seems the most likely suspect. And then when Bruno comes to exact payment—by having him commit murder for him—he is in a double bind. Not only is he a suspect in his wife’s murder, now a complete stranger wants him to commit another. So how’s he going to get out of that one? The reader has to continue to find out.

Use of Irony

The use of irony is perhaps the most effective kind of twist. Irony happens when things appear one way but because of a flaw in the viewer’s perception are really much different. For example, in The Open Window by Saki, a visitor is told stories by a teenaged girl that changes his perception about the purpose of an open window. An innocent object now fills him with apprehension and terror.

Another excellent example of irony is the short story The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry. Because of acts of unselfishness, gifts intended to please are rendered useless, yet the gifts become even more important because they symbolize the love and generosity of the givers.

Adding intriguing questions, creating unusual situations, and including a touch of irony are all ways to put a new slant on an old story.

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