“The Mystery Writer’s Hidden Weapon” (by John F. Dobbyn)

John F. Dobbyn began his fiction-writing career with stories in verse, published in EQMM. His first prose fiction, published in our Department of First Stories in 1994, introduced Michael Knight and Lex Devlin, now the stars of a series of thriller novels. The series’ sixth book, High Stakes, is due out in October. The first, Neon Dragon, is in production for TV. John’s latest story for EQMM, “Torero,” is in our September/October 2019 issue (on sale now!). It’s a standalone thriller and in this post the author shares some insights about that form of crime fiction. —Janet Hutchings

Early in the course of writing a series of mystery/thriller novels, an idea evolved for harnessing an unwitting coauthor—the reader. This technique, heaven knows not exclusively mine, became one of my favorite tools of the trade—the selective use of silence.

Twenty years ago, I submitted my first mystery novel to the iconic editor of a major publisher. She returned it with the cryptic note, “This manuscript is 20,000 words too long—and I haven’t read a word of it.”

I spent the week-end pulling 20,000 of my favorite words out by the roots. It sold to the next publisher I sent it to.

I learned two things. One was that every word I typed thereafter would either carry its full weight in pushing the plot at ramming speed or suffer a strike of the “delete” key. The second was the positive value of selectively leaving much unsaid—constructive silence.

In terms of the setting, for example, every story I write begins and ends in my beloved Boston. Early on, I had the impulse to paint every street, alley, law office, park, and building in lengthy detail. My editor suggested that for any reader south of South Boston it was a numbing waste of time and eyesight, and for any Bostonian it was superfluous. I began cutting descriptions to the bone. A quick impressionistic sketch with a few prose brush-strokes now does it for settings like Irish or Puerto Rican neighborhoods, Public Garden, ocean drives, and a variety of ethnic bars and restaurants. This invites the reader to fill out the canvas from memory or personal imagination. Wittingly or not, the reader is now personally involved with me in telling the story.

It works for characters too. My main series character, Michael Knight, has been in the heads of my readers as first person narrator through five novels. I have never described Michael’s personal appearance. At most, I’ve suggested that he is six foot-one, about twenty-seven years old, and of half Irish, half Puerto Rican ancestry.

And yet, I’ve been amazed at how Michael’s features have become fleshed out in the imagination of readers. Different readers have told me with a certainty that his appearance is rugged, smooth, rough, delicate, dark, light. His hair is curly, wavy, straight, black, brown, and light. I.e., individual readers have occupied my “silence” and formulated their own personal Michael. They draw on his responses to the situations I place him in, as well as their own personal catalogue of acquaintances, to piece together a visual Michael—probably like unconsciously assembling a Mr. Potato Head. Their visions of Michael tend to be as different from those of each other as they are from my own.

I’ve been asked if Michael is, for me, a more idealized version of myself. I’m don’t know. Maybe. But if so, my silence has also let Michael become the idealized self-vision of every individual reader. The reader gets to live through the hell I frequently inflict on Michael in a very personal way, and always—so far—come out a winner.

The major limitation on the author’s ability to allow the reader this freedom occurs when the author is creating a character whose physical features relate to the plot of the story. The bulbous, outsized features of gourmand/detective, Nero Wolfe, had to be made visually clear to the reader by Rex Stout both to explain the immobility of the character and to provide a clear function for his “legs” in the form of Archie Goodwin.

There were plot reasons why George Chesbro had to provide us with a clear description of his inimitable detecting character, Robert Frederickson, billed by the fictional Statler Brothers Circus as the dwarf, Mongo the Magnificent.

Another unavoidable limitation of the reader’s personal visualization occurs when a novel character is portrayed on the television or motion picture screen by an actor who so completely appropriates the character that no other visual conception is possible. The characters who instantly pop to mind include Perry Mason (Raymond Burr), Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), Rumpole of the Bailey (Leo McKern), and (Chief) Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers).

On the other hand, to draw on the medium of radio, Johnny Dollar, (Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar), could take on whatever physical features were suggested to the individual listener by the words of Jack Johnstone and the voice of Bob Bailey.

The most convenient use of silence for me, however, is in the area of plot. By way of personal preference, when violent things happen in my novels, they are never so explicitly spelled out as to step over a line I’ve drawn for myself. For example, in one scene in the fourth novel, Michael and his then comrade, a former IRA fighter, venture into a section of the city that will be predictably hostile. Michael needs a face-to-face confrontation with one of five thugs in a gang-dominated bar. That meant that four of the thugs had to be “neutralized”.

Rather than giving the reader a blooded description of the broken noses, fractured jaws, and dislocated limbs that would follow, I used “visual silence.” The IRA man has Michael (and the reader) wait outside the bar while he attends to business.

The brawl between the IRA man and four of the thugs occurs in the bar, but rather than painting the mayhem in living red, I merely describe the mixture of sounds—thuds, slams, breaking bottles, cries, and ultimately bodies hitting the floor—the sounds that Michael and the reader are hearing outside. Readers can fill in their own visual depiction of the scene in whatever detail suits their sensibilities.

There is an old saying, Chinese, I think, that I found valuable during my years of teaching at Villanova Law School:

“If you tell me, I’ll learn.

If you show me, I’ll remember.

If you involve me, I’ll understand.”

This method of applied silence can be an effective way of drawing the reader into the process of, in a small way, cowriting the novel as well as reading it. I can’t help but believe that that involvement increases the suspense, tension, understanding, and ultimately enjoyment of the novel.

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