“Mystery/Suspense and the Beauty of Brevity” (by Trey Dowell)

Yesterday, EQMM’s 80th Anniversary Issue (September/October 2021) went on sale. In it you’ll find Trey Dowell’s flash-fiction thriller “The Problem With Fish Markets.” (And yes, it’s possible to write a genuine international-intrigue thriller in one thousand words—though I might not have believed it before reading this story!) Trey recently won the Bethlehem Writer’s Workshop 2021 Short Story Award, judged by New York Times bestselling author Charlaine Harris (another frequent EQMM contributor). His short stories have also been nominated for Derringer Awards several times. Although Trey’s fictional range is wide—he’s written full-length novels as well as stories in several genres—in this post he talks about what’s involved in keeping a crime story—or any story— short. —Janet Hutchings

So, I’ve been hammering away at this whole “writing fiction” thing for about fifteen years now. I’ve had a modest amount of success (and a somewhat-less-modest amount of failure), but one of my guiding principles has always been to try everything: different genres, alternate styles, different formats. Sci-fi, crime, and horror are definitely my jam—but hell, let’s try western noir, political satire, and romance too, right? Throw in a nonfiction article every now and then. Anything to broaden my experience as a writer, plus, pushing boundaries means I avoid stagnation’s icy grip. Variety might be the spice of life, but for me (as a writer) variety isn’t just a spice—it’s the whole damn meal.

One of the ways I enjoy mixing things up is with story length. I’m not the type of writer whose ideas are birthed in distinct, 350-page, three-act packages, no matter how much I wish they were. I don’t try to stretch or condense an idea into something it’s not. Frequently, I imagine conversations, single scenes, perhaps nothing more than one climactic point in a character’s life—interesting set pieces that don’t have nearly enough meat on their bones to build a novel around them. But those moments often make for one helluva good short story.

More often than not lately, my ideas have coalesced in the smallest of literary packages: flash fiction. A story of less than 1000-1500 words. Two to three pages to grab readers’ attentions (and maybe their throats) and yank those bastards all the way through to the finish, until they look away from the page and whisper “daaaaaamn.”

And trust me, when it comes to flash fiction, short doesn’t mean easy.A writer friend of mine entered a flash contest several months ago where he was randomly assigned a genre and received “mystery.” His complaint to me was “How the HELL can I write a mystery in only 1000 words? Just describing the damn crime that needs to be solved takes half those words. It can’t be done!” 

I tried to console him as best I could, but in the back of my mind all I could think was Oh HELL yes it can.

You see, many, many years ago (back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth and I was in junior high school) I read my very first crime short story. “After Twenty Years,” by William Sydney Porter—better known by his pen name, O. Henry—absolutely blew my little twelve-year-old mind. A classic tale of friendship and betrayal, “After Twenty Years” (published in 1908) is also a master class in misdirection, building to one of Porter’s trademark twist endings. 

For those who aren’t familiar, I now present my wholly inadequate summary: a successful career criminal waits in the evening gloom to reconnect with a long-lost buddy. A beat cop stops by long enough to chat up the boastful, ostentatiously wealthy man for a moment, then moves on. After a short wait, the criminal’s pal finally makes his appearance, and the two men greet each other warmly on the darkened street. After strolling to a well-lit corner, the criminal is shocked to see that the person walking with him arm-in-arm is not his old friend at all, noting that twenty years doesn’t change the shape of a man’s nose. The “friend” is, in fact, a police detective, happy to report that the wanted criminal has been under arrest for the last ten minutes, and been allowed to boast and talk in order to incriminate himself further. At the very end of the story, the detective gives the criminal a hand-written note from the beat cop who’d chatted with him earlier—the actual long-ago friend—confessing that when he showed up at the agreed-upon place and time, and realized the man he’d come to meet was a known fugitive, the cop hadn’t had the heart to arrest his friend, and instead had the detective/imposter do it for him.

My pathetic summarization notwithstanding, “After Twenty Years” is somehow both taut and richly descriptive, and sneakily suspenseful. The ending finishes the reader off with a metaphorical gut-punch—and in my case, left a pre-teen boy in its wake, muttering “daaaaaaamn.” 

I reread the story twice, looking to see what I’d missed, wanting to discover how the magician had shown me the pretty, shiny thing in one hand, while his other hand got in position to yank the rug from beneath my feet. 

“After Twenty Years” is timeless example of subverting reader expectations, written over a century ago—when readers hadn’t been inured to twist endings and didn’t automatically assume one was coming. Even better, Porter accomplished all that in only 1,200 words. That’s all. And I’m not talking about bare-bones, Ernest-Hemmingway-adjectives-be-damned sparse prose either. No, this is 1,200 words of English from freaking 1908, a time period not exactly known for its economy of language: 

“The policeman on the beat moved up the avenue impressively. The impressiveness was habitual and not for show, for spectators were few. The time was barely 10 o’clock at night, but chilly gusts of wind with a taste of rain in them had well nigh depeopled the streets.”

And yet, even with his impressiveness being impressively impressive, Porter does the job so damn well, and in a modicum of pages. Flash fiction at its finest. As an enthralled twelve-year-old, I couldn’t understand exactly how Porter did it, but I believe I do now.

See, in fiction, there’s this constant battle over what’s “most important”—what really makes a story work. And if you ask writers, they usually aren’t shy about expressing their opinions: 

“Novels are all about character. Gimme memorable characters, let me see their arcs. Great novels are born of great characterization.”

“Short stories are all about plot, you fool! Surprise me, show me the twists. Get me from point A to B, but make damn sure it ain’t an easy trip.”

“Plot is a whore! Writing is all about beautiful language!!”

<yes, I actually had a writing teacher say the words “Plot is a whore.”Not making that one up> 

Conventional wisdom is that ALL those things matter . . . and they do, of course. But when it comes to my favorite length—the short short, the flashiest of flash—I don’t believe any of those are the secret ingredient. 

For me (and Porter too, I think), flash fiction is primarily about emotion. And I don’t mean the emotions of the characters in a story—I mean the emotion of the reader. I usually start the writing process not with a particular character, or a specific plot framework, but instead with a simple question: how do I want the reader to feel at the end of this story? 

Excited? Despondent? Surprised?

I focus on that emotion, then generate a blueprint which will build that feeling up, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, all the way to the very end. 

Want devastation? Trap a guy in a hot car beneath the August sun, mount a thermometer on the dash, and watch him hallucinate as that temp just keeps tick tick ticking higher and higher. Trust me, it ain’t gonna end well.

How about breathless? Watch a covert operative race through the streets of Venice, chasing his former lover. If she eludes him, it’s a death sentence for him and everyone he cares about.

The beauty of flash is that it allows the writer to double down on everything—emotion, pace, tension, suspense—in a way that you simply can’t in a 5,000-word short or a 100,000-word novel. In 1,000 words, you can drop the freaking hammer on suspense and keep people riveted to every word, because it’s an emotional sprint. Do it properly and a reader’s blood pressure will spike. Try going nonstop, heart-in-throat-suspense for anything more than ten pages, though, and the only thing that spikes is projectile vomiting and refund requests. 

And to writers (like my beleaguered friend) who whine“but mystery needs more words,” I would respond “Well, what kind of mystery?” 

A cozy, with ten characters, half as many red herrings, and an amateur detective who has to explain how they solved the crime? Or a police procedural, led by a burnt-out cop with anger issues, that plays out over the span of five days?

Yep, the flash format is way too limited to tell that story. But that’s also a very limited definition of the mystery genre. To me, flash fiction isn’t about setting up a mystery for your characters—it’s about giving your readers a mystery. Keeping them in the dark as they struggle to understand what has happened, what’s going to happen, and what the consequences might be.

Instead of giving people a cerebral puzzle that unfolds over the course of twenty or more pages, flash fiction allows you to stuff readers in a dark closet, have the stench of a dead body overwhelm their nostrils, and hear the creak of approaching footsteps. It’s the difference between thinking and feeling a story. Stomp on that gas pedal in paragraph one, and keep it floored until you hit the wall. That’s suspense, and it runs on pure emotion.

It’s a beautiful thing when it works.

And if you manage it juuuuuust right, and you listen really closely, you get to hear the greatest one-word compliment a writer can ever receive.

“Daaaaaaaamn.”

This entry was posted in Fiction, Genre, Guest, Noir, Readers, Story, Suspense, Writers, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Mystery/Suspense and the Beauty of Brevity” (by Trey Dowell)

  1. pauleneturner says:

    Excellent. My friends in the NYC Midnight challenge, who drew mystery, this weekend appreciate the thoughts. I wonder if you’re competing too!

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