Viewpoint Jumps and Pacing in Mysteries

Sat Sep 30 2017

Right now I'm working on a mystery novel for a client, and I found an interesting pacing effect I want to share.

Obviously I'm not going to say anything specific about the client's story, but in broad strokes it's a serial killer mystery in which the sleuth is trying to find the killer before they kill again.

As would be expected, the story is told from the sleuth's point of view, and they do the expected sleuthy things: going places, interviewing potential witnesses, looking for clues, and all that. So far, all's well in mystery land.

Then there's a viewpoint shift, in which we jump to the killer's location and can see what they're up to and what they're plotting.

I understand the writer's objective: heighten drama by using this sneak-peek to raise the sense of danger about what's going on. And it worked. It definitely heightened my sense of urgency that the sleuth should close the case.

The problem comes in what happens after that moment.

Because after that moment, the sleuth carries with more of the same: going places, interviewing potential witnesses, and slowly assembling clues.

From the sleuth's perspective, this makes perfect sense. Why wouldn't they keep doing that? They haven't yet made the big break in the case that would lead directly to the killer. So, this course of action is very character-motivated, just as it should be.

But as a reader, because I know what the killer's up to, I also know that the sleuth is on the wrong track. I know they're not going to make that big break until they doggedly pursue this blind alley to its ultimate--and pointless--end.

The blind alley might remain interesting if I didn't know it was a blind alley. If I was as oblivious to that as the sleuth, then reaching the end of that alley would hit me as a crushing defeat, just like it will hit the sleuth.

But I do know.

This is the danger of giving your reader information that your main character doesn't have: instead of remaining interesting, it feels like the story is just marking time until the sleuth finishes exploring the blind alley, filling up pages with stuff that I know will amount to nothing. And as a reader, it's really hard to stay interested in something you know isn't going to matter.

The POV jump killed the pacing of that whole section of the story.

What to do about it

Now, I'm not saying that the author shouldn't have had the POV jump. It really did work to heighten the sense of danger, and that's a valuable benefit to the novel. The question is, how can we writers keep that benefit without paying the penalty of a dull blind alley?

I see two main ways to do this:

Shorten the alley

If it's a blind alley that the sleuth must logically follow because they don't yet know it's blind, well, bring that point in time forward. Let the sleuth figure it out sooner. Basically, cut the alley down to a much more manageable size, so readers don't get bored with waiting for the sleuth to discover that they must change directions.

I'm not saying eliminate the alley entirely, because there is some dramatic value to be had in watching the hero go down the wrong path. That value lies in readers tensing up and muttering to themselves, "Come on! Figure it out!" The value is in readers rooting for the sleuth to make the right breakthrough.

But if the breakthrough doesn't come soon enough, we can't sustain that emotion. It's like watching baseball: It's easy to root for your team when they're down by two runs in the second inning. But when they're down by 10 runs in the second, ugh. Who can sustain that enthusiasm for seven more innings when the outcome seems so foreordained?

So go ahead and give us the alley. Just make it a short one.

Shuffle the deck

Most stories--and this current client's is no different--have a bunch of plot threads going on. Some relate to the main mystery, some relate to the sleuth's personal life. But whatever they are, they're not the blind alley.

Which means that instead of giving us a long blind alley sequence just because you don't want the sleuth's big breakthrough to come too soon (which would make it feel too easy) you can instead fill up that time with these other plot threads.

Basically, shorten the alley, but stretch out the page-count before the end of the alley comes by interleaving the alley sequence with stuff from other threads. This gives readers plenty of genuinely interesting scenes to read through while still delaying the moment in the story when the big breakthrough comes.