This week’s blog, about plausibility in writing,is by Ellen Larson, editor of the Poisoned Pencil, which publishes mystery books for teens
Check out the Poisoned Pencil authors and browse our good books for teens to see Ellen’s writing theories at work.
Before I signed on as the editor of the Poisoned Pencil, I spent many years working as a freelance substantive editor, specializing in mystery fiction. In those days cell phones were proliferating, but not everyone had one. In particular, writers, sitting at their desks crafting their stories, did not seem to have them. At least they did not put them in their books. Maybe they were too old; maybe they saw the pitfalls….
As cell phone use became endemic, however, they began appearing in the books I was editing. They were useful. A sleuth could get information from anywhere; give instructions; conduct interviews. Lovely.
“What a great asset to detection!” thinks the reader. “What would Sherlock Holmes do with a cell phone!” But the mystery writer thinks, “Hokey smokes! If my sleuth has the ability to call the cops, and they do the investigating, half my plot is down the toilet!”
I watched as cell phones, once introduced, began to fail with astounding regularity in the MSS I read. “Out of network” and “No bars” were the most popular. Phones that worked one minute were useless the next. Sleuths from sea to shining sea were suddenly unable to remember to charge their phones. Cell phones were left in cars, in hotel rooms, and dropped from windows. All just when the amateur sleuth might most be expected to need them. What a coincidence. And how very convenient for the writer.
The Plausibility Factor
One of the tenets of good mystery fiction (any good fiction) is that it has to be plausible. By which I mean that your readers have a right to expect your characters to act as most people are thought to act when faced with certain fundamental situations. For example, calling for help when someone pop off a gunshot in your direction—the sort of thing that happens in mystery novels quite often.
Thus was born one of my most frequent comments, in steady use to this day. Some variation on: “Coincidence; it is a cliché to suddenly be out of network/no charge exactly when it is so convenient for the author. Ninety-nine percent of people would call the cops. No good reason why X doesn’t do so.”
Back when I was working for the client, I had many a lengthy discussion about how to ditch the damned cell phone without being too obvious. Was it a convention that readers would simply wink at? It was, of course, impossible to avoid the label of coincidence, but wasn’t it possible to be clever about it? Or at least subtle?
What about Mystery Books for Teens?
Since I’ve worked for the Poisoned Pencil, I believe more strongly than ever in the importance of plausibility, and in plots that unfold with a certain inevitability. Plots that don’t require the reader to keep one eye closed. The joy of reading a book that flows freely, that has character who stay in character, that surprises with the unexpected is unmatched. I’m just not interested in shortcuts or in plotting by coincidence.
But still, the book must be plotted. So what’s a writer to do when she gets to that moment in the book when threat rises and 99 percent of the people on the planet would call for help? I’ll let you in on a secret:
Have your sleuth call the cops. Call 911.
Let the world turn the way it is accustomed to turn. Work with it. Find another way to plot your book. It will be the better for it.