“Hearing shouts, the overweight cop came running, doughnut in hand, as the victim’s head exploded like a ripe tomato.”
1. “I’ll be the bad cop, you be the good cop.” Yawn. That’s about as tired and overused a cliché as giving the cop a box of doughnuts. Other over-the-top examples: car chases, sleazy defense lawyers, and the pathologist findings that neatly wrap up a plot.
2. “Johnny, the third bad guy on the scene, shot Sally, the shorter SWAT team member in the kneecap with his Beretta right before he was fatally shot in the heart by Tony, the rival gang leader.” Shoot ‘em ups can be dramatic and add a certain excitement to a story. After all, Raymond Chandler’s advice to crime writers still rings true – “If your plot is flagging, have a man come in with a gun.” But throw in more than two characters and readers will either be lost or worse yet, give up.
3. Ever since the episode of CSI where the vulture dropped an eyeball into a martini glass like an overripe olive, I’ve been wary of food/body analogies. Nobody’s head explodes like a watermelon, and it’s bad writing to say it does.
4. It’s not the plot that carries the story, it’s the people. The story won’t matter if we don’t care about the characters. Janet Evanovich’s stories of Stephanie Plum, bounty hunter, would fall flat without Stephanie’s meddling parents, loopy grandmother, chintzy cousin Vinnie, and dashing detective Joe Morelli. Those secondary characters are not only fun, but they show different sides of Stephanie. On its own, the plot is abstract; it requires the characters to make it real and make it matter to the reader. The stakes of the plot must matter to the characters in order for us to care as readers.
5. “Hint, hint, wink, wink. PSSSSTT…THIS IS THE RED HERRING!” Readers can tell when they’re being sold a red herring, an obvious attempt to divert attention from the “real” killer. Trust your readers to be sophisticated enough to think about more than one thing at a time and to seriously consider multiple possibilities throughout your story. Nobody wants to read a book where they can guess the ending by the fourth chapter.
6. Only use ridiculous plotlines and situations if you can pull it off. Characters around Stephanie Plum can be goofy because humor is a critical part of the series. Cat detectives and vampires may seem absurd, but once the reader accepts the premise, there still must be certain boundaries in play. For example, the cat may solve crimes, but the cat doesn’t fly.
We’ve all read books where the murder weapon was a statue made to slide off its base with an application of honey, so that it fell directly upon the victim, who happened to be standing on exactly the right spot at exactly the right time. Plots that rely on amazing acts of coincidence insult your reader.
This guest post was contributed by Angie Best-Boss, an award-winning writer and author who has written extensively on helping students find the right psychology degree.
Angie can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org