© Leslie Wheeler 2010 all rights reserved
Arrive late, leave early? How rude! In real life it is considered the height of bad manners to arrive late at a party and leave early. Emily Post and her successors in the etiquette business would throw up their hands in horror. But this is one of the best writing tips I’ve ever received, especially when crafting a mystery.
“Arrive late, leave early” was also much needed advice, because I came to mystery writing from the long-winded school of fiction. Think Dickens’ novels and other lengthy tomes by Victorian authors that Henry James, no slouch himself with regard to word count, called “big baggy books.” I had even written one myself—an 800-page historical novel long on incident but short on plot that still fills a suitcase in my closet.
Eventually, I got the message: If my critique group found the scene tedious, so would the agents and editors I hoped to attract. I began using the delete key more frequently. Out went the long drive to the party, with its detailed descriptions of geography and the weather, and a lengthy conversation between Miranda and her niece about the people Miranda is about to meet. Instead, Miranda arrives when the party is well underway, and gets to know the various guests by interacting with them in small groups, or one at a time. I also have a key player arrive even later than Miranda to delay their meeting and generate suspense about whether he’s coming at all. And, instead of describing everything that happens at the party, I focus on the highlights, and use a space break to cut from one important moment to the next. Needless to say, the revised scene does not end with long, drawn-out good-byes on the part of everyone present. Rather, one character whispers to another, “I could just kill him!” and we leapfrog to the next chapter.
Of course, “arrive late, leave early,” isn’t simply good advice for party scenes, but for all scenes. How many times have you been stuck in traffic and wished you could be airlifted to wherever you wanted and needed to be? It’s the same with readers. Some are content to skip the boring parts and move on to where the story picks up again, but others are likely to get bogged down and put the book aside. They need to be airlifted into the middle of each scene, and airlifted out again before their attention wanders. For this reason, I often begin a scene with a bit of dialogue or a physical action to give the reader the sense of “walking in” on characters having a private conversation or catching them in the act of doing something that maybe they shouldn’t. I also try to end each scene, leaving the reader up in the air, wondering what will happen next and eager to turn the page to find out. I don’t always succeed. Sometimes, I’ll write a scene and realize I need to cut the first ten sentences and the last two to achieve the effect I want.
Fast-forward a few years to the time I began the third book in my series, MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT, due out in October, 2010. By then, the ALLE advice had become so ingrained that I no longer faced the prospect of writing a party scene with dread. I even figured out a way to incorporate into the scene the discomfort I and, I assume, others would feel in real life if we arrived late and left a party early.
In the novel, a good friend of Miranda’s has an off-stage exchange with her older brother. It upsets her so much that she goes into hiding just before the start of a party she and her boyfriend are hosting, so that her family and friends can get to know him better. While waiting for her friend to reappear, Miranda observes the boyfriend setting up for the party. He keeps glancing in her direction, obviously wondering where his girlfriend is. Time passes and the girlfriend’s family arrives, but is reluctant to go to the party without her. They wait and wait and Miranda feels “awkward in the extreme.” Finally, she persuades her friend to come out of seclusion and they all go to the party.
In the course of the party (broken up into two chapters), the awkwardness most of the guests feel increases until it comes to a head with the surprise announcement that the host and hostess are engaged. After a half-hearted toast, the hostess’s disapproving family departs abruptly. Miranda stays a while longer out of loyalty to her friend, but the tension is such that she soon makes tracks herself.
I hope others find this “arrive late, leave early” tip as useful as I have. Many thanks to the MB4 team for having me as a guest on your blog.
About the author:
An award-winning author of books about American history and biographies, Leslie Wheeler now writes the Miranda Lewis “living history” mystery series. Titles include: MURDER AT PLIMOTH PLANTATION, MURDER AT GETTYSBURG, and most recently, MURDER AT SPOUTERS POINT. She is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, serving as Speakers Bureau coordinator for the New England chapter. She has also begun a new career as a contributing editor of Level Best Books, which publishes annual anthologies of short crime fiction by New England authors. Leslie divides her time between Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Berkshires.