Friday, January 8, 2010

Tact in Mystery Writing, by Robert Sutherland

Please join me with a warm welcome for Robert Sutherland, esteemed author of THE FARRINGFORD CADENZA (2007), STICKLEWORT AND FEVERFEW (1980), LANGUAGE AND LEWIS CARROLL (1970)

Tact in Mystery Writing

© Robert D. Sutherland, 2010

            I’m pleased to have the opportunity of contributing some thoughts to MURDER BY 4. In this essay I’d like to expand on a subject I dealt with briefly in Part 9 of my ten-part essay on “The Importance of Suspense”: ( There, while discussing the limitations of story-telling in the third-person omniscient point of view, I said that in order to write well and hook readers, authors must develop a sense of Tact. Tact is knowing how not to say too much, knowing when you’ve said enough, knowing when to quit, and having the discipline to do so; it’s trusting your readers and knowing how to leave it up to them to “fill in the blanks” and draw their own conclusions. This allows readers to participate in the act of creation and engage with the story interactively, not merely as onlookers.

            By an author’s “saying too much” I don’t simply mean wordiness—though of course using more words than necessary can weaken a narrative and fatigue the reader. I’m sure you’ve read things that seemed to go on forever; novels, for example, that would have been greatly strengthened if cut by a third. Wordiness arises more from a failure of self-awareness and discipline than from a lack of tact; it’s caused by foggy thinking, inattention, self-indulgence, gaseous woolgathering, digression, wheel-spinning, lack of planning, and pointless repetition. It impacts and undermines the three pillars of effective story-telling—focus, economy, and pacing. Fortunately, authors can eliminate wordiness by keeping their wits about them, thinking ahead, and pruning out the deadwood through careful self-editing and rewriting. Every word remaining in the finished text should be there for a reason.

            As it pertains to Tact, the author’s “saying too much” goes far beyond wordiness: it has to do with the substance of what’s said, with information, content, and making judgments and drawing conclusions for readers, telling them what they should think or feel. Tact frequently resides in what is not said. A humorous example of this principle is found in a poem by Lewis Carroll in ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND:
                   “I passed by his garden, and marked, with one eye,
                   How the Owl and the Panther were sharing a pie:
                   The Panther took pie-crust, and gravy, and meat,
                   While the Owl had the dish as its share of the treat.
                   When the pie was all finished, the Owl, as a boon,
                   Was kindly permitted to pocket the spoon:
                   While the Panther received knife and fork with a growl,
                    And concluded the banquet by——“

How much more effective and memorable this is than if Carroll had filled in the blank with the missing words! How flat if he had supplied them! I use this as an illustration of the principle “knowing when you’ve said enough, and knowing when to quit.” Of course authors don’t have to literally leave words out or present readers with a blank to be filled in: they can present information through intimation and rely upon readers’ powers of inference to “get the message.”

             Here’s a rather melodramatic example of my own devising: “He was reluctant, but Sheila had insisted that he go in order to defend her honor and his own. She said that if he didn’t, she could no longer respect him as a man. With satisfaction she watched his carriage depart. Oh, she knew that duels were dangerous, their outcomes uncertain. But Edward was an excellent shot, and Tyler had to pay for having insulted her. When the seconds returned with the news that Edward had been killed, she could hardly believe what they were saying. Edward dead? O God! And it was all her fault! Now she saw the truth: she was to blame! in her pride she’d caused his death. She was a murderer!” or, alternatively, and not much better: “It was as though she herself had pulled the trigger!” Well, the reader knows it too, and would have known it even if the author hadn’t made her explain it so noisily. I remember my high school English teacher saying that this was the “True Confessions style”.  It leaves nothing to inference or imagination. It draws conclusions for readers and tells them what to think and feel.  It shows that the author doesn’t trust readers to “get it” for themselves. Here is a more tactful rendering:  “When the seconds returned with the news that Edward had been killed, she sat stunned, hardly able to believe what they were saying. Then she laid her head in her arms on the great oak table, and began sobbing uncontrollably.” Engaged readers, having been prepared by the preceding exposition, will say at this point: “Well, it was her own fault. Her pride sent Edward out to be killed. She’s no better than a murderer!” or, alternatively, “She might as well have pulled the trigger herself.”  But it’s the readers saying it, not the author.  The author’s knowing when to stop has allowed the readers to supply the conclusion and thus participate in the narrative.
            Tact can also be achieved through the use of metaphor, allowing an appropriate symbolic image to substitute for naming the thing itself. In addition to leaving something for the reader to do, the use of metaphor avoids bald statement and supplies an alternative way for the reader to conceive the thing it stands for; and, as a bonus, it provides a pictorial or sensory icon which has its own emotional connotations. Here’s an example:  at the end of Chapter IX in Hemingway’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS, the wounded protagonist is placed in an ambulance with other wounded. One of these is in a canvas stretcher above him, and as the ambulance starts up a hill in the dark, the protagonist feels “something” dripping on him, slow at first, then pattering into a stream. He tries to move so the stream doesn’t fall on him, but cannot escape it. “Where it had run down under my shirt it was warm and sticky.” He tells the ambulance driver that the man above him has had a hemorrhage, but the driver can’t stop. “After a while the stream from the stretcher above lessened and started to drip again.” He tells the driver he thinks the man is dead. And, as they continue driving in the dark, “The drops fell very slowly as they fall from an icicle after the sun has gone.” The word ‘blood’ has not been mentioned once. And the horror is all the greater for it. This is Tact. The brilliant use of the icicle metaphor definitively drives home the finality of it all.

            In order to exercise Tact effectively in mystery stories (as in all narratives), authors must trust their readers’ attentiveness, intelligence, and good will. It’s the authors’ responsibility to provide the information necessary to enable readers to make judgments and draw conclusions, to drop useful hints, plant germane clues, and set the stage for fruitful speculation. If authors have done their work well, that’s where their responsibility ends and the reader’s begins.

            All serious writing involves interaction between writer and reader—not only by the sharing of portions of two life-times, but through a covenant between the two which states on the reader’s side, “I will give you my attention if you do not waste my time”; on the writer’s, “I will give you my best if you promise to give me yours”. A mutual agreement, which the reader can terminate at any time by closing the book.
            It seems to me that mystery stories, by their very nature, establish a bond between authors and readers that goes beyond the interactions of some other types of fiction—an intimacy of engagement akin to that of a friendly (but perhaps adversarial) partnership. Well-crafted mystery stories require the reader’s close attention. They are not fluff or superficial entertainments to be read between subway stops. They take work on the reader’s part. If there is art in being a skillful writer, there is also art in being an effective reader. Reading well is work—hopefully, work that is pleasurable.

       The mystery story is fundamentally a Quest—for truth, for knowing what actually happened, for motive, for Sam Spade’s dingus or Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, for the identity of the murderer, etc. Typically it is also a Puzzle (perhaps composed of subordinate puzzles and subsidiary problems requiring solution). To enjoy the quest and the puzzles is the mystery reader’s aim. The author’s aim is to provide readers with these enjoyments. To do this, authors must employ Tact to engage readers in continuous participation. They must know how not to say too much, know when they’ve said enough, know when to quit, and have the discipline to do so. This will promote economy and regulate pacing, create pungent and effective dialogue, and minimize lengthy descriptions. Tact will produce a cumulative effect that will serve to insure that the reader’s work is pleasurable.


Robert D. Sutherland taught courses in Linguistics and Creative Writing at Illinois State University in Normal, Illinois until his retirement in 1992. He particularly enjoyed teaching Descriptive Linguistics, History of the English Language, Semantic Theory, and Old English. In 1977, he and his co-editor James R. Scrimgeour founded Pikestaff Publications, a not-for-profit literary press that published The Pikestaff Forum, a literary magazine, until 1996. He continues serving as editor at The Pikestaff Press, which publishes books of poetry and prose fiction. In 2009 he began a blog for writers and readers of mysteries. He and his wife Marilyn have traveled widely, reared two sons to adulthood, and worked to promote peace, social justice, and preservation of the natural environment. His publications include a scholarly book, LANGUAGE AND LEWIS CARROLL; a novel, STICKLEWORTAND FEVERFEW (containing 74 of his pencil illustrations), which received the 1981 Friends of American Writers Juvenile Book Merit Award for author/illustrator; a second novel, THE FARRINGFORD CADENZA; short fiction, poems, and essays on literature, education, and publishing. His interests include classical music, the nature of metaphor, reading, travel, film noir, and the comparative study of mythologies.

Books by Robert D. Sutherland:
             LANGUAGE AND LEWIS CARROLL, Janua Linguarum, Series Maior, 26 (Mouton DeGruyter, 1970). 245pp.  A scholarly work; currently in print.

             STICKLEWORT AND FEVERFEW.  A novel for children, adolescents, and  adults, with 74 illustrations by the author.  (The Pikestaff Press, 1980). 355pp. Prize: Received the 1981 FRIENDS OF AMERICAN WRITERS JUVENILE BOOK MERIT AWARD for author/illustrator.
            THE FARRINGFORD CADENZA. A NOVEL (The Pikestaff Press, 2007). 523 pp.

Personal web site:

Pikestaff Press web site:


s.w. vaughn said...

Eating the owl!

Am I right? :-)

Your advice on tact is great - and it's a hard thing to master, but makes for excellent stories when an author has it down.

Thanks for this!

Vergil said...

Dear s.w.,
"Eating the owl" is a reasonable inference. (It's what I came up with, too. And it's probably what Carroll intended--though with Carroll, there's always that little bit of sardine down in the corner of the can that you can't get out.)

Thanks for the kind words about "Tact."

Bob Sutherland

Aaron Paul Lazar said...


I loved this sentence, "...wordiness is caused by foggy thinking, inattention, self-indulgence, gaseous woolgathering, digression, wheel-spinning, lack of planning, and pointless repetition." Brilliant! And so true! I'm halfway through reading The Farringford Cadenza, and am loving it. Your writing reminds me of some of the English masters of mystery - and I'm savoring each page!

kanishk said...

it's a hard thing to master, but makes for excellent stories when an author has it down.

Work from home India