November 2, 2010
Start with the body
I love reading murder mysteries. There are many types of mysteries but for our purposes today let’s divide them into two categories: those that start with the body and those that don’t.
I’m writing this entry at one of my favorite cafe’s. It’s the type of coffee shop where we still order our “for here” cups in small, medium, and large. Eyebrows are raised if you try to order a grande. You are immediately identified as being a regular at, well, you know.
My Mac Book Pro is beginning to run low on power and so I reach into my bag and pull out my once-white power cord. I shake it to unwind it and reach over to ask the woman at the next table if she would mind plugging it into the extension cord that is under her table.
“Excuse me,” I say loudly enough that even with her back to me she can’t help but hearing.
She doesn’t hear me. I notice she’s slumped forward with her head touching her laptop keyboard. I don’t want to wake her, but it certainly wouldn’t be right to reach under her to plug in my laptop. I walk around to the front of her and can see immediately that she’s not sleeping. I look for the manager trying to picture the person who was seated facing this woman, facing me, not ten minutes ago.
Not a very good start to a mystery, but then again I’m not a mystery writer. I write tech books. I teach people who to program computers and iPhones and iPads. I like to start with a body too.
I hate mysteries that begin with our hero waking up to a ringing phone. There’s a brief conversation with way too much boring exposition packed into the first three pages. You know the type where the hero explains he slept in late because he was at the home of so-and-so who is the brother-in-law of someone else who used to run the coffee shop at the corner of First and Vermont before being run out of business by the competing coffee house being secretly run by …
Ugggh. If only we were done. In these type of books we aren’t though. Next the hero pauses in front of the mirror and notices something or other about his physical appearance to give us a description that is unrealistic and would be narcissistic if only they hadn’t taken time out to notice a fault here or there.
At this point I’m begging for the body to turn up and kind of hoping that it will be this narrator that we find face down on the kitchen floor in the next chapter.
No matter what kind of book you’re writing you need to hook the reader. They have to care about what your saying and they need to want you to tell them more.
Who was this person that was sitting at the dead woman’s table? Was the woman dead when this person left? Who is the dead woman?
You as the author need to have all of those details worked out before we discover the woman is dead, but you don’t need to tell me all of the details in the order that they happened. So long as you’re not cheating me by holding something back, I want you to tell them to me in the order that engages me.
This is as true if I am explaining how delegates work in Objective-C in iPhone coding as it is in this fake mystery.
Start with the body. Get me to see the need for delegates before you tell me how they work. Show me how hard the world is without them and make me consider on my own that there must be a better solution. Then when you tell it to me I will understand the need for it, welcome it, and have a good understanding that the way it was implemented is the way that makes sense.
It’s the age old way in music, theatre, literature. Give me tension then give me resolution.