Don't start with the body
November 3, 2010
“Wait a minute,” you say, “didn’t you just tell us yesterday to start with the body?”
I did. But there are no rules that can’t be broken—so long as you understand why you are breaking the rules and the implications of doing so.
I’m writing today on my iPad. The woman at the next table can’t stop looking my way. If I were younger and thinner I might think she was looking at me. If I were single I might consider doing something about it.
“Excuse me,” she says, waking me from my daydream, “how do you like writing on your iPad?”
“I’m getting better,” I say. “At first it was a bit awkward.”
“So you can type fast enough?” she asks.
“Mostly. I tried the external keyboard but I’d rather just type on the screen.”
She nods. I reach for my cup of coffee and absent-mindedly take a sip. It’s cold and the cup is nearly empty. I stand and ask her if she’d like a refill as well. She nods again. I pick up her cup on the way to the counter and get us both refills. Fred hardly looks at me as he pours two refills. Small. Black. Half the price of the first cup. I look at it as the rent I pay for working here for the next hour.
I pause on the way back to my table to set her cup down. She doesn’t nod. She’s not even in her chair. Maybe she’s gone off to the bathroom. No. She’s left her computer.
Fred shouts and points to my left. I instantly know that I’m two for two in my last two blog posts. I’ve killed off two people at the table next to me in two days.
Again, I’m not a mystery writer. A real mystery writer would have handled that much better. But I am a mystery reader and what I’ve learned from others has made me a better writer of non-fiction.
If you don’t lead with the body, get me interested in either the person who is about to be the body, or in the person who is about to find the body, or in the person who is about to be accused of creating the body, or in the person who is tasked with solving the crime. Get me involved and interested and then produce the body.
Dick Francis tends to give me a body or at least some crime worth wondering about in the first two pages. Not always, but often.
I just reread Rex Stout’s short mystery “Black Orchids”. No one dies until almost half way into the book but we like the journey so much and we’re certain someone will die before too long that we ride along with Archie and Wolf.
Update: It turns out I was wrong. I remembered that a lot had happened before we discovered the body in “Black Orchids” but it didn’t seem as if it was half way into the book so I went back and scanned for the body. Sure enough, a lot had happened in the first 17 pages of this 100 page mystery. The murder happens on page 17 without the murderer knowing and the body is discovered on page 18. I won’t give away more than that because this really is worth reading./Update
In Lawrence Block’s burglar series we don’t generally find a corpse until about a third of the way in but we listen as Bernie figures out what his next robbery will be knowing that whether or not the robbery is successful, he will surely find a dead body in the middle of the caper.
Here’s the but and it’s a big one. *
Stout, Francis, and Block know exactly what their readers are joining them for and in their books the dead body and the mystery that surrounds it is just part of the story. So they are leading with the body. Their body just isn’t, you know, the body.
In your book, what’s the body? You don’t have to lead with it, but there has to be a very good reason for everything you put between your audience and the body. Are you setting a scene? Introducing characters? Painting a quick picture of life as normal?
Do it as quickly as possible but no quicker. Then show me the body.
Between now and tomorrow, figure out what the body is in your story and figure out where it belongs.
* “He said ‘big butt’”
“No he didn’t.”
“That’s an awfully childish aside.”
“That’s why it’s way down here in the comments.”