Mistakes Might Mean Murder

Earlier this month I wrote about mistakes didn’t necessarily lead to murder in stories. The young woman dashing through the dark alley, alone, might make it to the other side without harm, right? Mistakes create many different and interesting pace changes, ramp the tension up or down, and otherwise move things along quite nicely.

However, mistakes might mean murder–and not the good kind. Sometimes a writer throws in a mistake that’s so unbelievable, so unreasonable, that I just can’t go along. As a reader, I can think of only two books that were so awful or hard to read that I quit without finishing. Perhaps I have a touch of OCD, but if I start reading, I have to finish reading (I will admit to taking some lengthy breaks during the process). But, finishing the book doesn’t mean enjoying the story in some cases.

What makes a mistake believable for me? It’s a package deal. My willingness as a reader to suspend my disbelief depends on the writer building a world where a character makes a mistake that is logical for the character, in a particular situation. Would a real person make the mistake? It doesn’t matter to me as a reader, as long as the mistakes is, well, in character for that character. The outcomes or influences of the mistake need to weave through the rest of the story, too. Does the protagonist become more insightful/fearful/adventurous after making the mistake? Is his/her resolve to pursue resolution strengthened/weakened? The mistake can be pretty crazy, as defined by reader me, if it’s well-designed as part of the story.

Are there any types of mistakes in stories that are absolute deal-breakers for you as reader? How about writing them–do you find them fun or challenging to write?

(Confession: it’s really hard for me to make my protag do something foolish, even if I know it’s right for the story–can’t she be perfect?!? No, no she can’t.)

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Author: Pamela A. Oberg

Pamela is a portfolio manager at an educational assessment company by day, writer by night. Founder of Writers on Words (a discussion and critique group), Pamela enjoys spinning tales of murder and mayhem, with an occasional foray into the world of the paranormal.

8 thoughts on “Mistakes Might Mean Murder”

  1. I’m really put off by Too Stupid To Live mistakes. I’ve been docked for that in the past, but when I read them I really cringe. We were just talking about this in my critique group yesterday. A character makes a mistake – but I can forgive her for it if it’s the kind of mistake that character would make. Mistakes that are acceptable to me are decisions made on bad facts (i.e., someone has lied or misled a character so he/she makes a mistake) or a mistake that is consistent with the character’s personality (I can forgive a character making a stubborn mistake if that character has been stubborn in the past, especially if it relates to something she values deeply).

  2. Good questions, Pamela! This seems key to me: “in character for that character.”

    CS, I love it when I didn’t see something coming, too! Viva la twist!

  3. Mistakes are great ways to build tension and show that a character isn’t perfect. The audience has to believe that the mistake came from a believable place and buys into the motivation. I try to have my protagonist–the first female police detective in Acapulco–make a few mistakes to keep her vulnerable and prevent a plot from being too linear. For example, she is in a relationship with a wealthy gringo and mistakenly accused him of cheating out of a sense of inferiority. Then there was the time she made a deal with a crooked politician and believed he’d killed someone because of what she’d asked him to do. At that point, (drama, drama) she heartily regretted the deal–and so did her partner. BTW, BIGGER mistake not telling the partner beforehand.

  4. The key is suspension of disbelief, as you said. Carmen nailed it about mistakes growing bigger!

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