Hello Mysteristas readers! Two weeks ago we rolled out the new “Ask Peggy” feature of the blog, and we already have our first question!
It comes to us from Ellen Byron, who is the author of the fab Cajun Country mysteries. (If you need time to pop on over to your favorite retailer and pick them up, don’t worry. I’ll wait.).
You’re back. Good. So Ellen asks:
I’ve got a question for you, Peggy. I’m breaking the story for my next book and I’m at the penultimate scene where my amateur sleuth protag has figured out who the murderer must be. (“Scene” – can you tell what I usually write?) It’s that chapter where the protag usually ends up in peril, high tension and all that. But I’m tired of doing it that way. I’m looking for an alternate to her being in peril – I already have a scene where her friend is, but with a false suspect. I was thinking this particular killer could end his own life – but why would she, an amateur protag, end up there, with or without the police? And where’s the tension?
Thoughts, Peggy Pixel?
Ellen, you may have had a breakthrough since then, but I’m gonna answer this anyway because a) I can, and b) someone else might wonder the same thing.
I completely agree with you on the need to change things up. Always resorting to “protagonist is in danger and must escape the villain” can start to feel kind of check-boxy. At the same time, this is your climax–or pretty darn close–so it needs to pack a punch.
Here are some thoughts.
An experienced author like yourself knows this to be true: plot has to serve characters, not the other way around. Force your characters to do something not true to who they are and the story won’t work. (Also, if you have stubborn characters, they may fight with you, but that’s a post for another day). Instead of forcing a reason for your protagonist to be on scene during your villain’s suicide attempt without police, is there a location where both characters would logically have a reason to be? Obviously, this also needs to be a location compatible with an attempted suicide (after all, both characters would logically be at a grocery store, but not too many suicides are attempted in the dairy aisle). So one solution is to examine your story for a shared location where both characters would be.
You don’t say why your amateur sleuth protagonist got involved in this case in the first place. But during the course of that investigation, it’s going to become likely that your protagonist goes someplace maybe she wouldn’t normally go because she has to in order to continue her sleuthing. One of those places could become your suicide location (for example, maybe she finds a note, goes to the place to follow up, and the villain is here–just spitballing).
Here’s another idea. You could use a relatively public space, like a park. The sleuth is there and sees the villain preparing to “end it all.” Then she has to act, not only because not only does she feel morally obligated to save the villain’s life, she needs to protect any innocent bystanders.
Or try this. Your protagonist wouldn’t normally go to this place. However, during her investigation she uncovers the identity of the killer. She goes to this location intended to confront him (or her), maybe by calling the police. But when she arrives (ahead of the cops, natch) the villain is preparing to “end it all.” Thus instead of confronting and defeating him, your protagonist has to save him (you know, in addition to solving the murder).
Finally, although the suicide angle offers so interesting possibilities, what if it’s the threat of another death completely? Your protagonist could unearth information where she learns another character is in peril. She rushes to the rescue and in the process confronts the villain (and saves the next victim).
Anyways, those are my thoughts. Whatever you choose, thanks for asking and I can’t wait to read the finished book!