Revelatory Sequencing

This article, from editor Alicia Rasley, originally appeared on Edittorrent on 7/27/09. In it, she explains how pacing and your choice of what to reveal, and when, can strengthen or weaken your fiction writing.

I’m reading a mystery where the victim is widely disliked, so there are lots of suspects. (I’m summarizing and paraphrasing here, but you’ll get the point.)

So the detective has just arrived at the scene and has said he’ll go tell the new widow that her husband is dead. He thinks that her reaction could tell him something.

The woman sees that he’s a policeman and stands up and says in exasperation, "I hope you’re not here to tell me my son has been arrested."
He says, "I have some bad news. Your husband has been murdered."

Next line:

She reacted with shock but not sorrow, and Yanif saw clearly that she didn’t love her husband. Could she have murdered him? He didn’t know. He just knew she wasn’t mourning his death.

Okay. We know she has a husband, the victim.
We know now that she has a son.

Now this is a big moment in the plot. The detective tells the widow, and she reacts in a way that puts her right at the top of the suspect list.

But I think the scene could have been made more emotional, more fun, with a bit of a diversion here. Let’s say the woman rises and says with exasperation, "I hope you’re not here to tell me my son has been arrested."
The detective — craft the dialogue carefully here, because my point is… draw it out. Take your time. Take it slow.
The detective replied, "No. But I have some bad news–"
And then he pauses.

Maybe you want him to draw a breath here. Maybe he’s pausing so that he can see her reaction to the news. But when he pauses, instead of waiting, the widow rushes in.

"No! Not my son! He’s not–"
And the detective says hastily, "No, no, not your son. It’s your husband. He’s been murdered."

So she drops into her chair, hand on her throat, and whispers, "Oh, thank God. I thought you were going to tell me– but he’s all right. Philip. My son. He’s all right, you say?"

And the detective then has to say again, "Yes, ma’am. This isn’t about your son. This is about your husband. He has been–"

"Murdered, yes, you said. But Philip is all right– Thank you."
"But your husband–"
She took a deep breath. "Yes. Walter. Murdered. Yes. Please tell me where, and when."

What’s the difference? Well, first, we learn something about this woman. She loves her son. She doesn’t love her husband, but that’s not because she’s incapable of loving. She’s no sociopath.

Read the rest of the article on Edittorrent.

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