What makes a good M/T/S story?

I’ve started reading a lot of mystery/thriller/suspense books lately, mostly the mystery/suspense variety, to see how other authors handle things like plot development, character development, dialogue, and so forth. And I’ve tried to read more than one book by each author to make sure I’m not drawing conclusions about them from just a single sample.

Authors whose books I like: Karin Slaughter, Michael Connelly.

Authors whose books don’t grab me: Karen Rose, James Patterson.

Jury’s-still-out authors (because I’ve only read one book by each): Harlan Coben, Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovitch.

What follows is a very personal view, so please take it with a grain of salt.

What do I like about Slaughter and Connelly, less so the others? Well, I like their characters. On a personal level, they’re interesting to me. They’re not one-dimensional but are more complex. They have emotions and emotional reactions that seem real. They can be stubborn and willful but also kind and generous. They have personal vulnerabilities that they handle the way real people would handle them.

This is true especially with Slaughter’s Will Trent series (I really like Will Trent!) and Connelly’s Harry Bosch series. I’m reading the sixth book in the Bosch series right now (Angel’s Flight) and am not sure I’ll be able to finish it because Harry is going through such a difficult time in his personal life that it’s almost raw. It’s painful sometimes to read. (I have to keep telling myself that he’s just a fictional character.)

I also like the timing and pace of Slaughter and Connelly. The story lines generally unfold over the course of a week and are reasonably realistic–not completely so, but reasonably so. (That’s all I ask in detective fiction: that it be reasonably realistic.) One can imagine the characters doing what they do in the time that’s allotted.

Slaughter and Connelly also give the reader just enough clues to figure out what’s happening. In other words, there are no “gotcha!” moments at the end, where key information was withheld and a surprise killer emerges. When I finish one of their books and think back over the story, I realize that, yep, the clues were there. I may not have picked up on them (I read too fast sometimes), but they were there.

And, finally, they write in the third person. For some reason, I find third-person stories to be more engaging, to draw me in more, than first-person narratives. Maybe it’s because third person means that things will emerge about the characters that the characters don’t necessarily want to be revealed. Their weaknesses and flaws will come out, and their version of events won’t necessarily be the one to be told. In first-person stories, though, I always wonder how much the narrator/main character is withholding information from me, wonder what’s going on that they don’t want me to know about. (And, often, they are holding back.)

Well, back to work now. We’ll see if I finish Angel’s Flight or not. I may just read a little at a time and stretch it out a bit. And I’ll read another book by the authors on the “jury’s-still-out” list to give them another shot. (I’m not optimistic, to be honest, but I’ll give them another try.)

Which books in this genre do you like?

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2 Comments

Filed under On Writing

2 responses to “What makes a good M/T/S story?

  1. I’m curious to know why you rejected Karen Rose and James Patterson. I’ve not read any of their books but I’m intrigued to know what put you off.

    • Hi Emmy —

      Let me start by saying that if I were at a beach house and found a book by Karen Rose, I’d still read it. James Patterson, probably not. Now, obviously a lot of people don’t share this view, since both are best-selling authors. Their books do appeal to lots of readers!

      There were several things that I found less appealing. Again, these are just my personal tastes. First, the plot lines move so fast that they’re pretty improbable and sometimes physically impossible. One of the Karen Rose books I read took place in Baltimore, but the characters were whipping around the city super fast, going out to the Eastern Shore, then zooming back up, all with miraculously no bad traffic at all and getting places faster than is humanly possible. And the killers in all the books were moving at similarly fast speeds. I found myself wondering how exactly they had time to plan out their murders, since they seemed to get home from killing one person and then scooted off right away to get the next victim.

      I’m also a little dubious about books where the male and female main characters meet and right away, sometimes within 24 hours, are already having sex, especially since there’s no real character development to lead up to that. And sometimes the sex seems, ahem, a little physically improbable, too. (I will not elaborate on that point!)

      I tend to like books where the characters reveal things about themselves during the course of the book, but they do it by what they say or what they do or the choices they make. In writing circles, there’s an adage: Show, don’t tell. In other words, don’t tell the reader that a character is angry; show the reader by having the character throw down his car keys or smack the steering wheel of her car with her hand. It adds more depth to the story. With these authors, there was a bit more telling and less showing.

      Does this help?

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