I was reminded this week of an important aspect of writing that I’m starting to think I’ve sorta let fall by the wayside: there are no accidents in a well-written story.
Let me explain: I’m most of the way through The Kill Clause by Gregg Hurwitz. The first novel of his that I read was The Crime Writer, which is about a crime writer who gets accused of killing his ex-girlfriend. It’s interesting, especially from a writer’s POV, because he decides to deal with the case by writing it as a novel. There are a few passages that look like raw manuscript, with his editor’s comments penciled in. It’s also interesting in that it examines the crime novel itself, and how some cops view crime writers as glorifying crime and adding to the problem. Objectively speaking, I’d have to say guilty as charged.
The Kill Clause is an earlier book, the first in a series about deputy US marshal Tim Rackley. Tim’s daughter is killed and raped, and the man who did it gets away with it. Why? Well, Tim has friends in the LE community, and cops take care of their own. He’s offered the chance to take out the culprit. No official arrest, none of that, by the cops who catch the guy. He almost does, but backs out.
So far, so good.
But then he’s approached by a man who’s working with a small group calling themselves the Commission, whose goal is to review cases that were thrown out due to technicalities. They will go over all the information and pass judgment as to whether or not the verdict was correct. If it’s not, they’ll set up surveillance and find a way to take the perp out. Tim is to serve as their executioner.
Naturally, the further he gets embroiled in all this, the worse this thing looks.
I won’t go into too many other details—in case you want to read it yourself—but I wanted to give you the basic plot so you can understand what I’m going to talk about. As a reminder: there are no accidents in a novel.
Or, to be more precise, there’s no such thing a coincidence. It’s the old adage: if there’s a gun on the dresser in Act I, somebody better shoot the thing in Act III. Nothing is supposed to be innocuous in a novel.
It happens all the time in real life. Well, depending on your belief system. Personally, I don’t believe in coincidence, per sé. I believe that we just don’t always see what some events in our lives mean.
But this isn’t about my personal belief system or yours. We could argue about that all day and never reach a concrete conclusion. It’s about what happens in novels, and I won’t repeat it again.
One of the hazards of writing as I do is that there can be random events. Sometimes, I don’t see them simply because my subconscious planted them there and they don’t have significance until later in the story. That’s when I get this epiphany that says, Oh, that’s why I did that.
It’s an awesome experience.
But there are false trails, too, things that I put in that end up not leading anywhere. They feel right at the time, but don’t bear any fruit.
Why do these happen? To be honest, I don’t know. I don’t question to process too much. Sometimes knowing what goes on behind the scenes ruins everything. I just trust in it and, when I go back and edit, take out the dead-ends.
There’s a seemingly random scene a good part of the way through The Kill Clause that brought it home to me—once more—how each scene is important. Mr. Hurwitz writes a finely crafted novel, and once you read about this scene, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Basically, an event happens that makes Rackley begin to truly question whether or not what the Commission does is right. I won’t go into the details, as it might be a spoiler, but afterwards, he’s driving home and, on impulse, whips into the parking lot of a club to have an after-action drink.
When this scene started, a part of me wanted to skip ahead. I have that happen at times, because I can’t see the relevance of a given scene.
I should have had more faith in Mr. Hurwitz.
As it turns out, a couple of public defenders (PDs) plunk their drunk selves down at the bar next to him. When they do, one PD is bitching to the other about a guy he had to defend that day. The kid was a sixteen-year-old third striker who was gonna go to prison on a twenty-five-to-life for stealing a toilet paper holder. I used a similar example in my novel Spree where one of my characters was in prison with a homeless guy who went down on his third strike for stealing a pack of socks to keep his feet warm.
I won’t argue the merits or lack thereof of the Three Strike Law. I’ll just say I’m still trying to make up my mind about it.
Tim and the PD get into an argument from opposing sides—Tim as a cop, the PD as, well, a public defender. I won’t get into the argument they have, because it’s part of the fun of the novel, but I’m sure you can figure out the upshot of the scene: it’s one of the final reasons for Tim to reconsider his work for the Commission. And it’s followed by that last explosive scene that forces Tim into one course of action.
The point of all this is that Mr. Hurwitz doesn’t throw in random scenes that serve no purpose. With some of these scenes, it’s harder to see what relevance they have, until you realize they’re character development. Those scenes are always harder for me to craft, because you have to make hard decisions on whether or not it’s something you need to know or if the reader needs to know, too.
Talk about splitting hairs. Those kind can be a hard call, at least for me.
But when it comes to plot relevance, it’s a little easier.
It’s made me do some more thinking about how I’m going to change Pipeline. Have I wandered too far afield with it? Could it be trimmed down to one good novel? Well, I’m not sure, because the plot of the current novel I’m writing about Lyle depends on some events that happen in the first novel.
Is that justified? It’s easy to say, “Yes,” because it’s a series. Some things—and I had this in mind while writing the first two novels—need to be planted so they bear fruit in later novels. You have to try and think of the overall story arc as well as the plot of the present novel. Not easy to do when you write seat-of-the-pants. I just have to, again, trust in the process.
So, I have to take another look at both of the first two novels and see how to trim and maybe even reorder things. There are events in both novels that will have a bearing on the third and fourth novels, but I can’t be too obscure about them or I’ll lose the reader—and, more importantly, any agent who reads the first book.
Because of what happened with Aaron Priest, my daughter suggested that I market Spree first, as it’s more action-oriented than the first Pipeline is at present. I’m still considering that, but a part of my mind keeps turning back to Pipeline. In my mind, it’s a superior novel. Spree is okay, but I don’t think it’s up to the quality of Pipeline. I wanted to have fun with Spree, even though it turns serious before it’s all said and done.
But I need to do a lot of research on Spree. Mostly in the sense that I have them visiting locations I’ve never been to, so I need to make heavy use of Google Maps Street View to correct my descriptions. I want them as accurate as possible, so I can skew them through my characters’ perceptions. And that’ll mean lots of sitting at a computer and following certain sections of I-10 as well as looking at towns along the way.
And I want to put all that in when I edit.
I’m not sure what I’ll do at this point. But The Kill Clause has reminded me that I need to make sure each and every scene in my novels contribute to the story.
Because there are no accidents in fiction.