On this episode, we are discussing the instant classic, Knives Out. And then we’ll end with a critique of one lucky author’s query.
Summary of this month’s movie:
Here come the spoilers! This movie revolves around wealthy mystery writer--yes, it’s about a writer! That’s enough reason to watch it right there!--Harlan’s suspicious suicide and his family full of suspects. A famous detective is hired by an unknown person to investigate if it was really suicide, and so starts a classic whodunnit. As the family comes together to mourn his death and answer questions, it is revealed that they all had motives, including Harlan’s nurse and friend, Marta, as everything was left to her in his will. The twisty thing about this movie is that we find out pretty early on that Marta accidentally gave Harlan an overdose of morphine that meant he only has ten minutes to live, not enough time for help to arrive because of the remote location of his home. Being a quick-thinking writer, Harlan came up with a plan to make it look like a suicide, slitting his own throat, thus removing suspicion from Marta. So Marta knows that she killed him, and as she helps the detective investigate, she takes steps to hide evidence against her. All the family secrets come out though, and it turns out Harlan’s grandson Ransom, played by Chris Evans and his sidekick the amazing fisherman sweater, switched the vials so that Marta would give Harlan the wrong medicine. That means she actually gave him the correct medicine and Harlan killed himself for nothing. Ransom was trying to frame her for Harlan’s death, but failed. We end with Marta in control of the great mansion and the rest of the awful family out on their own to deal with their lies and hurting each other.
Carly: I love this movie. It was actually my second time seeing it, as I saw it in theaters. But I knew even then that we would need to rewatch and discuss it. It has brought back the Agatha Christie mansion mystery in a fresh way. While it nails all the tropes of the mystery genre, it does so in a gorgeous and clever way. While I wasn’t surprised by any of the twists, I was in love with the journey and putting all the clues together. And on my second viewing I noticed even more hints that I’d missed. The set design and cinematography was beyond amazing. Each still could tell a story on its own. Basically, I could watch it again for the third time in a few months. My only initial problem was Daniel Craig’s southern accent… on my first viewing I was so thrown off by it, but on my second viewing I fell in love with it in a weird way. What did you think?
Jeni: OMG that southern accent though. As someone who lives in the south, bad southern accents are a huge pet peeve, and in this one, I was just like, whyyyyyy?? Haha My thing with Daniel Craig was--have his eyes always been that blue? I have never noticed it before, but I kept getting lost in them. But even those elements are intentional. Like you said, they’re playing with tropes. The detective no one takes seriously is a gem and a staple of cozy mysteries like Agatha Christie. Also, I have to digress for a moment because you know mysteries are one of my favorite genres and my parents were mystery authors so I grew up on Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie and even Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown. I remember reading my first Agatha Christie novel and thinking that it was so obvious whodunnit because I knew all those tropes already (not that I knew the word trope at the time but you know what I mean). And then when I got older I learned more about Agatha Christie and that she CREATED so many of those tropes, and honestly, it gave me such a deep respect for her that I went on a binge of all her books and all the old Masterpiece movies with Poirot and Miss Marple. Anyhoo. I can go on and on when I get going about Agatha Christie haha So, what did the movie do well that writers can use in their writing?
Carly: Laying out clues and red-herrings. Yes, that is all mysteries, but this movie is exemplary at it. I think we should dig down into what makes a satisfying mystery, because that can be applied to all genres with a big reveal. My biggest piece of advice that I give all mystery authors is that you want readers to guess your big reveal, but at the same time you want them to feel clever for having guessed it. And if they don’t guess it, you want them to be able to think back and remember all the clues you laid out for them and go “oh yeah! Now I see!” Of course, that is easier said than done, but it is a good guideline to keep in mind as you lay out those clues.
Jeni: Yes, totally agree. I love books that give me that moment of “ah yes, the clues were there and I just didn’t think they were important.” Mystery, more than possibly any other genre, has a rigorous format. But I want to reiterate that even if you aren’t writing a straight-up murder mystery novel, it’s important to understand how mysteries work because it’s a staple of so many other stories. Any story where the characters have to figure something out is using that format for a mystery to some extent, whether that’s who is hurting people in a contemporary or urban fantasy or where they need to go next in a science fiction or even what happened in another character’s past that affects them in a romance novel. Regardless of genre or age category, revealing information in a way that’s satisfying for readers requires having a strong understanding of the elements of mystery. A lot of authors--and readers--have an inherent understanding of this without needing to study, but it never hurts to solidify your skills as an author. So that’s my biggest takeaway for authors from this movie--think about the elements of mystery in your own manuscript and how/if you can strengthen the story with stronger mystery skills.
Carly: So I think one of the biggest keys to a successful mystery is to give multiple people, or in this case everyone, a plausible motive. If only one person has reason to commit the crime, then it is obvious who did it. If there are only two people that can commit the crime and you give a reason that exonerates one of them, then it is obvious who committed the crime. Don’t let readers narrow it down completely by crossing other people off the list. You want to maintain the possibilities until the end. Then if you reader has been paying attention, they’ll see that most of the clues, or the least obvious clues have been pointing to a specific suspect or reveal. The way this movie does it, all of Harlan’s kids are suspects. The first act is revealing how they all lie to the detectives to hide their motives. They present the vision of their life that they want to be real. Speaking of, one of my favorite bits in this movie is when it shows each of them remembering or claiming to be the ones surrounding Harlan as he blows out the birthday candles. It shows how fickle memory can be, that everyone is unreliable because they view the world through their own particular lens.
Jeni: So...have I mentioned Agatha Christie? Lol Not long ago I watched the newest remake of Murder on the Orient Express. Ummm I may have also watched Clue within the last month. I did say I like mysteries, right? Anyway, these are two other stories that employ this same tactic of giving everyone a motive. I’ve actually seen a lot of people comparing Knives Out to Clue because of its fun, campy nature. The fun part of any mystery is trying to put the clues together, right? Having multiple plausible suspects keeps your brain working throughout the story so you stay engaged to the end. And the most important aspect of a suspect being plausible is tying their actions to their emotional wounds and underlying motivations. You thought you were going to get out of talking about characterization this month, didn’t you? But nothing kills a mystery faster than the reader or viewer not understanding a character’s actions and motivations. So you want to make sure that’s all psychologically sound and you’ve done your work on the back end to keep your characters three-dimensional. The best way to show that on the page is through character reactions, whether that’s inside the main character’s head or the dialogue and body language of a secondary character.
Carly: Laying out clues is very tricky. You want to put them in the book, but you don’t want a big red arrow saying “this is a clue!” One of the most successful clues is actually two clues we get very early on in the movie. Clue A: Ransom is the person that most resembles Harlan. Harlan says very clearly while playing games with Marta that they are the same person. Clue B: As Marta is struggling to find the antidote, Harlan, unconcerned, starts taking notes for a book idea. And he basically lays out the entire solution to what happened, he even lays out the biggest problem to the method of murder, there is an antidote. It would need to be taken, and lo-and-behold, Marta’s antidote is missing. It is such a high stress moment with other more important things going on, it would be easy to not pay attention to this old man scribbling notes in his notebook. But those two clues together, clearly point to Ransom. Distract your readers with other high-tension moments as clues are revealed. But make sure the clue feels authentic to the scene, otherwise you get that big arrow pointing to it. In this moment it feels authentic that Harlan would take a moment to write down book ideas. He trusts Marta with his life and his legacy, of course he assumes she’ll find the antidote. It makes sense that he would mention how similar Ransom is to himself during a much longer conversation about the family. They are debriefing after the party, of course it would come up. And it is surrounded by red-herrings that point to the other family members as possible suspects. The biggest red-herring of all, is that Marta believes she killed him. It is always a possibility that the murder was an accident as she believes. As the story progresses it focuses on her trying to cover up any evidence that she left behind. There are two pieces of evidence that don’t quite fit in with the narrative that it was all her. One is Harlan’s mother claiming to see Ransom, but we see her mistake Marta for Ransom when she says “Ransom, you’re back again?” but viewers dismiss it because it seems obvious that she is out of it. She thinks Marta is Ransom, she isn’t reliable. But the key is that she says “back again” implying that Marta is him coming back for a second time. The other piece of evidence is that the dogs bark when someone returns to the house. This is completely dismissed. We see the dogs run up to Marta but don’t bark when she is sneaking back in. If viewers notice this, it becomes clear that someone else returned to the house. These are such minor moments that are easily dismissed, but mean so much. So when the big reveal happens, we either already knew it was Ransom, or we aren’t surprised by it, because all the pieces fall into place.
Jeni: A mistake I see really often in giving clues is relying too heavily on interrogation/dialogue. It means that the characters are literally telling everything to the reader and takes away from the balance of show and tell in the story as well as the detective/protagonist’s agency. If you’re thinking about the mystery of a story that’s another genre, it might not seem obvious that the main character is a detective. Consider in what ways your protagonist takes on the role of detective. Are they actively seeking out clues? This will mean research online or in books or periodicals, going to different locations, finding physical evidence, and yes, some interrogation. Just like everything else in a story, though, you want to make sure you have plenty of variety to avoid repetition and maintain the reader’s interest. Can I talk about Agatha Christie some more? Did you know she just mysteriously disappeared for ten days at one point and had amnesia afterward?? OMG. I can keep going, but I won’t. Haha. Instead, I think it’s time to talk about our query of the month! This month we have a query from a YA urban fantasy. Carly, what did you think?
Carly: First of all, I love the sound of this manuscript. Shape-shifting dragons frequent a bookshop where our main character works?! Sign me up! I think what is missing here is that we are so focused on setting the stage. While it is very charmingly done, we get two set-ups that are repetitive. Not enough focus has been put on the romance or on the mysterious puppet-master. These pieces are thrown in nonchalantly at the end. I want more invested in the mystery and the romance. That is where your story hinges and we need more tension related to that. Tease us more, make it a bigger point. And as we say on almost every query critique, focus on the stakes! What is the tension in the book and what does that tension put at risk? Show us that in your query. What’d you think?
Jeni: I agree with everything you just said. I want to add a bit. The heart of urban fantasy is really mystery, and like Carly said, at the end of the query you hint at a mystery. But because this really needs to be the main plot of your story, the query also really needs to focus on that. The other issue that gives the query a sense of vagueness is that you use a lot of “million dollar words.” Some of them are big words, but what’s more important is that they aren’t really words we’d use in casual conversation so it creates an air of overformality--is that a word? OMG AM I USING MILLION DOLLAR WORDS?? I may be questioning my whole existence now-- Anyway, that can create a distance for your reader. Keep queries simple for the most part. Choose one or two places per paragraph to use more majestic wording, but do it with intent to create tension.