Gimmicks or Good Plot Devices?

Gimmicks or Good Plot Devices?
Terry Odell

My recent reading has included two mysteries where the ‘bad guys’ went into “do I buy this?” territory for me, for various reasons. Both were well-written and good reads, so this post is more for discussion than me saying ‘do this’ or ‘don’t do this.’ I always like what the TKZ peeps have to contribute. Sadly, I have an emergency trip so I won’t be around much to respond to comments, but I know you will keep things going.

Keeping the villain’s identity hidden from readers in mysteries (my genre of choice) is a challenge. Neither book fell into the “you don’t see the villain until the gather all suspects into the parlor category, so there was no sense of cheating the reader.

In one book, there was a set of identical twins. No, it wasn’t a case of them pretending to be each other, which I consider a major contrivance (and I happen to be the mother of a set of twins, although they’re fraternal). Before I gave birth to them, I was of the “twins are a plot copout” mindset. They still can be, but that’s another issue, and I digress.

In the twins book, one was a very dependent individual, who the dominant twin, who also happened to be the killer, took responsibility for. Another twist—the dependent twin was in the midst of transitioning to female (is that a correct term these days?) and was more or less in hiding during the process. The reader was aware of the character’s existence via phone calls from the other twin, but there wasn’t much of an on-the-page presence until it was time to reveal the secret. When I got to that point, I had minor niggles of “is this playing coy with the reader?” Was it too much of a stretch from day to day reality? Or, do reader want departures from the logical, day to day reality?

The other book relied on the killer having Dissociative Identity Disorder (multiple personalities) and the cops were looking for what they thought were two different people. Who later turned out to be three. DID is real, but it affects less than 2% of the population, and most cases are female. In this book, the character was male. Still, it’s a “this could happen” scenario.

For the twins, I can accept the ploy, because the second twin could have been anyone the killer felt close to or responsible for.

In the case of the DID character(s), the condition is so rare that there was an underlying feeling of “although it could happen, I’m not sure it’s working for me.”

What’s your take on using the very low percentage condition for a villain in a mystery? Would you go back and re-read to find where the author left clues?

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Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”

30 thoughts on “Gimmicks or Good Plot Devices?

  1. I’m not familiar with the disorder but buy-in is just something I have to assess book by book. Sometimes you read a mystery and you have a little twinge of buy-in doubt, yet the writer does so well with the overall story you are taken in. Then there are times that neither do you have buy-in nor does the skill of the writer make up for a little doubt.

    So it seems like the take-away is if you’re going to use a low percentage occurrence as a key component of your story, you better have the writing chops to keep the reader engaged start to finish so they don’t set the book down. There’s always going to be a reader somewhere who doesn’t think the scenario is possible.

    • Thanks, BK — yes, I kept reading because the writing was strong enough so when the reveal was made, I didn’t regret putting in the time–although I WAS a little put off. (Hence this post.)

  2. Interesting post, Terry.

    I had to read the paragraphs about the twins several times to understand what happened in the book, and I’m still not sure I understand.

    But your question was about the book with the killer having DID. I thought that DID, or multiple personality disorder, or “split personality,” has been used for killers/villains many times. I think any “surprise” twist that doesn’t defy reality is fair game. And, I would think many readers would love it. IMHO.

    Thanks for making us think this morning. Safe travels!

    • Thanks, Steve — sorry about the confusion. I was confused while reading (and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember the title to go back for better examples.) But since the character was transitioning, sometimes the ‘new female name’ was used, although the author was fair–the other twin would call him by one name and then say, “Sorry, I mean XX” but the names could have been either sex anyway.

  3. If it logically could happen and the author has properly set up the reveal, I’m in. If the book was well written and a good story, as you said, then I don’t care about percentages. I just want to escape into a good book for a while. 🙂

    Safe travels, Terry!

  4. Terry, best wishes for your emergency trip.

    I’m with BK. If the writer has excellent skills to pull me into the story world and make me believe, I’ll keep reading. If not, I close the book.

    • Thanks, Debbie — things are a bit hectic now, but should even out after the weekend. I did finish both books, but there was that underlying niggle when I finished.

  5. I’m up early.

    The main thing for me as a reader is it’s got to be believable and trigger the response Ernie Hemingway talked about-the reader says to herself “Yes. This really happened.” So for me as a rookie scrivener my villains are very human and the evil is in what they do to get what they want. They’ve compromised their moral compass, if they ever had one to begin with. I prefer the slow decay of principle. A deacon in the church doesn’t wake up one day and say “I’m going to rob a bank and kill anyone in there.” He gets there by degrees, or he’s already a professional.

    But they’ve got to be believable which is why I avoid subjects that are all over the popular media these days that can provoke skepticism or tie the story too closely into a particular time, place and milieu.

    It’s got to serve the story in my view.

    A physical condition can be a good device as was used (I think since I’ve never watched an episode) in the series Breaking Bad.

    Once the reader gets the notion that something’s contrived, the game is over.

    By far the greatest villain ever made was Bill Shakespeare’s Richard III. Treacherous, malign, deformed, homicidal, underhanded. What more could you ask for?

  6. “I avoid subjects that are all over the popular media.” I also avoid them; they too often resemble “with-it” posturing.

    “…I’ve never watched an episode [in the series Breaking Bad.]”

    I watched one episode. I had a hard time watching it; not 100% sure why. Was it believable? More or less. Maybe I simply couldn’t invest in a doomed character.

  7. I’m not a mystery reader, so I’ll throw a wrench into things.

    In the Millenial world, there’s a complaint that a lot of villains (villains that the older generation call the best of all time) are queer-baited. Which means, the writer made them LGBTQ, disabled, psychologically crazy just for the shock factor, and that doing so belittles those who have those conditions. I don’t entirely agree with the examples some people use, but I think thinking about how we portray “evil” as being the 1% of humanity is similar to making them pure mwahahaha villains.

  8. One of the reasons I like mysteries so much is because of their “puzzle” nature. Any characters and/or situations that contribute in an interesting way to a labyrinthine plot are fine with me. However, if they seem to be contrived to fit the latest news item, I may put the book down.

  9. Yes, Virginia, there is a DID. And also MPD, “multiple personality disorder,” as it was formerly called. The subject is still controversial. A mid-Century case, “Sibyl,” was later revealed as a total fabrication, with additional “personalities” being dragged out to keep the book sales going. One therapist, Clifford N. Lazarus Ph.D., calls the entire diagnosis “bogus.”

    But an earlier case of 1885, intensely studied at the time, has the ring of truth. Louis Vivet displayed two distinct personalities, #1 passive, #2 obnoxious and apparently without a conscience. Vivet was the partial basis for RLS’s “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” (1886), though Stevenson denied it for reasons known only to himself.

    Vivet #2’s lack of conscience was similar to the 1848 TBI case of Phineas Gage, a man who I believe was controlled by his “Guardienne,” the autonomous emergency response region of the brain. Gage, too, after having an iron bar blown through his skull, was a nasty piece of work, unable to get along with anyone but horses, dogs, and children. (Though I would not have let him babysit.)

    I’m currently studying DPDD, Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder, a (usually) post-traumatic condition in which patients feel disconnected from their body. If their Guardienne has taken even partial control, it is not surprising that they would feel disconnected. The idea that these feelings are based on fact seems to have been neglected so far, as near as I can tell.

    The system here seems to choke on links (I lost an entire comment last week), but a Google search on Guenther & Guardienne should pop up the relevant ResearchGate pages, if you’re interested further.

  10. As a reader, it’s more about the journey than the outcome for me in a traditional mystery. That means a good viewpoint character with a goal that matters to them and the reader, and the character’s journey is filled with other interesting characters. I’m okay with some realistic plot twists in the puzzle, but a “you’ve got to be kidding me” final twist will make me rethink buying the next book.

  11. Just a matter of taste but I prefer crime novels in which the villain’s motives arise from an understandable series of psychic malfunctions (for lack of a bettter word!) As I was reading this and the comments, I thought of Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase “the banality of evil.” It is from her book about the trial of Nazi Eichmann. She concludes that Eichmann was far from a “monster.” And she discredits the idea that the Nazi criminals were psychopaths. Eichmann, she writes, wasn’t very bright, was desperate for a feeling of belonging to something, and was “following orders.” She suggests he thought of himself as powerless.

    To me as a reader, evil is far more interesting when it makes you contemplate what any “normal” person can do when morally corrupted or deformed by

    And as others have said here, using something like DID can come across as a plot crutch. You have to work really hard to make it not look contrived. As for thing twins things, look no further than Jeremy Irons in the creepy thriller “Dead Ringers,” loosely based on a real story

  12. To be sure, DID/MPD happens way more on mystery pages and on screen than in real life. As others have said, make me believe. Don’t use it as a crutch.

    The real key is the believability of what made your villain the bad guy. Mental disorder, bullied in school, poor parenting. Sell it and I will buy it. But leave me enough clues to figure it out on my own (if I am good enough). There are two books I tossed, one by chapter 6 and one right after the last page. I read that one standing over a trash can. It was a mystery. The killer was revealed in the classic drawing room fashion. What led it straight to the trash can was the killer made their first appearance in the book five pages from the end.

  13. How do we define murder mysteries? Are they any story in which a murder is committed and the killer is unknown? How do we define psychiatric disease? I ask because serial killers commit murder. They are also generally diagnosed as having antisocial personality disorder, which ranges from 1-4% in the population, so on par with DID. According to the FBI behavioral folks, serial killers account for around .00006% of the population. And yet, we don’t quibble with series detectives that chase serial killer after serial killer in their home jurisdictions. (Is it something in the water??) Viewers mostly didn’t quibble with the astounding number of murders committed in tiny Cabot Cove, Maine in the TV series Murder, She Wrote. I’m not sure that readers/viewers stumble over how well the statistics in entertainment track to numbers in the real world. It’s a bit like the acceptance of faster-than-light travel in science fiction. We take it as possible and move on with the story.

    I don’t go back and reread for clues. I spent my working years as a tech writer/editor. I notice and remember things. I may not realize the significance of something until I get to the end, but once the murderer is unmasked, I can connect the dots. I think part of the joy for mystery readers is catching the clues as they’re presented, and based on reviews of mystery books, many of them are very, very good at it.

    • I think the best praise a mystery author can get (or one of the top three) is “I never saw that coming, but after the reveal I saw how the author set it up.”

  14. I agree with what everyone here said. If an author sets it up right, I’ll believe just about anything. Oh, and sorry to be late to the party, but Ian messed with my internet…

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