Tag Archives: mysteries

Scene Cuts: What Can You Teach Me Today, Lee Child? Part 2

leechildmay1How can a writer cut scenes to raise tension and keep the reader up late at night?

Returning to A Wanted Man, I notice that Lee Child cuts the scene right after the moment when the characters realize that the stakes are ramped up. FBI Agent Sorenson, investigating a kidnapping, says to her investigating partner,

“She’s seen their faces. They’ll kill her.”

Structurally, we’d expect to see our characters react to this raising of the stakes, but Lee Child cuts the scene right there. He doesn’t show the investigators’ reactions because our reaction will be just the same as that of the investigating team. Tension rises even more sharply when we readers feel the fear for the kidnapped woman first hand, rather than second hand through narration.

If the characters’ reactions had been different than the reader’s reaction—for example, if an antagonist felt guilt, calculation or satisfaction about the hostage’s situation, or even if the two investigating characters had experienced differing individual reactions—then wouldn’t our master writer love extending that scene!

Thanks very much for your help once again, Mr Child.


Lee Child, A Wanted Man. Bantam Press, London, 2012.


Writing tips from Rumpole of the Bailey: Part 2


I’m examining the first three paragraphs of Rumpole A La Carte to see how John Mortimer gets the story going in the first three paragraphs. Rumpole on the Shelf

Right away, in Paragraph One, Mortimer gives us Rumpole the underdog crusading hero trudging round the old Bailey, short on time, but long on stamina as he battles to impose Rumpole order on a chaotic universe (the hero’s mission statement). Also, in paragraph 1, we receive the promise of genre as Rumpole references the murders he’s solved and his expertise with bloodstains.

Then, in Paragraph 2, Mortimer introduces what’s at stake—his wife, Hilda—as well as setting the story in its arena using Hilda’s cookery as an entry into the world of haute cuisine, where the battle will be fought.

All this in two paragraphs, a little over half a page…Now, turn the page, and in Paragraph 3 Mortimer introduces Hilda’s cousin, Everard, Rumpole’s peer on the field of battle, since he is also a lawyer, and his superior for looks, charm, culture and money. This is Rumpole’s Enemy. Everard Flings Down the Gauntlet…

Mortimer sets all this up with a masterful hand (and writes the TV script while he’s at it).

Thus, we have:

 Paragraph 1. A crusading underdog lawyer sleuth…

Paragraph 2. …will battle for his marriage…

Paragraph 3. …against the attractive, rich lawyer out to steal Hilda.

I bow to you, John Mortimer. I shake my head with admiration. I do my utmost to learn from you… Especially this week, as I’ve got a new mystery novella to start writing.

I couldn’t have a better model for structuring intrigue and struggle. Thank you, John Mortimer.  I miss you.

“I have often noticed, in the accounts of the many crimes with which I have been concerned, that some small sign of disorder—an unusual number of milk bottles on a doorstep, a car parked on a double yellow line by a normally law-abiding citizen, even, in the Penge Bungalow Murders, someone else’s mackintosh taken from an office peg—has been the fist indication of anarchy taken over…”

–John Mortimer, Rumpole A La Carte. From paragraph 1, page 1.

A Leader in Mystery: John Mortimer’s Horace Rumpole

Part 1

I’m always boggled at how much has to be accomplished up front when writing short mysteries. Those first paragraphs are vital…(although, really, what paragraphs are not vital, eh?) Whenever I begin a new novella, I consult the expert on crime, my leader, RumpolealaCarte

Rumpole of the Bailey.

We fans know about Rumpole, the barrister Underdog Hero—the Onion Knight of the courtroom. London’s Hedgerow Knight. We know that he likes his life as it is, the battles against the odds at the Old Bailey, in chambers, or at home, after which the well-earned hours of respite at Pommeroy’s Wine Bar with a glass of the old plonk. I often think Rumpole’s mysteries are as much about the defence of Rumpole’s realm as about deduction.  Each story offers us a joust and a mystery. What a treat. And what a challenge to set up.

Here are some Mortimer first lines….

“What distresses me most about our times is the cheerfulness in which we seem prepared to chuck away those freedoms we have fought for, bled for and got banged up in the chokey for down the centuries.”

“Mr Justice Graves. What a contradiction in terms!”

“There is, when you come to think about it, no relationship more important than that of a man with his quack—or ‘regular medical attendant’, as Soapy Sam Ballard would no doubt choose to call him.”

“As anyone who has cast half an eye over these memoirs will know, the second of the Rumpole commandments consists of the simple injunction ‘Thou shalt not prosecute.’ Number one is ‘Thou shalt not plead guilty.’”

A jumble matching challenge… These quotes are first lines from the stories Rumpole for the Prosecution, Rumpole and the Quacks, Rumpole at Sea and Rumpole and the Right to Silence. If you guessed them all, it’s a tribute to your perspicacity and Mortimer’s talent for titles. And for setting up his jousting opponent in the very first line.

John Mortimer, Rumpole A La Carte. London, Viking Penguin, 1990.


Next time, Part 2: Rumpole A La Carte, a swift, piercing look at the setup.