Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Guest Blogger: Robin Spano on Motives

I am pleased to have Robin Spano as a guest blogger today!  Robin is a cool chick, a good friend, and the proud author of the Clare Vengel mysteries.  The first book in the series, Dead Politician Society, was published in September by ECW; book two will be out in 2011.  Here's Robin...

Motive – it drives every mystery... 

It drives behind the scenes – a writer has to know it and a reader has to feel it as it pulls the plot along. But it has to be unspoken until the end. Because of this, the moment when the motive is revealed needs to have impact – it's what the reader has been waiting for the whole book. It has to be intense, dramatic, and just right.

So how does a writer create that impact?    

I think it's all in the theme

If a murderer is killing for money, the reveal will feel far more “right” if materialism, greed, or financial security have been explored in the book. If the motive is revenge, there could be discussion among the characters about loving someone so much you'd kill to avenge their death, or being so insanely angry that you wait for your moment to retaliate. If the killer is a cold-blooded psycho, the book could explore mental illness – at least in passing. And if they're killing for politics, you need some political debate.

Writing fast, fun fiction, the last thing I want to do is weigh the plot down with heavy discussions that stop the action. But I know this as a reader: When the final reveal includes a motive whose theme has been explored, the read feels more complete. I close the book feeling satisfied.

Writing Dead Politician Society, my goal was to write a book that I would want to read. I tried to give each suspect's motive ample air time. For every prime suspect – from the bitchy editor of the Star to the womanizing U of T professor – I considered the thoughts that might have passed through their heads if they were the killer. Not just so the reader might suspect them – although of course that was also the goal – but so the reader would understand why they might kill.

The real killer, naturally, has to have the biggest motive. At the revelatory moment, the reader should say Of course!, not No, I really think this other person's motive was way stronger.

I also think it's important for a reader to sympathize with the murderer's motive – even if they are a cold-blooded psycho. That's not to say we don't want them locked up and off the streets in most cases. But we have to see the world, however briefly, from behind the killer's eyes. Their motive needs to make sense to us – and we have to believe that, were circumstances different – maybe if we'd been born into the killer's situation – we, too, might contemplate murder.

My original plan for Dead Politician Society was to have the killer pick off politicians I hated – starting with the mayor of Toronto. But as I wrote, I got more into the characters and having fun with them, and the book became pure fiction – which is probably much better for its entertainment value. Still, if you're into Canadian politics and look closely at the victims, you might see some other people you recognize . . . though of course if I was pressed, I'd say any resemblance was coincidental.

Motive – it drives every mystery.


  1. this is a really useful and clear analysis of how motives drive mystery writing, and connect with themes, characters, and plot-- thank you, robin!