Psychologist and Pittsburgh Police Department consultant Daniel Rinaldi has a new patient. Lisa Harland, a local girl, once made a splash in Playboy and the dubious side of Hollywood before bottoming out. Back home, down and out again, she married one of the city’s richest and most ruthless tycoons. Lisa’s challenge to Danny is that she intends to commit suicide by 7:00 PM. His therapist skills may buy some time—but, exiting, she’s kidnapped right outside his office.
Summoned to the Harland estate, Danny is forced, through a bizarre sequence of events, to be the bag man on the ransom delivery. This draws him into a deadly cat-and-mouse game with a brilliant, lethal adversary. Complicating things is the unhappy Harland family, whose members have dark secrets of their own along with suspect loyalties, as well as one of Danny’s other patients, a volatile vet whose life may, like Lisa’s, be at risk. What is really at stake here?
Phantom Limb, fourth in the acclaimed series of Daniel Rinaldi thrillers, will keep readers guessing until the very last page.
TWISTS AND TURNS IN MYSTERIES
by Dennis Palumbo
One of my favorite parts about writing mystery thrillers is devising clever, surprising twists and turns for the narrative. However, I think this aspect of writing mysteries---from cozy whodunnits to slice-of-life procedurals---is misunderstood by a lot of new writers.
As a licensed psychotherapist as well as an author, my main interest is the way people think and feel---what I consider the mystery of human behavior. For me, then, developing rich, complicated characters is the key to devising twists and turns, because nothing is as surprising as what people actually do. When writing a mystery or thriller, it’s important to remember that characters act the way they do because they’re driven by strong emotion. Whether a character is good, bad, or---more realistically---something in between, he or she is motivated by needs, passions, prejudices, yearnings, fear...in other words, the whole cornucopia of human feelings.
So what does that have to do with creating surprising twists and turns? Ask yourself: has someone in your life, or you yourself, ever done something unexpected? Completely out of character? Or, more precisely, something that took planning, resolve, subterfuge? As a writer, your job is to mine these kinds of feelings and impulses to help create a narrative atmosphere in which a stunning turn is not only surprising, but, once revealed, logical. Even inevitable.
At a practical level, one way to weave twists and turns into your story is to have the facts, evidence, or narrative details seem to indicate that what’s happening appears to be true, when in fact these same details could indicate the exact opposite situation. For example, a bloody thumbprint belonging to a suspect looks as though it was left by him, indicating guilt, until your hero proves it was actually planted. And then you reveal that the person who planted it was the suspect himself! By throwing suspicion on himself in such a way that it can be disproved, he paradoxically throws suspicion off himself. This kind of thing is as old as Agatha Christie and as current as Michael Connelly.
But even with so obvious a trick, the thing that makes it really matter, really surprises the reader once the truth is revealed, is that it was perpetrated by someone the reader thought he or she knew. That the character was someone the reader liked, or related to, or was rooting for. Even a character whose motives seem blatantly obvious. Even when the character him- or herself is telling us the story. From Who Killed Roger Ackroyd to Gone Girl, the ultimate twists come from the realization that we were being deceived all along.
My point is, what makes a good twist or surprising turn in a mystery isn’t so much the trickery but the gut-wrenching revelations about human nature. The way that expectations are overturned, true motives are revealed. How, in the end, things are often not what they seem.
Kind of like life.
Dennis Palumbo, M.A., MFT is a writer and licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in creative issues. The first Rinaldi mystery, Mirror Image, was published in 2010.
Palumbo is also the author of Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley), as well as a collection of mystery short stories,From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press).
Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter, Palumbo’s credits include the feature film My Favorite Year, for which he was nominated for a WGA Award for Best Screenplay. He was also a staff writer for the ABC-TV series Welcome Back, Kotter, and has written numerous series episodes and pilots.
His first novel, City Wars (Bantam Books) is currently in development as a feature film, and his short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere.
He provides articles and reviews for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Lancet, and many others. His column, “The Writer’s Life,” appeared monthly for six years in Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America. He’s also done commentary for NPR’s “All Things Considered” and blogs regularly for The Huffington Post.
Dennis conducts workshops throughout the country. Recent appearances include the Family Therapy Network Annual Symposium, the Association for Humanistic Psychology, Cal State Northridge, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, PEN West, the Writers Guild Foundation, the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, Screenwriting Expo, USC, the Romance Writers of America, the Nieman Foundation, the Directors Guild, and UCLA.
His work helping writers has been profiled in The New York Times, Premiere Magazine, Fade In, Angeleno, GQ, The Los Angeles Times and other publications, as well as on NPR and CNN. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Pepperdine University, he serves on the faculty of UCLA Extension, where he was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year.