magnifying glass and evidence bag for crime scene investigation

Like anyone else, I have favorite movie categories. Besides legal thrillers, I enjoy films about investigative reporting, especially when I know they are based on fact. As someone who has testified as a forensic economist, my interest in solving puzzles no doubt accounts (at least in part) for their appeal.

Lately though, as I write my own thriller book (with hopes of a Hollywood call), I have been thinking a lot about plot and pacing. Ever an advocate for good preparation, I have been reading books about writing. I completed several workshops and also took notes while watching high-rated movies spun from books or articles such as “The Rainmaker,” “The Insider” and “All The President’s Men.

As I noodled about what made these products captivating (and commercially successful), I realized that it took several viewings of each film (or readings of the book) for me to fully appreciate how the mystery at hand unfolded and could be reasonably solved by the attorney, reporter or other type of “hero” detective. One pass seemed insufficient to grab critical details or words.

This got me thinking about how much work an author should reasonably expect a reader or viewer to do in exchange for a compelling yarn. Certainly there are those individuals who want something light and fluffy and would never be happy spending time on a whodunit. That leaves everyone else.

  • Are most readers/viewers satisfied with understanding the high-level message and not worried about catching all of the red herrings or relevant clues?
  • Are some shows better suited to a streaming venue so that eager viewers can rewind to understand fast-spoken language or watch a thorny scene again?
  • Can books and films suffer at the cash register if the audience is asked to do too much work or does the reverse hold true?

Keep in mind that a recent article about Jellybooks suggests that many “readers typically give up on a book in the early chapters.” If true, this would not bode well for further book or ticket sales unless someone who quits is willing to make recommendations on the basis of beginning content only. (See “Moneyball for Book Publishers: A Detailed Look at How We Read” by Alexandra Alter and Karl Russell in the March 14, 2016 edition of the New York Times.)

This question about ease of use merits further consideration by the author, the literary agent and the publisher. Know your audience may take on a new urgency for items with a layered plot or a cast of too many characters.