Today’s guest is someone you probably haven’t heard of, but he has information ESSENTIAL to the stories we love. He helps authors “get it right”.
From his website:
For more than 20 years as a federal law enforcement special agent, Geoff Symon has been using his expertise and experience to put away the bad guys. Now he’s begun lecturing and consulting with authors in genre fiction communities to help bring verisimilitude and meaningful detail to the depiction of crime and investigation.
Agent Symon has conducted numerous classes (both in person, and online) for authors in multiple genres who write mysteries into their stories. He’s a forensics investigator, expert legal witness, and today… he’s here to give us tips on how to avoid the one thing that makes him the craziest when authors “get it wrong”.
Forensics For Fiction Flubs – Logic Leaps
By Geoff Symon
Logic leaps rank as my number one pet peeve when reading fiction. They are far too prevalent and only serve to take me out of the story. Logic leaps mean using scarce evidence or information to jump to conclusions that always end up being correct. Crime in any genre generally involves some sort of police procedural or detective work to identify the culprit. The evidence which helps the protagonist (and reader) reach the correct conclusion often involves forensic techniques. If forensics is the pathway the writer chooses to use, then it must follow internal logic. A conclusion cannot be arrived upon without the appropriate evidence to support it. Think of it like this: The shortest road trip from North Dakota to Texas must pass through South Dakota; and you cannot stop in Nebraska and declare you’ve arrived at your destination. We don’t need to see all the steps on the page, but they must occur to make the conclusion believable.
For example, let’s say in a particular book a neighbor’s house was robbed. The sole witness didn’t observe the actual crime but reports seeing a brown dog running past her window at some time on the evening in question. “A-Ha!” thinks the detective, “Jack has a brown dog. Jack must be the thief!” This type of irresponsible conclusion happens all of the time in fiction.
As a reader I’m left wondering, how many other homes in the area have brown dogs? What if the dog was a stray? What if the witness is mistaken and she didn’t see a brown dog at all but a coyote? And even if it was Jack’s dog, how does that suggest Jack robbed the house? An illogical leap has somehow become obvious fact.
There are many reasons writers use logic leaps. Often they want to keep the initial evidence vague so the reader does not spot the bad guy too quickly. However, the vaguer the evidence, forensically speaking, the less likely it will point an investigator in any direction at all.
Logic leaps also provide an easy way out for writers who haven’t done their research. They pepper pages with the little investigative jargon they know and feature the investigative techniques culled from their favorite serialized crime scene show. They get stuck with questions and loose ends, so they wrap it up as quickly as possible.
Some authors use logic leaps in the belief that they make the protagonist seem smarter or more intuitive than the other characters. In practice, the opposite occurs. Any conclusion resembling a lucky guess leaves the reader doubting the reality and the intelligence of the character. Even if you want your hero to arrive at the conclusion because he or she is just that brilliant, you still have to establish that intellect in action and show it. My best example will always be Sherlock Holmes, constantly arriving at conclusions five steps ahead of everyone else. The genius of this character was that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle always backed up the dazzling insights with Holmes explaining the logic route that brought him there. Rather than a logic leap, Holmes exercised superhuman logic which honored the forensic process.
As an author, the best way to guard against logic leaps is preparation: research and planning specific to your project. Explore the crimes and types of evidence you’re writing about so you know what they can tell the reader and how they can further your story. Also, map out your crime and the path of evidence the investigator will take prior to writing the chapters. Know that the hotel key left at the scene will lead to the interview at the front desk, that leads to the alias used to check-in, bringing us to the rental car at the airport, which provides a possible fingerprint. If you know the route you’re going to take, you can reveal each step as quickly or explicitly as your story requires.
Remember, if the reader is ever given the opportunity to say “Wait….what?” they’ve been taken out of the story. Map your route before you start writing so that their response instead is “Oh…wow!”
Geoff Symon is a Federal Forensic Investigator, Polygraph Examiner, teacher and consultant. He has taken his 20 years as a Federal Agent and applied his knowledge and experience to become a sought-after consultant for authors writing forensics in fiction.
For more information about Geoff, his work, and his class schedule, check out his website www.geoffsymon.com. And you can find Geoff on twitter at @GeoffSymon.
So… how about all of YOU?? Do you notice these “logic leaps” in stories? Do you have other pet peeves in mysteries and crime novels? (No book/author bashing, please, just general occurrences.) Do you have favorite authors who “get it right”?
Chris Clark says
This may just be me, but I particularly enjoy when an author has the protagonist use a leap in logic and draw an incorrect conclusion because of that leap. Even better if it doesn’t just cost them time, but creates additional complications because of the flawed approach. I enjoy those moments when, as a reader, I get to say, “Ha! Serves you right.”
Oooh, I love those too, when the hero/heroine makes a mistake and gets caught.