In 1928, a sleuth writer called S.S.. Van Dine set down what he thought were the Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories.
Rule #19, for example, is that the motive should always be personal.
Rule #11 is that the culprit must be a decidedly worthwhile person – one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.
Rule #14 is that the method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be rational and scientific.
I really like this list for a number of reasons. First, it reminds us that lists have been used as a device for editorial content since long before the internet made them blog catnip. Second, it’s pretty tangible. Most of the reasons generate that warm glow of recognition common to any insightful writing. As planners we’re often guilty of fashioning ‘principles’ that are pretty vacuous – this list reminds us that if checklist reflects actual creative work our audience knows, we’ll be a whole lot more convincing.
There was another reason I liked this list, though.
The parallel between planner and policeman is pretty old. Perhaps even hackneyed. But Van Dine’s list is an entire ‘how to’ of that idea. Once I’d got this in my head I couldn’t get rid of it.
Instead of ‘reader’, I saw client. Instead of ‘crime’ I saw ‘brief’. Instead of ‘culprit’ I saw ‘solution’.
And instead of ‘detective’ I saw ‘planner’.
See if you agree.
Rule #6: A detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.
Translation – don’t rely on received opinion. Every brief is different.
Rule #12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.
Translation – find the single biggest thing that will make the single biggest difference.
Rule #16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.
Translation – focus on the issue; colour in the story only as much as the story needs
Rule 19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal…It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.
Tranlsation – make it matter to the client
Rule #9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his co-deductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.
Translation – the client is a partner, not an opponent to be defeated
Rule #15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should re-read the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.
Translation – by the time you get to the solution, the client should already be with you
Really, though, this is all summed up by Rule #1.
The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery.
Translation – we add value when we use the same raw ingredients that have the client scratching their heads.
When we make sense of it in a way the client perhaps hasn’t been able to.
A sense that is elegant and yet inevitable.
Our point of difference is the perspective, clarity and direction we bring to a seemingly irresolvable problem.
As Alice Spawls puts it in the London Review of Books, the protagonists of detective novels “mix deduction with intuition and observation, making the impossible seem not only logical but obvious”.
There’s nothing magic to what planners do.
It’s just that the good ones just see things a certain way.