struggles with pacing in sci-fi murder mystery


I have my very own plant pot!
Jan 4, 2018
North-east England
I'm struggling with an odd problem at the moment. I'm working on a sci-fi murder mystery and I've got a chapter that consists almost entirely of two characters talking to each other. That's followed by another chapter that consists almost entirely of two characters talking to each other. And that's followed by a third chapter that consists almost entirely of three characters talking to each other.

Adding to the potential boredom, the middle chapter is pretty much a diversion which serves only to give essential background on one of the characters. The chapter itself has no effect on the main storyline.

I'm happy with each individual chapter but I'm having a hard time judging whether, overall, three large blocks of conversation and one diversion slow everything down too much. Does anyone know any good examples of this kind of thing either working or not working? I've never written a murder mystery before and haven't read a lot of them but I suppose this might happen often in the genre (the conversation, maybe not the diversion). Does anyone have any reading recommendations that deal with this?

Difficult to say without seeing it. It does occur to me, though, that many theatrical plays are simply a series of conversations, sometimes taking place in a single room. And often they are quite gripping.
I hit this problem several times in a non-SF crime thriller and (hopefully) fixed them with a mix of flashbacks illustrating a conversation, or having the conversation take place while something else was happening; on the way to a crime scene or over the body during an autopsy for example. This allowed me to adjust the pace of the chapter as required, using the 'backgound action' to vary the flow of the scene.
You probably know it well but I think Asimov's Caves of Steel has a lot of chatting in it. I don't see the problem -people generally love to eavesdrop so a two person conversation should bring a reader along with it. I'm no expert though.
I've read quite a few mysteries and spy stories where the narrative is basically a set of conversations that unfold to give a bigger picture (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy is an example). Firstly, I don't think conversations are inherently boring and as AnRoinnUltra says, some older SF is very conversation-heavy. It does depend on the style of story you're writing but it's not an intrinsically bad thing.

Secondly, you can break up the conversation by having the characters moving about in the scene (even if it's just strolling along, observing each other's mannerisms or making the tea) and having the POV character wonder about what the other person really means/isn't saying/what the greater ramifications are. You can also have the character turning over what they've just heard, and doing one of those recap scenes that help keep the reader updated: "So, Bob thought, if Jim had been at the party two hours later than Sue had claimed, he would never have been able to witness the murder. Troubled by this, Bob sighed and sipped his tea, etc."
I've read lots of murder mysteries over the years, though not so many SF ones (and I've incorporated some aspects into my own writing, with red herrings etc) but off the top of my head I can't think of any stories which might act to help you out by way of examples of three chapters-worth of conversations.

While there is, obviously, a lot of talking going on between the characters as they try and work out whodunnit -- including the overused recapitulation of all the evidence to date -- I think it's a bit risky to have three consecutive chapters comprising little other than dialogue especially if one of them isn't actually advancing the plot. Though, of course, it rather depends on how long they all are -- 3 x a spare 1500 words will slip down easily and the short chapters will impart pace and a feeling of breathless action even if nothing much happens, but 3 x 8000 words may feel a bit stodgy.

I'd agree with Steve that it's best for the characters to be doing something while they're talking. The patholgist and detective discussing the autopsy over the corpse will have a more immediate feel, and giving the impression of things happening, compared with the same information being imparted by the detective sitting at his desk reading out the patholgist's report to a subordinate. So perhaps just altering the settings for the chapters might be enough to overcome any perceived problem. Otherwise, could the necessary information in the middle chapter be brought in at a different time, or in a different way?
To some extent it's a case of expectations of your reader. Quite often a murder mystery will be set in a limited (sometimes only one) location, usually with the protagonist trying to solve the mystery by examining the clues; but an important part will also be talking to the witnesses/suspects. Is this what your dialogue chapters are about?

Hopefully by this stage of the story, the reader will be thinking 'at last, the chance to find out some answers', and so will be looking forward to the interrogation/questioning of the witnesses/suspects.

From a reader perspective, it's not necessarily about the pacing of the chapters, more about how interesting the dialogue is.

Adding to the potential boredom, the middle chapter is pretty much a diversion which serves only to give essential background on one of the characters. The chapter itself has no effect on the main storyline.

I was a little confused by this paragraph. If the character's background info is essential, why would it have no bearing on the storyline? And if it has no bearing on the story, is it worth devoting a whole chapter to? To me , this sounds like the most important consideration to be amended or perhaps integrated elsewhere in your story.
Yes, a challenge with a mystery-style story is that the interesting event has already occurred and the reader, proxied by the detective figure, can only be told what happened. It is quite common for the lead character to sequentially interview the various suspects and observers, so I wouldn't be too concerned with having back to back conversations.

If, however, your writer's intuition is telling you that the pacing is off, I say listen to it. Unfortunately, this will probably require some rewrite, but, if you feel something is off, then it is better to listen to that feeling, rather than hoping otherwise.

Some things to consider. Can each of the conversation cover the same time period or event, even just partially? If each scene describes the event slightly differently, then the mystery reader will enjoy uncovering the discrepancies. Can each of the scenes be told from the perspective of the person being interviewed? Describing how the interviewee reacts to the questions can provide a distraction while important information is revealed. Can one of the scenes reveal information by having the main character over hear an argument between two other characters? Tension can be added by the risk of discovery of the main character. Can one of the conversations be replaced by the main character doing research, i.e., reading newspaper accounts, seeing a news broadcast, or reading a police report? This would usually allow the information to be presented in a more concise form than a conversation while varying the presentation format.

I hope this helps. Just trust your instinct. If the story flow feels good to you, don't change anything. If not, try to incorporate some interesting distractions while still providing the necessary information.
Thanks for the comments so far. I'm actually quite relieved that so many of you don't necessarily find it to be a problem. I've already incorporated some of the tools mentioned (characters moving about and interacting with objects around them, using elements of the scene to break up the conversation) and the chapters are relatively short so it might be okay. I'll set them aside for awhile, work on other stuff, come back to them in a week or two and see how I feel then.

If the character's background info is essential, why would it have no bearing on the storyline?
I overdid it when I wrote that it has no bearing on the storyline. I should be more careful how I describe things. Describing things is kind of important :oops:
Dialogue heavy detective stories are like souffles. Tricky to get right but very impressive if you do. There are examples of it being done well. Tobes mentioned Le Carre; I'd say the TV show Line of Duty also qualifies. In a more genre setting, VanderMeer's Finch isn't that action heavy.

I think the more important question here is what sort of dialogues are they? Because if it's Suspect A Interview, Suspect B Interview, Witness A Interview, then I think your pacing may well end up off. Not because there's no action, but because it's just wads of information. But if its Suspect A Interview, Talk with Best Friend About Subplot (while thinking about Suspect A Interview), Witness A Interview, I think you're on a stronger path. Or maybe better yet, stick a Villain PoV scene in too. Or establish an undercover persona to build extra tension (and a chance to breathe from the story while going over the technical details) that will later be used for interviews and what not. The diversion into the background isn't a bad thing either.

Detective stories that focus solely on the mystery from one PoV tend to be short books; subplots, multiple PoVs (particularly the perp), worldbuilding, and what not are all good tools to play with the pacing without once breaking in somewhere or having a car chase.

Btw, have you ever looked at Jim Butcher's Scenes and Sequels method of pacing?
I may be a little off message here but I often find it helpful to stop thinking cinematically and start thinking 'radio play'.
Is the dialogue moving the story forward? A flow of reveals, postulations, hints that the reader can assemble possibilities from.
It sounds to me as if your story is one of thinking and reasoning rather than one of action. .

Try the first episode of the 1972 BBC Foundation Trilogy here and see how it works (or doesn't) for you in terms of its dialogues.

Or one of my favourite (not sci fi) Radio plays Conclave from 2008 Here is the second part.

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