By Sally Carpenter
One of the hardest scenes to write in a mystery is the interrogation: The police officer, P.I., bounty hunter or amateur sleuth grills a suspect. Too often such scenes morph into a rhythm of Q-and-A, Q-and-A that lulls the reader to sleep and generates no conflict or character development. Interrogation scenes should be more than info dumps.
I’m reading the book “Acting for Animators” by Ed Hooks (I bought the book years ago when I thought I’d be writing in TV animation). Hooks begins with basic acting theory that is useful for writers as well as visual artists. After all, acting is developing a character, and a mystery nothing more than how certain characters react to a crime. Without characters, our stories would be nothing more than boring police reports.
Hooks says every scene in a play/book consists of a negotiation, of two or more characters striving to obtain a specific objective. Writing an interrogation scene with this in mind will perk up the story immensely.
What is your character’s objective in an interrogation scene? The immediate goal for the protagonist, obviously, is to uncover clues or evidence to solve the case. But the character should have a larger overriding objective.
The cop, of course, is doing her job. But maybe she had a long string of cold cases, and needs to break this one to prevent being transferred to traffic control. Or solving this case will result in a promotion. Or the mayor is breathing down her neck to wrap up this one quickly and quietly. Or she’s trying to do a good job to prove to Internal Affairs she’s not a dirty cop. All of these factors will affect every action the protagonist makes.
The private eye needs this case to pay the overdue rent or her son’s college tuition or her mother’s operation. She must solve this crime because the local police department is too corrupt to deal with it.
The amateur sleuth is involved because the victim was a friend orerelative or the sleuth’s BFF was arrested for the murder.
Or this particular case is too similar to the protagonist’s childhood trauma or inner demon that must dealt with. That will certainly affect the way the protagonist speaks to the suspects.
What of the suspect? That character’s objective in the scene is not to sit quietly and spit out exposition, but to get out of the hot seat as soon as possible.
A red herring will maintain her innocence or be terrified at the thought of an arrest or angry for even being considered a guilty party. This will affect how the answers are given.
The killer may mislead, lie, deflect suspicion on another person, or act nonchalant, bored or even brag if the police have no solid evidence of his guilt.
When people talk, they don’t sit motionless. They stand, pace, fidget, lean, cross arms or legs, nod, scratch, drink coffee, take notes, twist, etc. Characters in a story are also in motion, although they should move with a purpose and not flail about. Liars often avoid eye contact or cover their mouths. Writing in such action will break up long chunks of dialogue and add interest.
Keep interrogation scenes short. A story is realistic, but it’s heightened realism. A real interrogation at police headquarters may take hours, but a reader won’t sit through pages of small talk.
Make each word interesting. The suspect needs to say more than “I didn’t do it.”
Each episode of “Columbo” is nothing more than a 90-minute interrogation scene! But the show works because each scene builds by revealing a new clue or pushing the killer emotionally further into exasperation.
Columbo’s homey anecdotes about the wife or family are more than a humorous asides but are used as a means to disarm and distract the murderer, who thinks he can outwit this peculiar little man.
The next time you watch “Columbo,” listen carefully to the thrust-and-parry game going on between the cop and the killer. How is the dialogue like a negotiation? Who has the upper hand in each scene? What “tricks” does Columbo use to wear down his opponent? And how can you use these techniques in writing an interrogation scene?