Detection, Pacing, Suspense

I’m writing this on Saturday, which for me is day three of lying on the couch with a viral infection feeling feverish, achy, sniffly, and generally atrocious. I’m especially grumpy because I had plans to visit my brother in West New York this weekend, but clearly that wasn’t meant to be.

The bright spot has been binging on my new TV obsession, BBC’s Fake or Fortune. If you haven’t watched the show, the premise is this: an international art dealer and a journalist take on unestablished paintings that have not yet been accepted as genuine works of well-known artists such as Monet, Rembrandt, or Homer. They use a mixture of scientific tests as well as archival research into historical materials, newspapers, and letters to try to conclude whether the piece in question is authentic.

Like any reality show, the story of each picture’s authenticity is played for maximum drama, and many of the scenes are of course staged. Do the show hosts really not know whether a Monet painting has been accepted as genuine before they ceremonially open a flimsy white envelope on camera that contains the decision letter from a famous art institute? Did they really not have that piece of provenance until the very last moment before the auction?

And yet I just want to keep watching, and not only for the historical tidbits about the artists’ lives, or the vicarious travel to famous cities and museums, or the glimpse into the materials and analyses used in the art world.

I watched a couple of episodes before I realized how strictly each is structured as a procedural mystery, with clues, setbacks, dead ends, red herrings, and breakthroughs. I’m not only learning interesting information and watching leisured British people with lovely accents bop around Europe, but I’m also constantly guessing as to what each test will reveal, what each archival rummage will turn up, and which paintings will be proved genuine.

This is a widespread example on the internet at this point, but I still remember when someone first pointed out to me that each Harry Potter book employs a mystery plot structure, often a classic whodunit. Who unleashed the terrible monster petrifying people in Hogwarts Castle (Chamber of Secrets)? Who is manipulating the Triwizard Tournament and trying to make Harry win (Goblet of Fire)? In addition to lots of good fun and human drama, J. K. Rowling consistently threaded a mystery through her books to keep the pages turning.

The portal fantasy manuscript I’m editing right now has this sort of mystery hook to the plot (Why has Maggie’s husband disappeared, and is he dead or alive?), and it plays well in the first and third acts of the manuscript. But since first drafting the book, I’ve struggled to keep the pacing and tension strong in the second act. Having spent an embarrassing amount of time in the last three days watching Fake or Fortune, I’m wondering if I need to take a second look at my working outline of act two and work harder to thread in some clues, red herrings, and breakthroughs to keep readers flipping pages.

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