Sunday, 26 June 2011

Breakfast at Southfork

Just lately I was selecting crime books to review for Reviewing the Evidence, when I heard Linda Wilson, the site’s UK editor, use the phrase ‘Breakfast at Southfork’. She was describing that part at the end of so many books, where the characters discuss the plot. Fans of the TV show, Dallas, may recall that breakfast was the time of day when the Ewings would gather to talk about what was happening in their lives, which served as a handy plot update for viewers. Is a Breakfast at Southfork moment inevitable, or even necessary, in crime novels? I asked Linda along to Crawl Space to discuss the phenomenon.

SH: Hi Linda. I love the phrase ‘Breakfast at Southfork’, and have been using it all over the place since you drew my attention to it. When did you first hear it, and what’s your understanding of its meaning in relation to crime writing?

LW: I can’t remember when I first came across the phrase. I think it stems from a TV reviewer’s comment many years ago, when he or she remarked on the fact that Southfork, the Ewings’ massive ranch, only seemed to have one telephone at the foot of the stairs. The same reviewer observed, quite accurately, that breakfast was the time when all the characters sat down and discussed the plot, otherwise known as their latest ‘pra’l’m’, which is what you get if you try to render the word ‘problem’ in a Texan drawl. And anyone who watched the show will know that the Ewings had a lot of ‘pra’l’ms’!

When I started reading a lot of crime fiction, I was soon struck by how frequently authors use similar plot devices to either remind the reader what has been happening or – even more commonly – to make sure that all the elements of the plot are adequately explained in the closing stages of the book.

SH: Can you give some examples of awkward Breakfast at Southfork moments in crime novels?

LW: To be honest, I think all moments like that are awkward to some degree, and inevitably detract from otherwise well-told stories. I recently read Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May off the Rails and, although this was almost certainly the wrong book to choose for entry to this long-running series, I did quite enjoy it. Unfortunately, however, even the explanations at the end didn’t leave me any the wiser about the villain’s motivations. So I suppose the moral of the story here is that if you’re going to use a Breakfast moment, do at least make sure it serves its intended purpose and that the reader ends up suitably enlightened rather than still scratching their heads wondering what’s happened.

A better instance of this, but one that still struck me as artificial was in S.J. Bolton’s excellent book Blood Harvest, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but even so, there was an awkward Breakfast moment towards the end that almost managed to shatter the carefully created tension.

SH: Any good examples, where it works as a plot device? Or should a writer always look for better ways to explain what’s going on?

LW: I suspect I’m more tolerant of it as a plot device in police procedurals where a couple of the investigating officers have a chat and bring each other up to speed with developments on the case. Quintin Jardine’s Bob Skinner books are examples where a ‘show and tell’ can work reasonably well, but I do still think that the technique is over-used.

Jeffrey Deaver tries to get over the problems in his Lincoln Rhyme series by sharing ‘evidence boards’ with the readers. I will admit to skipping over these most of the time, but I can certainly see their value. At least they give you the option of trying to use the evidence to figure out what is happening, or simply do what I tend to do and go with the flow of the story without thinking too closely about the details.

SH: I’m enjoying Jonathan Kellerman’s Mystery at the moment. Seems to me he serves up Breakfast moments as red herrings in nearly all his books. His heroes, Alex and Milo, are always discussing the plot, usually while eating something (Milo’s got a healthy appetite). But the difference here is that they’re speculating rather than explaining. The device works really well at blind-siding the reader, so we think we know what’s happened only to find out Alex and Milo’s speculation was wrong. I love the layered feel this gives Kellerman’s books. But maybe it takes a master plotter to turn the Breakfast moment on its head?

LW: Indeed. And I also suspect that any regular reader of a series that uses techniques of that sort on a regular basis will soon start to suspect that (sticking with the food theme) they’re being fed a red herring.

SH: When we last met, you mentioned that Hanging Hill by Mo Hayder skipped Breakfast at Southfork entirely. Can you explain how this worked (without giving away the plot)?

LW: I think essentially what she did was pull off a perfect example of ‘show’ not ‘tell’. The last few chapters proceeded at an excellent pace and were very much seen through the eyes of the main characters as everything they’d believed was peeled back, layer by layer, amidst some very compelling scenes. These scenes were uncluttered by explanation, but remained wholly understandable. I felt I was very much in the action with the characters, experiencing the plot developments along with them.

SH: Breakfast at Southfork does seem to be a very popular device in crime novels, from Poirot’s explanations in the library through to contemporary crime. Why do you think that is?

LW: I think, in some cases, it provides an easy way for the author to draw together all their threads and clues that the reader may have missed. In others, it enables them to introduce new material (which I always think is cheating, but that’s another story!) in a way that keeps back ‘spoilers’ until the closing stages. Sadly, it can also be an example of bad or lazy writing.

SH: How do you think most readers feel about Breakfast moments?

LW: I suspect a lot of the time readers are so used to moments like this that they simply suspend disbelief and go with the flow. But I’m also sure that I can’t be the only person in the world who finds moments like this awkward and intrusive. I’m often left wanting to conduct a survey of detectives who investigate murder cases to find out how often the murderer really does sit down for a cosy chat and explain what they did and why they did it. My gut feeling is that it happens far more often in literature than it ever has done in real life.

I’ve certainly become a much harsher critic of the technique since I started regularly reading books for review, which is why I almost let out a whoop of joy when I finished Hanging Hill. It was so refreshing not to have to endure any clumsy explanations.

SH: Makes me think of all those moments in James Bond films where the villain stops to taunt Bond with the awful truth of what he’s done, before conveniently leaving to allow James to affect his daring escape.

LW: Yes, in the same way that the villain so often hesitates before pulling the trigger when ‘our hero’, whoever that may be, is at their mercy, and then launches into a long recitation as to why they did what they did, while the audience groans and yells, “Pull the trigger, you idiot!” It’s the artificiality of it all that gets on my nerves.

SH: Any tips for writers on how to skip Breakfast without starving the reader of plot expo?

LW: Hmm, that’s definitely a tricky one! I think I’d always start with the premise that Breakfast moments should be kept to a bare minimum. Plot developments and character’s actions should be as self-explanatory as possible. Is it really necessary to do an info dump at the end, or could some of the explanation be brought out earlier?

An author should have enough self-awareness to know what they’re actually doing when they embark on a scene like this. And to stop and think whether it could be handled differently. Does the conversation at least sound natural? Is it in character for the villain to suddenly come over all loquacious? Look at what you’ve written from the perspective of a reader or, better still, get someone else to look at it for you. No matter how well you pull it off, a Breakfast moment will still be in danger of standing out like a sore thumb.

SH: At the Hay Festival, Mark Billingham said that US publishers request a Breakfast Moment page at the end of his books, to explain what happened. So maybe it's not always in the hands of the author.

Thank you, Linda. I really enjoyed that. Finally, if we were eating Breakfast at Southfork rather than talking about it, what would you order? I’d be tempted by pancakes, I think.

Linda: I’d always go for the full English any time! If I could have that in Dallas it would definitely be a bonus.

I was talking with Linda Wilson, UK Editor, Reviewing the Evidence


Rebecca Bradley said...

I really like this and it's given me something to think about.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Rebecca. Yes, it made me think about how I'm handling plot expo in my book, too.

Tania Hershman said...

This is really interesting. It reminds me of Scooby doo, didn't they always have one of those moments where the villain would explain all to "those pesky kids"?! I wonder whether it's not just crime fiction that has breakfasts at Southfork, hmmm...

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Tania, yes I'm sure it's wider spread than just crime fiction. "And I would've got away with it too, if it wasn't for..."

venetia said...

As a huge fan of Dallas in its heyday I really enjoyed this post. Very informative. :-)

Maxine said...

if you want a real B in S "orgy" then try reading Lasting Damage by Sophie Hannah!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks for reading, V, delighted you enjoyed it. ("You're a loser, Barnes").

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Maxine, oh dear, is there a lot of plot discussion in Lasting Damage? I've not read that one.