If you’re one of those awful people who like to skip to a story’s conclusion to find out whodunnit (Zounds! A pox on thee! as Will would say), I’ll make it easy for you today and provide a teaser: I was made freshly aware of The Issue as I read the scene in question, and found myself writing a notation in the margin at one point: “Would the character not have put two and two together here? Because the rest of us already have.”
So, what’s The Issue? you ask. Simply this: readers knowing more than the characters do --- which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What with the godlike omniscience often granted audiences by the writer, we often know things like… oh, say… there’s a traitor in the midst of the story! A mole! And nobody knows about his or her nefarious goals except… us, the readers, and we’re powerless to do anything about it! ARGGGHHH! That kind of frustration is often a pretty good device. It certainly encourages readers to keep reading, feverishly, seeking resolution and redemption.
However… in these latter, dismal days I referenced above… the writer’s difficulty becomes more… urgent… extreme. Case in point: some years ago, before streaming became ‘a thing,’ my wife expressed a desire one Christmas to have all the James Bond films on Blu-ray, so being the dutiful, observant spouse I am, Santa obliged her. On Christmas morning, all 5000 Bond films were sitting under the Christmas tree --- well, it felt like 5000, anyway, because I’d had to source them individually, since no one in the Western world had had the foresight to package them all into a boxed set… and no, I’m not still kinda bitter about that, why would you ask? Anyway, you’re welcome, sweetheart. In the fullness of time i.e. the following dark, bleak, January winter nights, we started wading through the Bond films, from Dr. No all the way up to the latest at the time, which I think was Skyfall (I may have blocked out the memory). And I’m bound to say --- sorry, Bond aficionados --- those early Bond films in particular were dreadful. Beyond dreadful. Crimes against celluloid. Well, maybe not quite that bad, but… never mind the rampant, casual misogyny, the stories were trite and simplistic, complete with cardboard cutout villains and deus ex machina endings up the wazoo. Now, look, I get it… nobody ever accused Ian Fleming (or Albert Broccoli, for that matter) of producing great, deep, thoughtful literature or film. It was escapism, pure and simple. Emphasis on the word simple. But, my gosh… audiences must’ve been far less sophisticated back then.
It's the same thing with quite a lot of literature and film nowadays. Few characters seem to have ever read a story or watched a movie in their collective lives, because they still traipse cheerfully into the eerie, darkened, supposedly deserted mansion, where they decide to split up because they can cover more ground that way. Meanwhile we, the world-weary audience, wise in the ways of evil, villainy, and unsportsmanlike conduct… we know the demonic axe antagonist will make hamburger of several characters before the chapter/scene comes to a grisly end. But we’re helpless to do more than holler things like, “No! Don’t do it! What are you thinking?! Don’t you know your bestie is going to betray you?! The cute, shallow blonde is gonna die first! What rock have you been hiding under all your life?!” And other comments of that ilk. In fact, watching something on Netflix/Crave/whatever, my wife and I have developed a bad habit of voicing what we think a character will say moments before they actually do. Then, when it happens, we turn triumphantly to each other and crow, “See! I can write this shit, too!” There’s a lot of really lazy writing out there in film, complete with plot holes big enough to drive a truck through.
Now, the counterargument to all this, of course, is that people are: (a) by and large, astoundingly unobservant; and (b) well, not to put too fine a point on it… stupid. We rationalize crap that, frankly, we’ve no business rationalizing. We do and say amazingly ridiculous, petty, foolish, ill-conceived things. All. The. Time. OMG. And we’re terrible about anticipating the consequences of our actions, or inactions. Of such grist are our characters made.
Once upon a time, The Mousetrap’s plot-twist ending was breathlessly original and unique. But we’ve come a long way, baby, and readers/viewers are far more worldly --- and jaded --- than they were of yore. (Like, come on guys, how come none of you in the Fellowship picked up on the fact Boromir had a distinctly unhealthy obsession with the Ring, and the odds were pretty good he’d make a play for it himself? ‘Cause we all knew, right from the get-go, and wouldn’t have let either him or Frodo wander off on their own.)
That being the case, writers need to be thoughtful when constructing their plots. Sure, it’s fine giving readers clues, but you can’t make them glaringly obvious, then expect audiences to believe characters wouldn’t pick up on those same clues. So there should be a balance between tantalizing the reader and making them stare in disbelief at a character’s clueless naivete. It’s a fine line to walk, admittedly.
So… if the butler didn’t do it… make the reader run a really good race to discover who did.