Monday 19 January 2015

Every Story Is a Mystery

When we think of a story being a mystery the tendency is to think of the mystery genre. An investigator (usually a detective), a puzzle to be solved (usually a crime), a person to be caught (usually a criminal).

But to all intents and purposes every story is basically a mystery. There is always a burning question that needs answering and someone who is tasked with finding that answer. It’s just that it might not be as obvious what the question is in Looking for Love as it is in Who Killed Johnny?

And if it’s well written the reader’s desire to also discover the answer should be just as strong in both stories. Which is why when that desire isn’t so strong we can use the mechanics of the mystery genre to help work out what’s gone awry in other types of stories.

The first thing to work out is exactly what is the puzzle at the heart of your story. Bear in mind that there may be a series of questions the main character needs to work out as the story develops, but there will also be an overarching question that persists all the way through. This is the one you need to be aware of and it isn’t always clear what it is.

For example, in a romance the main character might be wondering if she’ll ever meet Mr Right, but the reader already knows she’s going to meet him because there’s a picture of him on the front cover and his name is in the blurb.

The actual question might be something like will she end up with Mr Right, or can she win back the love of her life, or is there any man who uses online dating sites that isn’t a complete bastard? Whatever it is, once you know the big question that’s where the focus should be and as soon as possible. Spending loads of time on setting up the initial meeting isn’t going to be of great interest to the reader if it’s just a precursor to the real question. In a detective novel, how engaged would you be if the first chapter was about the day to day life of a cop and his efforts to try and get an interesting case? 

No, you start with the puzzle, the crime, the murder or whatever. You want the reader to know the mystery so they can start wanting answers which in turn keeps them turning pages. So knowing the question is the first step in letting the reader know what the question is.

Secondly it helps to make sure the question is one the reader wants answered. Just because the main character want to know doesn’t necessarily mean everyone else does too. In many cases that need is built into the premise. If a child is kidnapped the need to know what happened to him, to find him and to catch those who took him is pretty innate in all of us and you can use those kinds of basic human emotions to hook readers. But it’s worth remembering that those kinds of set ups get used a lot in fiction and readers can become jaded. 

One way to heighten a mystery is to include unexpected or strange details. If a murder scene contains a brutally dismembered corpse that on its own can be enough to engage readers, but if the body is in perfect condition except that the hands have been cut off and then stitched back on the opposite arms, that kind of thing will trigger a deeper kind of engagement in the reader’s head.

This is an effect you can play with and adjust depending on the story. All the birds have disappeared from a town; a man can’t get his car to work; where is the other sock? The more mundane the detail, the less likely the reader will care, although just throwing in a weird detail can be annoying if it never gets a satisfactory answer.

So a romance might start with a date that goes horribly wrong and establishes our main characters poor luck when it comes to finding Mr Right, but if the guy mentions he’s a keen fisherman and our MC throws a glass of water in his face and walks out of the restaurant you might wonder what her problem is. And that kind of question added to the general set up can turn an expositional scene into a dramatic one.

One thing to avoid, in my opinion, is making the question itself the mystery. She wants something but we don’t know what it is, etc. Not that it can’t work, but boy is it more likely not to.

Thirdly, the difficulty of the question directly affects the reader’s interest in knowing the solution.

The cop is trying to catch a brutal murderer. The cop is trying to catch a brutal murderer and the clues suggest he’s a rich and powerful man. The cop is trying to catch a brutal murderer and the clues point to the President of the United States. 

Indicating to the reader that this trip will not be smooth sailing helps get them on board. If our romantic lead is interested in a guy it might or might not lead somewhere worth reading about, hard to tell without reading the whole thing. Give him a girlfriend, or a boyfriend, or a father in the KKK and make our MC black, and you give the reader more of an idea up front that this quest will take a special kind of hero to win the prize.

It’s also important to make the mystery the main focus of the story. Once the cop is on the case he rarely takes a weekend off to catch some rays at the beach. He might get into an argument with his girlfriend, but it will remind him of a clue he missed and have him rushing out to save the next victim (much to the annoyance of the gf). He might also be working on another case, but that perp will have info that helps crack the main case wide open. The point being focus doesn’t have to mean only writing about one storyline exclusively, but it helps to keep tying things back to the storyline readers are most interested in.

Having more than one POV character can also weaken a story. That doesn’t mean you should avoid writing multiple characters, but you can turn that weakness into a strength if different characters’ goals complement each other. That means you have to know each character’s personal mystery; what they are trying to solve.

So if a cop might be trying to catch the bad guy, then the bad guy might be trying to work out how to get away. Or he might be trying to kill his next victim. These sorts of questions work well with each other. But if the bad guy is trying to run his hedge fund and finding it stressful, even though that could help give an insight into his character and his need to kill, the ins and out of the stock market is going to have a lot less synergy with the cop’s goals.

In our romance version, if our MC is trying to make it work with Mr Right and her sister is struggling with raising a daughter on her own, while both stories have the potential to be interesting, nothing really works together. However, if the sister is struggling with her daughter’s stream of endless boyfriends, many of whom are devastated by the daughter’s love ‘em and leave ‘em approach, it could provide a nice contrast to the main storyline and maybe even teach our MC a thing or two.

The examples I’ve used have been from the romance genre but this approach works for any genre. Horror, fantasy, sci-fi. The hero will always have a mystery to solve, be it personal or global. Exactly how do you stop an invading alien army with more advanced tech and who all look like supermodels? (answer: give the gun to your girlfriend). 

It can simply be a matter of thinking, if the MC was a detective working a case, where would the focus be, and go from there.

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

The character wants something but doesn't know what - that would be difficult to pull off.
You're right - there is always a mystery and that is what drives the story. Or it should.

mooderino said...

@Alex - the number of times I've read a story where the character's goal is kept a secret, don't even get me started.

Anonymous said...

"What is the puzzle at the heart of my story?"

Thank you! There have been a few times I've started to write a story and I feel like I haven't nailed down that overarching question. I'll try searching for that puzzle next time.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

That is so true. All those techniques will enrich any novel for sure. Thanks for a good reminder.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I love a good mystery, especially if the stakes are quite high. Dan Brown is an expert at this.

LD Masterson said...

Writing mysteries does give the author a leg up on identifying the mystery. It's almost always going to tie to that dead body. But I appreciate those tips for getting/keeping the reader on board.

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