04 May, 2010

Mystery: More than a Genre

Genres have rules, and one of the key ones in classic Mystery is that of Fair Play--the Reader must have a sporting chance to guess the killer given only the information presented in the book to the sleuth.

This seems to me a pretty good rule for mysterious elements within a non-Mystery genre novel. When it's broken, readers can feel cheated. When it's followed, readers can fell all smug and wonderful because they think they can guess where the author is going--until, of course, the last chapter when we swerve them so hard their little heads spin.

"Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence, or Act of God?"

--Oath of the Detection Club

Most novels include some element of mystery, even if it's not the important part of the plot. Who's really behind the nefarious plot to blow up the Guggenheim? How does dashing Mister Ploofery know so much about Miss Winkel's ill-starred past? And what's the meaning of that mole?

Of course when we're reading a good book as simple readers (if as authors we can do that anymore) we enjoy it even if we have absolutely no clue how it's going to turn out. After all, this is a published novel! There has to be a payoff! I mean, a Real Published Work of Fiction would never just leave readers hanging, right?

Fig. 1: What the what?

Most novelists, however--and by this I mean the most of us who haven't quite gotten to be published yet--can't get away with these sorts of shenanigans. Because the reader--whether it be beta buddie or agent--doesn't quite trust us to pay off. Nor should they!

I mean, suppose you had a Mysterious Character. One that only shows up in a few scenes, and maybe has only a couple of lines. A rookie, unpublished author might do something stupid with that character, like kill him off for laughs and no clue as to his origins or why he's so mysterious. No published author or Real Successful Filmmaker would ever do something so against the Conventions of Mystery and get away with it. Right? Right?!!

Fig. 2 : I call shenanigans
on you, Lucas!

Right. I think it's a bit like horse racing, which I firmly believe no one would bother watching if they could not bet on it. If you give a reader enough information to form a theory, then that reader has an investment in your plot. He wants to stick around to see if he's right or not. Who ever bet a measly $2 on a horse race and then left in the middle?


  1. I was thinking about this post last night, Richard. You're absolutely right about needing to give the reader a fighting chance with the clues left throughout the plot. But I think the real skill is in the how. I do have (believe it or not lol) a *lot* of clues in my WIP that's confusing everyone so badly - trouble is, I've made them too subtle and/or put them in the wrong place. For whatever reason, my ponderings ended up planting a Bugs Bunny cartoon in my head - the one where he's doing a dueling pianos routine to Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody. Because I think of placing those clues as akin to working in the various melodies that comprise that type of complex piece.

    You have these notes and scales that all fit together somewhere, but should the next measure contain a few quick, sneaky grace notes? A soaring archipelago? A vibrato phrase that would cause your baritone's face to purple? To make the mystery work, you've got to have it all working together, the right strength, duration, and placement of each chord, each melodic line.

    There's a reason this *$)@$)@ ain't easy :)

  2. Yes, Liszt is the key! I was thinking of music as well, but along the lines of a fugue. (since I'm much more familiar with Bach than the Romantics) In complex musical works like these, themes are introduced, changed, transposed. When all of those threads get resolved in the 4th movement or whenever, the trained ear says, "Ah! Bravo!"

    Of course there is a Darwinian effect: we do not hear any of the failed attempts at music of this complexity because they did not survive to be heard. This might give the modern composer the false impression that this *)@$)@ is easy... but at least we have some good examples to learn from.