Every Story Is A Whodunit
A Brief Aside
Sorry about the absence, Reader. Personal stuff was happening that kept me away from the blog for a couple weeks; first and foremost, moving from one place to another. There’s another blog post to explain it, and I’m still considering whether or not to write that post.
On the one hand, it might be interesting; on the other, maybe it’s only of interest to me. Anyway, time will tell, and you won’t have longer than next week to wait and see. For now, let’s get right into this post.
Maybe it’s just personal bias on my part — I write mysteries, of course. But it’s my opinion that every story is, in fact, a mystery story, and I think I can back that up.
But this isn’t just an idle observation on my part — it’s also my opinion that, once you treat “every story is a mystery story” as a premise rather than just an observation, this approach to writing your own stories has the potential to help you more quickly and easily answer some of the questions you need to answer when you write:
- What’s this story about?
- What do my characters want?
- What’s in their way?
- What happens if they succeed?
- What happens if they fail?
Those are all questions you have to ask, and answer (even if only you have all those answers and hold some back from your readers) in order to produce a story that compels readers to keep turning ’til the last page.
When I say that every story is a mystery story, what I mean is that every story has a “big reveal” which does one or both of the following:
- It drives the events which happen to your protagonist/s, first drawing them into the story and then opposing them throughout.
- It also provides your main protagonists with the opportunity to resolve the story.
Also, like a mystery, that Big Reveal generates clues that lead your characters along the path toward its discovery, either by helping or hindering them.
Let’s use Star Wars as an example. (By “Star Wars”, I mean “Episode IV: A New Hope”. I’m old and proud of it.)
By now, every one of you knows how the entire story goes, but where’s the mystery element? It’s The Force and whether or not Luke Skywalker has a useful connection to it. That question is at the core of all the action pieces, witty banter, the grand surface spectacle. At the same time, that Big Reveal — that Luke can, in fact, use the Force — is planted as clues throughout the story. In fact, those clues are what drive the story forward — as they do in any mystery.
But there’s also foreshadowing of the Big Reveal in the next film, which is one of the most famous in pop culture: Why does Luke have that connection to The Force? Because Darth Vader, one of the last of the great Jedi Knights turned one of the most feared of the Sith Lords, is his father. Finally, in Return Of The Jedi, the mystery is: Is Anakin Skywalker still in there? The Big Reveal is: Yes, he is, and it took the bond of family to bring him back from the dark side.
In all three cases, you have a mystery which generates clues that drive the characters toward its solution.
What does this mean for your story?
Once you familiarize yourself with how mysteries work, you’ve unlocked the key to good storytelling in any genre. Science-fiction? That’s a mystery with science (hard or soft) providing the genesis of the mystery and the clues that radiate from it. Horror? That’s where Evil (psychological, supernatural, sociological, what-have-you) does the same job. Ocean’s Eleven, for another quick example, is predominantly a mystery in reverse, where the characters pull off a heist while deliberately leaving false clues to misdirect the opposition’s attempts to stop them. Still a mystery, though.
How do you put this into practice? Easy. Start with the Big Reveal. Figure that out first. Then move on to the question of who is involved in the “crime”, because it’s their story first. Fully flesh that story out first. Whether your main protagonists are coming in at the aftermath or in the planning stage, you need to have at least a rough idea of what you want the protagonist to see and how it relates to the bigger picture they don’t see yet.
As always, while this approach works well for me, your mileage may vary. But give it a try, and let me know in the comments how it works for you.