Thursday, December 6, 2012
Mystery Solved! (or not)
As a reader, I want to go "Whoa!" and then, "OF COURSE." I want to be kept precariously on the edge between feeling like I know exactly where things are going, and having the rug pulled out from underneath me. A good mystery makes me want to immediately go back and reread, to see how the author wove in the clues from beginning to end.
Remember the first time you watched the movie The Sixth Sense? It was a brilliantly crafted mystery- with a completely surprising but inevitable twist at the end: the psychologist played by Bruce Willis was really dead. All the clues were there- Bruce Willis getting shot at the beginning, interacting with a boy who saw and talked to dead people. No other characters talked to Bruce Willis. He even wore the same clothes in every scene. Yet, it was completely surprising, because the writer used misdirection and red herrings to distract the viewer from the real solution, by focusing on the boy's strange affliction and the psychologist's efforts to help the boy. I didn't feel cheated because the psychologist did help the boy, and more importantly, the psychologist didn't realize he was dead until the same moment we discovered it. I loved that there was more going on than I ever realized. And, once the reveal was made, it all fell into place.
I think that kind of ending is really hard to pull off. Indeed, try as he might, M. Night Shyamalan has never been able to duplicate that kind of story-telling success. I'm not saying that every mystery needs to end in an amazing twist, but I do think that there are some "rules" to good endings that mysteries should strive for.
1. The Clues are in the Text: The reader does not necessarily have to be able to piece all the clues together before the big reveal, but once the big reveal happens, the reader should be able to go back and see that the clues were there all along. That's part of what builds the inevitability of a good ending. Perhaps a clue was there, but overlooked by the main character (and the reader). Maybe the clue was misinterpreted. Maybe the clue only had significance after a later discovery. The reader should be able to see how things the main character discovered at the beginning of the book fit with the solution. The reader should not have to be an expert in a particular field to solve the mystery. If a particular piece of expert knowledge is required (such as the fact that the flowers in the garden are poisonous) make sure that this information is in the book.
2. The Main Character Should Not Hide Important Information from the Reader: A solution to a mystery that is dependent on the main character withholding important information is sure to drive a reader insane. Readers want to relate to and connect with the main character. They don't want to be lied to. And, while a glaring omission is not exactly a lie, it feels like one. It's okay to tease and build suspense by making the reader work to understand a character's past or motivations, but if the central mystery is dependent on the protagonist withholding a key piece of information from the reader, the twist will feel contrived.
2. The Bad Guy has a Role in the Story: Nothing is worse than narrowing down a field of suspects, only to learn that the bad guy is someone we've never met or heard of. A good ending connects dots and capitalizes on clues that were planted at the beginning of the story. The reader cares about the outcome because we care about the characters.
3. The Twists Don't all Come at the End: A good mystery doesn't save all the plot twists and turns for the final act. A few well placed surprises prime the reader to expect the unexpected, and also keeps the reader guessing until the end. A lot of twists at the end is not only exhausting, but it can make the reader start to lose trust in the writer, if NOTHING is as it seemed.
4. Not all Leads are False: False leads and red herrings are important in a mystery. Not only do they help keep the reader from figuring things out too soon, but they add layers to the story. That said, some of the clues have to pay off, or the reader will lose trust in the story.
5. The Mystery has Consequences for the Protagonist: the stakes in any great story should be deeply personal to the protagonist, but this is especially true in mysteries. While it's possible to write a good story about a detective investigating a crime involving strangers, the best stories are filled with personal stakes. There should be consequences that will directly affect the protagonist. If the protagonist is personally involved in the outcome, the reader will be too.
Talia Vance is the author of Silver (Flux). Her YA mystery Spies & Prejudice (Egmont) will be published in June 2013.