July 18, 2014

Mysteries and unknowns

I was working on the sequel to CITY OF STAIRS the other day, and suddenly I found my work dribbling to a halt.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know what would happen next. I knew what would happen next, or at least what I thought should happen next. The thing was, I suddenly realized that if I made the story do what I was thinking it should do, then the rest of the book simply couldn’t happen.

This was because the book, like most of my books, functions as a mystery. And mysteries function on not knowing the right amount of things. This planned development, I realized, would throw that delicate balance into absolute chaos.

I don’t consider myself a straight mystery writer. Mysteries, especially murder mysteries, have a highly codified series of signals in them, and I think I’d miserably fail at keeping to those. But the nature of a mystery is highly entertaining to read, and relatively easy to write:

There is a thing that is happening. It is not understood. But this person is compelled to understand it!

It’s like water down a hill. There’s very little you need to do to make this machine go.

The “water down a hill” metaphor is especially apt in terms of pacing, which makes or breaks mysteries: know too much, and all suspense comes bleeding out of it. Know too little, and it’s frustrating to read. It’d be like letting the Pacific run through a single dam, it’d absolutely destroy it. But you need to let some water through. You have to pace the “discoveries,” hitting certain beats and dropping in realizations so that the reader feels a sense of progression, of increasing knowledge.

This structure works for all kinds of story types. Harry Potter, at the start, was more or less a mystery series, in which some devious malcontent was causing shenanigans in this contained location, and someone had to figure out what they were doing and why. I count myself among those who felt like the books lost some steam the more they deviated from this structure, and suddenly Harry and the gang were sort of like revolutionary insurgents, wandering around the English countryside instead of operating within the tight, driven confines of Hogwarts. It was sort of like taking Clue except now it’s in the woods and everyone knows who the murderer is but they don’t know what to do about it or where they’re going. I realized Harry Potter was a series that thrived off of its confinement and tight structure, and losing those elements meant losing a lot of what made it compelling.

The structure also works in sci-fi extremely well: Fringe and The X-Files were both, structurally-speaking, mysteries, even basic murder mysteries at the start of their run. It works in romance, too: what bigger mystery is there than trying to understand another person?

Most soap operas function off of mystery, wondering who is getting up to what and what their goals are. Family stories like The Blind Assassin are even mystery stories: who’s writing the novel? What happened to this family? Why do they hate each other? Why is the main character so alone and unhappy? The same family structure applies to The Son, in which a family’s evolution is witnessed from multiple points in the timeline, so you have some idea of who dies and who leaves but you’re not sure how or why. This makes for remarkably compelling reading. “How did we get here?”

Really, any plotty book relies on the reader not knowing things and wishing they knew more. There are very few books where everything actually is as it seems right up front in Chapter One. The problem is timing the realizations, rolling back the veil on all those unknowns at the right speed.

The problem I encountered with my writing was that, if this unknown was unveiled at this point in the book, the rest of the book would become unfeasible. It would be a bit like Chekhov’s gun, except in the middle of Act Two someone would undeniably, verifiably confirm that, “Hey, this gun is cursed to cause its owner to shoot and kill the thing they love most. I actually have several letters of documentation from academics and government officials confirming that.” And EVERYONE would be in the room to hear it.

That would make it a lot harder for that gun to go off in Act Three, right? People would know not to use it – right? Wouldn’t they also, like, just leave? I know I wouldn’t want to stick around. You’d have to come up with some really tortuous reasoning to keep them all trapped there.

So I decided that, in the alphabet of plot, this was jumping from the letter E straight to the letter X, rather than following the natural progression, F. So I had to restructure it. This, surprisingly, took very little work. I had to ask myself, “What unknown really needs to get uncovered at this moment?” And I realized the answer was right there. From then on, I basically had to change it so that the body in the room was stabbed rather than shot, so to speak, because that would send the plot shooting off in the right direction.

A book is a machine that functions on momentum, like a flywheel. But if you aim it in the wrong direction, it quickly loses its energy.