Thursday, October 12, 2017

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Always Have a Few Mini-Mysteries, But Not Too Many

Every story has a big unanswered dramatic question hanging over the narrative (Will they win? Will he find love? Will she forgive her parents?). In many stories, even if it isn’t a “mystery story” there will be a whodunit element to this question (Who’s the real bad guy? Who spread the rumor? Who is the secret admirer?)

But this overarching mystery isn’t enough to sustain your narrative. It’s also good to regularly open up mini-mysteries that last for a few scenes, then close them off.

  • These can be information-inferior mini-mysteries (The hero gets a call, we don’t hear the other half of it, then we see the hero acting on it in a mysterious way. Who was the call from? What’s the hero doing now? It may take us a few scenes to get caught up with our hero.) You do not want to have too many of these, or you will break identification.
  • Or they can be information-superior mysteries (we’ve gotten a glimpse of a physical or emotional danger that the hero doesn’t know about yet, and we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop).  These can brake identification as well.
  • Or they could be information-equal mysteries (the hero has found a mysterious clue and must figure out what it is, so we try to figure it out too, looking over his or her shoulder.)  These build identification, so you can have more of them.

But it’s important that you don’t leave these mini-mysteries open for too long, and it’s important that you don’t have too many going at one time. Every mini-mystery is a ball we have to juggle and you can’t keep too many of them up in the air.

Opening up and then resolving mini-mysteries at regular intervals throughout the story satisfies the audience. Forcing them to keep track of too many alienates them.

Let’s look at a story with too many information-inferior mini-mysteries: “I touched the scar on my face and repressed the memories –a gun, a carnival, my mom—No, there was no time to think of that. I saw a man coming that was the last person I wanted to see. What he told me shocked me. I formulated a plan and headed to the courthouse. I didn’t make it two steps past the door before I felt a slug knocking me out. I woke up on the beach. I had a good idea who’d done it, but first I had to play a hunch…”

Yes, I read books like this. Too many mini-mysteries! The scar is an okay example of a mini-mystery that may take several hundred pages to pay off, but because we’re holding onto that one, we might not want that many more, and don’t hit us with a bunch more right at once!