Saturday, August 08, 2020

Storyteller's Rulebook: Create a False Mystery

I haven’t mentioned it in years, but one of the two screenplays I got that won some money and got me signed by a big-deal manager was my biopic of Alan Turing. It had a lot of big fans in Hollywood but they said they couldn’t make it because Turing was gay, so my manager gave up on it. A few years later, social mores had changed, and another Turing script went out, which sold for a million dollars and won an Oscar. Oh, well.

When I was structuring the script, I decided to play a trick. My script covered many years and ended with my hero’s suicide, which is kind of a bummer. I decided to begin with the discovery of his body and have a government investigator suspect foul play and reconstruct the story of Turing’s life. In the end: Nope, it was just a suicide. But the false mystery provided more structure than the script would have had otherwise.

“Little Fires Everywhere” does a similar thing. The Richardson house has burned down and everybody naturally suspects daughter Izzy, who has disappeared.
  • “What’s so funny?” Lexie said.
  • “Just picturing Izzy running around striking matches everywhere.” He snorted. “The nutcase.”
  • Moody drummed a finger on the roof rack. “Why is everybody so sure she did it?”
  • “Come on.” Trip jumped down off the car. “It’s Izzy. And we’re all here. Mom’s here. Dad’s on his way. Who’s missing?”
  • “So Izzy’s not here. She’s the only one who could be responsible?”
  • “Responsible?” put in Lexie. “Izzy?”
  • “Dad was at work,” Trip said. “Lexie was at Serena’s. I was over at Sussex playing ball. You?”
  • Moody hesitated. “I biked over to the library.”
  • “There. You see?” To Trip, the answer was obvious. “The only ones here were Izzy and Mom. And Mom was asleep.”
  • “Maybe the wiring in the house shorted. Or maybe someone left the stove on.”
  • “The firemen said there were little fires everywhere,” Lexie said. “Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident.”
  • “We all know she’s always been mental.” Trip leaned back against the car door.
  • “You’re all always picking on her,” Moody said. “Maybe that’s why she acts mental.”
  • Across the street, the fire trucks began to reel in their hoses. The three remaining Richardson children watched the firemen set down their axes and peel away their smoky yellow coats.
  • “Someone should go over and stay with Mom,” Lexie said, but no one moved.
  • After a minute, Trip said, “When Mom and Dad find Iz, they are going to lock her up in a psych ward for the rest of her life.”
  • No one thought about the recent departure of Mia and Pearl from the house on Winslow Road.
We already sense that Moody is, in some ways, smarter than his brother and sister, and he has his doubts about Izzy. Then Ng points out that nobody has connected the fire yet to the disappearance of two more people: Mia and Pearl. The implication is clear: Izzy probably didn’t do it, and the reader is invited to spend the book trying to guess the real culprit.

And in the end, we find out the culprit is… Izzy, working alone, who went around the house starting little fires everywhere, just as Lexie and Trip assumed. It was a false mystery, tricking us into reading avidly. 
But ultimately it’s fair, for the same reason my own false mystery was fair, because Turing ultimately was sort of murdered by a larger conspiracy, and lots more people were ultimately responsible for the complex chain of events that led Izzy to start the fires. It turns out to be worthwhile, in both stories, to closely examine the events leading up to this tragedy to discover the complex web of ill-will that led up to it. 
Both stories are fairly diffuse, and brought into sharper relief by beginning with a flash-forward and a false mystery. It’s a devious trick, but I recommend it with some stories.


James Kennedy said...

The eels changed their minds? (It's spelled "mores.")

Matt Bird said...

News to me.

James Kennedy said...

I think it would be great if you posted your Alan Turing script and we did an episode about it. I'm guessing there's no chance of it being made now, because of THE IMITATION GAMW. But we know that it's good, because it won you money and representation. And yet you wrote it before you thought up all these rules, so it would interested to see how you may have unconsciously fulfilled (or creatively broke) those rules. Let's see some great Matt Bird content!!

James Kennedy said...

(The typos in the message above are my karmic gift to you after I snarkily called out your misspelling)

Robert K S said...

Where is the like button on these James Kennedy comments

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