I Don’t Understand Mysteries, And That Kinda Hurts My Writing Career
My Uncle Tommy loved mysteries as a kid. I was more drawn to his science fiction collection.
Weirdly, that absence actually hurts me as a writer.
Because I never read any mysteries (and I never watched ’em), I never internalized the rhythms of mysteries, nor picked up on how to structure them. I understand, vaguely, when a clue gets dropped, but I have never ever once in my entire life solved a mystery before the story ended, and that includes really dumb and easy-to-understand clues like the rogue taxi driver in the first episode of Sherlock.
Me reading mysteries is like a dog watching television: I’m entertained, but I can’t say I’m getting it.
And that’s actually kind of a hindrance when it comes to writing a long-running series with a small cast. Mysteries are an excellent backbone plot to stick characters in, because the characters don’t have to change all that much; their concern is figuring out who the killer is and what they’re up to. You can have lovely little character bits sprinkled through, but the motivating force is not something that the character is deciding to do because they need to change their lives, but instead is an external event that’s hampering their life.
Which is why mystery writers can write series that go on forever. There’s a dab of character evolution in there, as everyone wants a character arc – the cold detective warms slightly to people, or the bumbling sidekick creeps towards competence, or there’s a background romance that inches forward – but 95% of the novel is Interesting People Investigating This Distressing Conundrum, and only 5% is based on the character making new decisions they would never have made before today.
And it’s not just Mysteries that use mysteries. Most long-running urban fantasy series are mysteries in a magical wrapper. House ran forever, and that was basically “medical mysteries.” Harry Potter had a lot of characterization, but still, 60% of what drove the plot? A mystery.
Whereas if you don’t have an external mystery to drive the plot, what you have left to move this story forward is character arcs. And those are dangerous. Because if you don’t have a mystery, the character arcs become wide – if Batman isn’t investigating some string of Joker-crimes, then the impetus for events has to be that Batman’s philosophy is threatened in some way. It’s not “Batman chases down the Riddler,” but instead “Batman’s forced to decide when killing is an appropriate response,” or “Batman must question whether the sacrifices he makes to save Gotham City is worth it,” or “Batman must choose between loyalty to family or loyalty to his life’s mission.”
And there’s only so many of those you can do before a) they become really repetitive (because if Batman keeps rejecting his personal life to save Gotham City, then the outcome’s never in question), or b) the decision creates a change that fundamentally alters the character so they don’t have the same appeal (as “The marital conflicts of Bruce Wayne, no-longer-adventuring-husband” are unlikely to appeal to teenaged boys).
I ran into this when I was writing my ‘Mancer series. Without a mystery-of-the-week to drive the series, there were three stories I could realistically tell: Family of magicians comes together, family of magicians is driven apart by an evil force, family of magicians is driven apart by a good force.
And I’m proud of the ‘Mancer series, I am, but people keep asking me, “So what comes next?” and….I got nothing. (Well, not nothing, I’ve got my new novel The Uploaded coming out in September, but that’s in an entirely different universe in an entirely different genre. Although it’s also about families. And yet I digress.) In the ‘Mancer series, these characters have changed radically from their inception, and I can’t think of anything else they could do that would be as compelling. I could go on to tell the stories of other ‘mancers in that universe (and might, some day), but that’s different from the bestselling urban fantasies that have fifteen novels on the continuing adventures of That Character You Love.
Because if I could write mysteries, it’d be fun to plop Valentine and Aliyah into the Mystery Machine and have them go around solving magically obsessive crimes. But…. I’ve tried, and I never internalized the rhythms of how mysteries work. I don’t think in mystery terms. And that is a real handicap for a guy who already doesn’t know how to plot in advance.
Not that it’s a bad thing that I write novels with huge, sweeping character arcs. It’s just a mild issue for my career as a writer, because even if by some miracle I wrote The Bestselling Novel, I couldn’t then spin out endless tales with that person at the center. I’d tell three, maybe four stories and be done.
(Which isn’t to say that many famous writers haven’t done well off of that model – they have – but it’s sure nicer if you can Jim Butcher your way into a situation where every annual installment helps sell copies of the other 14 books in the series.)
I’ve pondered how to solve that, or even if it needs to be solved. I’ve wondered whether I should do nothing but read a mystery book a week for a year, hoping that I might start to think in mystery ways. I’ve read books on How To Write A Mystery, and they seem cold and distant to me.
And maybe it’s because, ultimately, the mystery isn’t that compelling to me. Reason I’m writing this is because last night I picked up a mystery by an author who I really enjoyed, and the first three chapters left me cold. It was a perfectly good book, and yet what was a really interesting take on a locked-room mystery still had me shrugging.
In the end, this may be like the appreciation I wish I had for jazz, or 80s rap; I’ve listened, I wish I was educated enough to find the joy that other people take in it, but I’ve tried and it doesn’t seem to work. And maybe mainlining it for a year would give me that joy, or maybe it’d turn out that it’s just not for me no matter what I do.
Some days, I write essays that come to firm conclusions about how things should be. This isn’t one of them. It’s not like my writing career hinges on getting this down; it’s just a tool in the box that I lack. And you can get by as a writer without possessing all the tools, as there’s plenty of writers who don’t really have the rhythm of traditional plotting or character arcs down, and they compensate with other strengths.
But it’d be nice to be able to write a story and not have it all hinge on the growth of the characters. I’d like a little mystery in there to serve as the spring.
Maybe some day.