Advice for Writers: Almost Every Story is a Mystery!

So here’s what I think makes a good ” mystery” book or movie: an intriguing question is asked at the beginning of a story (typically about a murder, but not always). Over the course of that story, the main character gathers clues. Some of these clues may be dead-ends, but even they help the character get closer to the truth — and also probably help him or her learn some personal truth.

sherlockAt the end of the book, the main character puts all the pieces together in an “Aha!” moment and finally figures out the mystery. At this point, he or she somehow answers the question posed at the beginning of the book. That answer is extremely satisfying because: (a) It’s totally fair, not relying on plot-cheats or contrivances.  All the clues were right there for me to piece together just as the main character did. (b) It’s totally unexpected. Yes, I the reader could have figured out the ending, but I didn’t, mostly because of some clever misdirection on the part of the writer, and some clue that I totally missed.

Guess what? I didn’t just describe a successful mystery: I described one way to write a successful story, mystery or not.

In my latest book (due in December 2014), tentatively titled The Thing I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know, Russel Middlebrook is now 23 years old, post-college, and living in Seattle with his best friends Gunnar and Min. These are the mysteries I set up at the beginning of the book:

(1) Russel saves the life of an older eccentric woman who becomes a sort of mentor to him, and she later has a dream that predicts she will save his life in return. Will she? How exactly?

(2) Everyone around Russel seems to have direction in life, but he doesn’t. Will he find it? What will it be?

(3) Russel’s high school boyfriend, Kevin, is back in his life again. Will they end up together?

(4) Finally, what about the title? What is “the thing I didn’t know I didn’t know”? It’s a very specific thing. How will Russel figure out something he doesn’t even know he doesn’t know?

All these questions are asked in the first three chapters of The Thing I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know – and they’re all answered by the end of the book, but hopefully not in ways that you’ll see coming or be able to predict.

What do you think? Is my Every Story is a Mystery theory a good way to think of all books and movies? Do you other writers write this way, consciously posing questions to your readers (and yourself) while outlining or writing the first draft of a project?

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