Plot and the structure of mystery.

Originally posted March 29, 2004:

I spent last night watching movies, and now I have a rant about plot. I watched 3 movies last night. The first one was an absolutely atrocious movie called Uncovered by the writer of (and this should have been enough to cause me to put the movie back) The Ninth Gate. The premise of this movie was the classic intrigue-using-art-as-a-cover plot, sort of like The Davinci Code, only in this case the two tricks were a painting depicting a mystery and a chess game depicting the answer. The setup was really intriguing, but the execution was so utterly horrible that I have been cross about it ever since. Everything a murder mystery can do wrong, this murder mystery did wrong--and the thing is that since the movie was based on a book, I have a feeling the book made all the mistakes the movie made, first, and in even more condescending a manner. Nothing is worse than a really horrible murder mystery that leaves you going throughout the entire read, "My god, monkeys could have written a better plot than this."

Mystery writers, if you are writing a mystery--and by "mystery," I mean a story wherein we are, oh, you know, not supposed to know who did it--then here are three things that might help.

1) Don't point the finger of suspicion at the actual murderer early on.
2) Don't keep coming back to the murderer and his shady motives throughout the movie even when he has supposedly been "cleared" of any wrongdoing.
3) Don't systematically kill off all of your other suspects until only two of them are left--one of whom is obviously innocent, the other of whom is the guy we have been suspecting since about half an hour into the movie.
4) Don't try to use "symbolism" surrounding the "mystery" of the murderer, especially not when that symbolism is extremely obvious. In this case, the brilliant mind of the writer attempted to symbolize the murderer as a chess piece--a black queen. The reason this did not work? The murderer himself was, in fact, a flaming queen. So not only was the entire narrative screaming the identity of the murderer from start to finish, the one piece of "creative" plot development, linking the chess pieces to the murder, just became yet another rather snide and condescending way of beating us over the head with the obvious.

Above all, mystery writers--if you have built up a "plot," and you have constructed your entire plot around this sort of centerpiece of motives by which all other motives are being contextualized, do not have the actual motive for the killings be completely unrelated to the thing we have all thought it was. Granted, this might work better if we had any other motive given to us at all other than, "oh, look, this guy who's been acting completely insane all this time? He really is insane."

But seriously. If you have a murder mystery set aorund a pet store, and the entire story is set up around trying to figure out why all these rare pets at the pet store are dying, DO NOT tell me at the end of the book that it was all a foil for a woman who was having an incestuous relationship with her brother and expect me to ever buy another book with your name on the cover again. (Yes, I have read a story like that).

If you are writing a book about a specialized interest--say, if you are writing about a community orchestra (this terrible little book was actually set in the town I live in), you should keep in mind that lots and lots of people have played an instrument at some point in their life, and may therefore have figured out ten chapters before your main character that the poison was administered to the victim through the mouthpiece of the instrument they play. Realise that this is not in fact an ingenious way of killing someone because a good portion of your audience will have caught on and will be wondering why it's taking your character so long to catch up with them.

Finally, do not create a plot whereby the mystery only becomes solvable at the last minute thanks to some hitherto hidden piece of evidence, that surfaces only at the end at the whim of the author in order to give themselves a plot.

The best kinds of plots are the ones that are all in place at the beginning of the story, and need to be reassembled like a puzzle in order to make sense. Agatha Christie is an unsurpassable master at this, really--she's an expert at giving us plots that are already solvable at the beginning of the story--plots that only need to be analyzed and approached from an unconventional angle. So is Poe in his Dupin short stories. Today's best detective fiction rarely does that, but rather relies on the mechanisms of suspense-thriller type writing, whereby it's all about the final shocking twist at the end of the book, and reliance on sheer logic takes a back seat.

As you can tell, this annoys me. What people seem to forget is that if you have a really strong logic-based plot you can have any number of twists; but nothing is more demeaning to a reader, or to an audience, than the kind of twist that comes out of nowhere with no contextual motive other than "to have a twist." Please, if you must have a twist, give me a twist like the one that occurs 2/3rds of the way through Vertigo, or the one at the end of The Murder of Roger Akroyd, or the ending of The Usual Suspects--one where the twist has everything to do with the story you've been telling all along, and not one where you suddenly realise the story was all just a cheap setup for The Twist--whether the twist is the sleazy incestuous relationship of the lady killing pet iguanas, or the incredibly gratuitous and unoriginal endings of the recent films Taking Lives and Secret Window.

And that's another thing. Taking Lives was billed as "the newest thriller in the Hitchcock tradition." Which, I'm sorry, but omgstfu. Every time I hear Hitchcock used as a way of marketing a new film I just cringe because the new film is never connected to anything remotely Hitchcock-like. When a new film does manage to pay homage to Hitchcock, it's usually an effort on the part of the director to expand on the tradition of the psychological thriller rather than to put a gaudy new face on an old has-been cliche. Recent examples of films that have claimed to be done in the tradition of Hitchcock include the two recent films just mentioned, which both sucked, and a long long line of recent suspense-thrillers which had very little thrills and even less suspense. But then you have films like Silence of the Lambs, Seven, The Others, and The Fugitive, which, despite being completely different from one another in every conceivable way, all owe a great debt to Hitchcock.

The first thing you learn from a really good Hitchcock film is that they all rely heavily on the audience to do the work of the film. Hitchcock, controversial little man though he was, was a lover of jokes, and he understood very clearly that just as it's no fun for the audience if you don't get to play a part in figuring out what's going on along with the characters, the "twist" of any good film needs to be the crucial realization that the joke's been played on us, along with the characters. In a good film, that is done always with logic, so that when you throw the seemingly illogical in among the things that have been nice and orderly and make sense (like the reappearance of the dead female character in Vertigo or Fritz Lang's Laura), it's the disruption of order that throws us for a loop as much as the "shock" value of it. The mistake most people make when they talk about the movie Psycho (Spoiler warning, though if you haven't seen the movie now after 40 years I can only imagine that nothing I say here will make you change your mind), is that they misunderstand the "twist" element of the film, which comes the moment when we see the old woman's corpse. Mediocre filmmakers, and mediocre writers, assume that the "twist" comes from the pure shock value of seeing the corpse; but that's not the twist--the real twist lies in the sudden quadruple realiisation that a) not only is the woman dead, but b) her son killed her, c) he has been dressing up like her and leading a schizophrenic life, and d) has been killing everybody else.

What Hitchcock teaches us is that ultimately there either needs to be logic behind the mystery, or mystery in the lack of logic.

Developing logic behind the mystery means that you can create a picture where all of the dramatic tension ultimately gives way to the question of how to make any of this suddenly reassemble itself into a picture that makes sense. The crucial "twist" of any good mystery should be very much like seeing one of those 3d wall pictures suddenly pop into focus; nothing about the picture changes, but your perception of it alters what is presented, and suddenly it all makes sense. Hitch does this so incredibly well in movies like Rebecca, Suspicion, and The 39 Steps. More recently filmmakers like Alejandro Almenabar and M. Night Shayamalan have stuck very closely to this formula, and the result has been movies like The Sixth Sense and Abre Los Ojos (made into the film Vanilla Sky) that have managed to be both profoundly interesting from a psychological standpoint as well as incredibly suspenseful in terms of plot.

And let's not forget, of course, The Talented Mr. Ripley. In fact Patricia Highsmith, author of the series of novels from which The Talented Mr. Ripley is based, had one of her stories turned into a film that was not only directed by the master himself, but adapted for the screen by another master of plot, Raymond Chandler. That movie, Strangers on a Train, is quintessential Hitchcock in a number of ways I won't go into right now because this post, I see, is already going to be very very long; but one of the ways it is most completely exemplary is in the strange psychological dynamic of its two lead characters, the hero and the villain.

Which leads me to the second thing that you learn from a really good Hitchcock film, as well as from a really good Agatha Christie novel, or from a really good piece of film noir--and that is that no suspense-thriller is suspenseful unless you're invested in what happens to the characters. If we don't truly care about the characters then there's nothing to separate a classic psychological thriller like Stanley Kubrick's The Shining from your average run-of-the-mill slasher flick where half the fun is your detachment as you wait for all the standard run-of-the-mill teen actors to get chopped up. You, as a writer, owe it to your characters to make them fascinating--not to make them a prototype of a style made popular by someone else. I can't tell you how many times I got pissed off at a murder mystery a third of the way through because the person solving the mystery was a cheap 2-dimensional stereotypical noir mouthpiece with no distinctive personality and nothing to set them apart from the equally cheap 2-dimensional murder suspects around them. I have the same issue with romance writers who grew up reading Barbara Kingsolver and Danielle Steele and who now think that all their female characters have to be successful women in their mid-30's who are all deeply conflicted by some dark secret in their past. Oh, please, if I wanted that crap I'd be watching Lifetime anyway, not reading your stupid novel.

I know that characterizations in a murder mystery often take a back seat to issues of plot, but that's no excuse to do a half-assed job by giving me characters I already know because I've read them a million times. Make them your own--make them real, make them flawed. If you want me to care about a villain, give me the two squabbling and dysfunctional gay lovers at the center of Rope--a movie based on a real-life event, incidentally. Give me the femme fatales of The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, who manage to make you sympathize with them even while you're busy being horrified at the way they've been using and manipulating their victims. Give me All About Eve's Addison DeWitt and Eve Harrington; give me the fabulous debonair gentlemen psychopaths Hannibal Lector and Strangers on a Train's Bruno Walter. If you want me to care about a hero, give him the vulnerability of Jimmy Stewart hampered by injury in Rear Window, or by or a clinical fear of heights in Vertigo. Give him the quick-on-his-feet agility of Robert Donat in The 39 Steps or Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Or, give a vapid, shallow creature like Guy Haines in Stranger on a Train, or Dickie in Talented Mr. Ripley, the benefit of being seen through the eyes of a complex, likeable killer like Bruno or Ripley--so that the hero actually becomes more complex and humanized as our affection for his antithesis grows.

There are so many well-done psychological portraits for you to learn from that even in a plot-driven mystery you have no excuse to ignore characterization and originality of tone and character voice. For fuck's sake, read Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. As developed and complex as their plots are, it's nothing to the way we respond to the characterization. If you, as a mystery writer, give me 2 hours of plot-heavy action and little to no character development, only to end with, "See? This guy did it because he's insane!" then you have not only failed to win me over to your side of the argument, but you've cheated your own story by failing to supply the necessary ingredients of the story you were trying to tell--namely, strong characterization and persuasive motivation. And all because you relied too heavily on the gratuitous working-out of your little, ultimately superflous, as it turned out, plot to carry the day.

If, however, you tell me a story where the plot is so convoluted I have no idea what the fuck I just watched when the final credits start to play, but you have managed to intrigue me with superb characterizations and flawless control of your narrative, then even if I don't have the slightest bloody clue what happened and who did what to who when or why, I'm going to want to watch the movie again and again and again, as in Mulholland Drive, The Birds, The Big Sleep, Vertigo, or Swimming Pool (and if anybody does know what the hell happened in Swimming Pool, please feel free to fill me in). That is the other side of the coin--mystery in the lack of logic. In this way Hitchcock and his followers have been preceded by fabulous Gothic writers: Poe, the Brontes, Henry James in The Turn of the Screw. They all understood that ultimately the unanswered question is more haunting and infinitely more valuable than having an easy resolution. Classic horror-suspense films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Blair Witch Project, as well as, from what I can tell, a long line of Japanese ghost-horror films, also dwell on the question rather than the conclusive answering of that question. To me no popular mystery-suspense film in Western cinema does this more beautifully and more hauntingly than The Birds, which is almost Japanese in its presentation and exploration of the confluence of the supernatural, the natural, and the human. If filmmakers can get over the need to have definitive resolutions in their filmmaking then why can't we as writers? I struggle with this myself, but I always come back to the fact that it's the presentation of whatever question you want to ask, and not the answering of it, that's ultimately important. As Iris Dement says, "I choose to let the mystery be."

Okay, now we move on to suspense. Yes! Suspense! This is my favorite part. Suspense is necessarily harder to sustain in a mystery novel than it is onstage or in a film, but when a master like Agatha Christie tries it she gets the longest-running play in British history, The Mousetrap, which is now in its 51st year. (I saw this play when I was a little girl--it was only the 2nd thing i'd ever seen onstage, and it SCARED ME TO DEATH. Just so you know. Not to mention the book And Then There Were None (aka Ten Little Indians), which is Dame Agatha's way of showing that not only can suspense be written well, but it is something that the audience and the reader creates by themselves. If I were to say to you, "Oh, these 10 people are all mysteriously invited to this house on a deserted island and then they all start being gradually killed off one by one," you'd be all, *cough* heardthisamilliontimesbefore *yawn*. But when you're actually reading the story, there's this constant thread running through all the events of this totally creepy-ass nursery rhyme, and there's absolutely no question in your mind that these people are going to die, and at least on the first read-through, it's one of the most terrifying things ever, because there is no reprieve.

That is the key to creating well-done suspense: there is no reprieve for the reader/audience until either the story or the immediate moment of suspense is over. There has to be a constant tension between the desired release the audience wants, and the neverending build-up the story is giving us. Any premature letup can ruin a story as effectively as premature ejaculation can ruin sex. It's often been said that the classic Chase story is the ideal plot. Why? Because the chase story is the extremity of never-ending suspense. Catch Me If You Can. The Fugitive. Midnight Run. The kind of story where the object is absolutely clear--catch Person A--and the story is entirely one of suspense: whether or not Person A will escape. The most tightly-wound car chases, for example, manage to keep you both entertained and interested in the action without letting up on the pace (see The French Connection). They're able to switch gears often enough to keep your attention span from drifting (see The Matrix: Reloaded), and they're able to crank up the tension as much as possible without letting you down in the final moments (see Thelma and Louise).

The way you write suspense is to keep your pace taut and your Goal, or your Question, clear. There is plenty of suspense in, say, a movie like Mulholland Drive or Momento, but when you watch either of these the first time you're bound to miss it because you're too busy wondering what the fuck is going on. On the other hand, in a movie like Run, Lola, Run, the entirety of the plot is bound up in one clear objective that never changes, and no matter how many times you retell the story, the suspense never ends because the resolution of that one objective is uncertain each time. It's knowing how to ratchet up the tension and keep your audience focused on that one goal--or in some cases, that one overriding Question--that creates true suspense.

At a Hitchcock fest a couple of years ago I got to see several of Hitchcock's early films, one of which was a really dark early piece called Sabotage. The entire plot of the film builds up to the last 10-minute sequence, which involves a little boy, an unwitting pawn in the terrorist schemes of his family, getting on a bus and taking the bus downtown. The boy is carrying a package which he doesn't realise is a bomb, and the bomb is set to go off exactly on the hour. The majority of this entire final sequence is a very gradual, very intense build-up of cutaway shots from the boy, riding along obliviously on the bus, to the clock in the town square, and back again--the bus. the clock, the bus, the clock, the bus, the clock, and you, the audience, keep waiting for something to happen, but it doesn't, and it keeps on not happening, and by the time the sequence ends the tension is so great, and the Question of "Will the boy and the other people on the bus escape or not?" is so intense that the bomb finally exploding is almost cathartic. And it's certainly unforgettable.

Hitchcock's famous title is "The Master of Suspense," and rightly so, because he does this so well. What disappoints and frustrates me often is that it's so rare to see his brand of suspense done anymore in film. It's like filmmakers today either don't understand how he does it, don't think it's worth attempting to emulate, or just don't think it's worth emulating. I don't get that. Hitchcock's formula for suspense is an excellent one for both filmmakers and writers alike, because he uses the 2 cardinal rules just discussed, identifying the objective and keeping the pace taut, and then, most importantly, he combines them with a third rule, which is: make use of your surroundings. Part of the extraordinary impact of the bomb sequence in Sabotage was due to the fact that the little boy is on something so ordinary and everyday as a bus. While he is so obliviously reacting to the treat of getting to go downtown to the square, suspense is being created because of what we know will happen once he gets to the square. Hitchcock also creates suspense out of the rhythmic intensity of that sequence--the rhythm of the wheels on the bus, and of the ticking of the clock. He draws on things given to him by the setting. In Strangers on a Train, one of the most suspenseful moments comes when Bruno accidentally drops the watch he is using to blackmail Guy down a gutter. While he is outside on the street desperately trying to recapture his lost leverage, Guy, a pro tennis player, is inside the stadium desperately trying to win a tennis match that will allow him to escape the feds who think he's guilty of murder, and Bruno, who he knows will be waiting for him. Hitchcock cuts between Bruno straining to reach the watch and the back-and-forth of the tennis game, and lets the rhythm of the tennis match become a sort of ticking-clock. In The Foreign Correspondent he uses the grinding of gears inside a windmill to effect the element of time winding down--in The Man Who Knew Too Much he uses the impending musical climax of a symphony--in The 39 Steps it's the ringing of a phone.

And who in the world can forget the schoolyard sequence of The Birds? That sequence remains one of the creepiest things I've ever seen on film, no matter how many times I watch it: like Agatha Christie's use in her novels of "Ten Little Indians" and "One Two, Buckle My Shoe," it employs the sinister undertones of an outwardly innocent children's nursery rhyme. Not only does it subvert the innocence associated with the nursery rhyme, but it has the children singing said nursery rhyme, over and over again, as if their singing were some sort of hypnotic call, in a way, to the birds waiting to attack them outside. (Children's nursery rhymes and children's sing-song, by the way, are officially 2 of the 3 creepiest things in the world, the third thing being children's dolls. *shuddershiver*) The sing-song nursery rhyme in this case becomes the ticking-clock mechanism. Hitchcock knows the value of stillness, and how edgy it makes us when nothing is happening, when something should be happening but isn't, so when we're sitting there nervously fidgeting along with Tippi Hedren, and we're listening to the singing and the camera flicks back to the swingset--and we realise that where there were just a few birds a moment before, now there are hundreds--that moment never fails to terrify me out of my skull. Without any kind of dramatic emphasis or any kind of visual or orchestral trick, Hitchcock has given us a classic moment of suspense built up using only the camera, the setting of the schoolhouse and the schoolyard, and the spell-bound imagination of his audience.

I know they say they don't make films like that anymore, but they really really don't. Spielberg occasionally comes close in his uses of dramatic suspense in films like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List, but off the top of my head I can't think of another recent film I've seen that encompasses all the true elements of suspense at its most basic level. The Others is another notable exception to the rule, but the sad fact is that it remains the exception. And I love films like that--I can't get enough of them. They are like water to me as a movie-watcher--I love them, and it is sad to me to see so many films try to get somewhere within this formula and fail miserably. Secret Window, as bad as it was, made a valiant effort, as did its inbred cousins Uncovered and The Ninth Gate. The sequence with the horse in The Ring is an example of a film aiming for Hitchcockian-suspense and getting mired in its own convoluted plot and lack of direction. In order to achieve true suspense you have to understand what the goal of the scene is--and since nobody knew what was happening with the horses at that point during the movie (not that it was ever explained well enough to be more than a gratuitous plot point at best), the entire scene failed. The Ring, like so many similar horror-suspense films of its ilk being produced today, was working in the realm of the traditional horror film, where the question is ultimately "will I survive?" and not "how can I figure out what is happening?" It never understood that well enough to keep its focus as a film, and suffered as a result. It failed, along with other films-with-potential, like What Lies Beneath and Stir of Echoes, where films like The Sixth Sense and The Others succeeded.

What can we take away from all of this as writers (other than the fact that I should never be let loose on the subject of Hitchcock because I could just rant on and on and on)? I think it's that the same principles that make for good theatre-watching and good movie-viewing for us as audiences should also govern the way we structure our stories. If you hate movies where the heroine is perfect and everybody loves her, then why write a book where your protagonist, even if they aren't necessarily a hero, has no visible flaws? If you hate being able to figure out the plot of a movie ten years in advance of its characters, then are you paying attention to the use of the obvious in your own plot? Are you relying on the intelligence of your readers or are you trying to hand-hold them through the novel? And most especially, are you writing something that you would love to read?

Okay. All ranted out. Any of you who've actually made it this far--I salute you. :)

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