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Mysteriosity

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Been seeing a fair number of submissions lately in which Something Mysterious Is Going On--and by two-thirds of the way through the story, there's still been no clue at all of what's happening. It's still just a string of random and arbitrary-seeming events, and the protagonist is at least as bewildered as they were at the start.

I imagine there are plenty of examples of good stories and movies that have this structure, but it doesn't really work for me, at least not the way these submissions are doing it. I want to have something to hold onto. Mystery can be great; it can build tension. But if, after the halfway point of the story, all I'm seeing is mystery, just one unexplained event after another, I get bored. I skim ahead to find out what the answer to the mystery is.

It doesn't help that in a lot of these cases, the answer doesn't provide enough of a payoff for me. But that's also partly because of the structure. If you don't give the reader any clues for two-thirds of the story, then the payoff has to be really strong to make them feel it was worth their time to have read that far.

Another attribute that such stories often have is that it's only the protagonist who has no idea what's going on. Some or all of the people around the protagonist know everything about what's going on, and the protagonist often asks them over and over to explain it, and they decline. Which increases my frustration with the story--it seems increasingly contrived, a device to keep the reader in the dark.

I think that in essence this kind of story structure is pretty similar to the surprise-twist-ending approach: in both cases, the primary focus of the story is on hiding information from the reader. Sure, plot is revelation management, most stories hide something from the reader, but in most stories there are other sources of reader pleasure in addition to that of awareness of a mystery.

I suppose for readers who like being confused, a series of mysterious events is probably enough to keep them interested. But I'm not such a reader.

(Written in March but I didn't get around to posting it 'til now.)

4 Comments

Uh-oh.


As a long-time reader of mysteries, I have no patience for mysteries where the protagonist is still clueless 2/3 of the way through, or where the protagonist does more than one slightly dumb thing per mystery. I do read one series where the protagonist often solves the mystery through sheer luck. Normally I wouldn't tolerate that, but that series is written as a comedy, so I judge it on a different scale.


I blame the popularity of series like X-Files and Lost, in which keeping the Big Secrets from the protagonists (and the audience) was/is one of the main features of the show. With X-Files the revelations were nowhere near satisfying, Lost seems more promising but is also walking a fine line.
But it's not a completely new phenomenon. I thought that Stephen Donaldson's The Mirror of Her Dreams also suffers because the protagonist is kept very much in the dark about what's going on during a large part of the book. Although the pieces certainly fit together in the end (and the climax in the second book of the duology is certainly rewarding), it took me a long time to get past this beginning.


silk_noir: :)

Twig: But I should note that in the kinds of stories I'm talking about, it's not just there's an unsolved mystery; it's that Weird And Mysterious Random Things keep happening. The protagonist finds themselves suddenly in a mysterious field of alien plants, and then suddenly in a mysterious bathtub, and every random number of seconds they teleport to a new weird mysterious location, and mysterious insects arrive and say "We know what's happening to you, but we aren't going to tell you, ha! ha!" and then the mysterious ice cream truck drives up, and this goes on and on and on.

Jacob B: Oh, I just remembered that you're a different Jacob from who I momentarily thought you were. Apologies if I've replied to any of your comments lately in ways that didn't make sense. Thank you for using the "B," and I'll try to notice that from now on.

Yeah, good point about those TV shows in particular, and other similar sorts of shows in general. With some such shows, the writers can feed the audience some information now and then, but (for example) with Nowhere Man any answers that the show gave tended to be subsequently revealed to be false.... I haven't read the Donaldson in question, but it sounds like I wouldn't like it--in such a work, I'm generally unlikely to get far enough to appreciate the payoff even if it's there.


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