Wordy Wednesday: Every Story Is a Mystery

This past week has been busy. I spent the weekend skiing up north with my family, then Monday afternoon one of my film classes had a Skyped-in guest lecture by one of the head guys from New Line Cinema, which was super cool. Monday evening I was honored and grateful to get to read a short story at the university undergraduate library as part of an annual event in which the creative writing professors nominate students to share their work. It was my second year in a row doing it and I still can’t get over how talented the other writers here are. I’m so lucky to have gotten to share the stage with them.

I read “All She Hears,” a short story that appeared in the collection that won a Hopwood Underclassmen Fiction Award and the Arthur Miller Award last year. SUCH A COOL EXPERIENCE.

I would have loved to have stayed to listen to all the students reading that night, but my family and I left a few after I read because Conrad Pope (Hollywood orchestrator and composer) was giving a guest lecture across campus and who knows when my next chance to hear someone speak on their involvement in Harry Potter and Star Wars and Pirates of the Caribbean and a billion other amazing things would be, right? (And dude, he was awesome.)

Anyway, this week’s Wordy Wednesday is a writing process post.

I feel like I’ve probably talked about this before and just forgotten, but in case I haven’t: a big epiphany moment for me in writing was realizing that every story is a mystery.

For some reason this didn’t hit me until I was reading Harry Potter for the first time in tenth grade, but I can totally see why that’s what finally got that through to me. Harry Potter is marketed as fantasy, not mystery, but while fantasy plays a big part in setting and character development and all that, what truly drives the plot forward (and keeps the reader reading) are the mysteries at the center of each book. (Fun fact: JK Rowling has hardly read any fantasy books, but is super into reading crime novels. So of course her fantasy unfolds the same way as crime.)

But it’s not just the Harry Potter series (MG-YA fantasy) that does this. It’s all books. Anna and the French Kiss (YA contemporary romance)? You spend the entire book chasing the mystery of whether or not Anna and St Clair will get together. The Hunger Games (YA dystopian)? You try to figure out what’s truly going on in the Games and Panem. And all stories rely on the resolution of the mystery in order to leave the reader satisfied at the end.

Basically: stories rely on leaving the reader guessing what will happen next. Whether you’re writing a thriller or realistic fiction, to write an interesting story you have to establish questions to keep the reader invested, lay clues for what your resolution will be so that it doesn’t seem out of nowhere, keep the reader in the dark for as long as possible so that the story feels smart and interesting all the way to the end, etc.

While your story may not rely on a crime as the central element to the plot, you can treat pretty much anything like a crime in the way you unfold the story from there: Have your character act as a detective, going out and interacting with the world, being an active agent in his or her plot. (A solid protagonist relies on action over reaction.) Make your protagonist learn things slowly but constantly, with the pace of learning speeding up exponentially as you move towards the climax, like how the pace of a crime investigation speeds up as the police get closer to figuring out who the murderer is and making the arrest.

Foreshadow. Lay red herrings. And most importantly: treat your reader as an intelligent and active part of the story. Someone who it is your job to trick and mislead–but also charm–until the very end.

So, if you’re having trouble with keeping your plot moving or don’t know where to go next, think about how you think Agatha Christie or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would do it. Or even JK Rowling. (Sorry. Robert Galbraith.)

Thanks for reading!

~Julia

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12 thoughts on “Wordy Wednesday: Every Story Is a Mystery

  1. Pingback: Wordy Wednesday: Red Herring 101 | Julia the Writer Girl

  2. Pingback: Spotlight Saturday #5 | The Librarian Files

    • Maybe! I’ve been busy submitting them to lit mags and other contests, so I need to see if they get accepted elsewhere first, but I’d love for you to be able to read them. 🙂 Thanks for the interest! It means a lot to me.

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  3. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you are absolutely right! I started reading a book a couple months ago that seemed to have no point to it. Now I realize its because there was no mystery in it to draw the reader along. That’s definitely what was missing in it.

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  4. Congrats on being nominated to share your story, Julia! I’m so shy reading my writing out loud, though; I’d much rather just hand it to someone and dash away while he/she is reading it. It is so true that mysteries are in every story because that’s what readers read for. It gives readers a purpose because they need to find out what happens. I’ve also noticed that in all my stories there is some element of mystery, even if it’s not the main genre.

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