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Article - 'Mystery' by Xanqui

An item about Plots/Characters posted on Dec 25, 2004

Blurb

This article focuses mostly on character mysteries. It describes the three stages of mystery in a story.

Body

For many stories, not knowing everything right away is vital. By leaving secrets hidden until the very end, the creator of the story stands a much better chance of keeping his audience involved and interested in what's going on. Mystery is not only vital to stories, but to the human race. It is what gives humans curiosity, which leads to us discovering more about ourselves and our universe. But to the characters of a story, mystery is their way of finding their place in a plot.

Without some sort of hidden secret revealed at the end, we are given a very generic plot. Now, there are some stories that do this very well, such as the Lord of the Rings. We learn just about every secret we need to know by the end of the first movie. (Yes, movies, I never read the books.) While the plot was very good, it didn't need to have eighteen endings, and would have been just as good if it would have ended with Frodo seeing all of his friends again. We were told that Aragorn was really the king in the first movie, so no big deal there that he became king.

We were interested in that story because we wanted to know what would happen next, not what has already happened. Mystery is about finding out what has already occurred, and because it has already happened, and we didn't know it when it happened, it is much more of a shock because it shows our ignorance of what was going on. However, the first thing a mystery does is leave clues.

Clues
The best way to explain how to use clues is to show stories that successfully use them without revealing what is going on, but makes the audience think "Ah! How could I not have caught that?" The truth is that, unless you are familiar with the links between the clues, there is no possible way for you to find out what the clues are leading to. For example:

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. What do we learn? Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father. You may not realize it, but there were LOTS of clues for this. For example, Obi Wan was never quite clear when he spoke to Luke about Anakin. He also said that Darth Vader killed Anakin, which was kind of true, since the dark side killed what was once an innocent soul. Yoda also warns Luke constantly that he must be prepared. These clues are very shady, but when you look back on them, you wonder why you didn't figure it out.

But then there are the more obvious things, like Secret Window. The clues in that movie were constant, and if you didn't figure it out within an hour, then you probably weren't paying much attention. It had to at least cross your mind that it would turn out to be that way. That movie used a very common cliche, and even I thought that it seemed too obvious.

Clues should be very subtle, unless you want the audience to feel like morons by having one massive clue right under the audiences' noses. They can be given through dialog or symbols. It's a pretty basic concept, so there's no need to get too in-depth.

The clues then bring us to the second stage of mystery:

The Moments Before the Discovery
This is usually the most intense moment of any story with some sort of mystery. While most stories will give an optimistic ending, there is a rare few that screw with the minds of the audience. An excellent way to do this is to give the impression of a happy ending, but in the last few moments, reveal that something horrible really happened. You could even go as far as making what was supposed to be happy turn out to be a huge mistake.

Before this mystery is revealed, you need to let the audience know that something is coming up. Things should calm down a bit, which will get them in the mood to see what's going on. In fact, everyone should experience this atmosphere, including the characters.

Usually if it's a bad thing, the villain will be the one to reveal this, or will be there to witness the hero finding it out. They will take great pride in this, and will do everything they can to make the hero feel like shit.

Friends of the hero will be very sympathetic, especially if they knew about it, but didn't have the guts to say it. If they didn't know about it, they should be just as affected as the hero.

The hero himself will probably be devastated, and this will affect them for the rest of the story, or for the sequel, if there is one.

The After Effects
Think of what it would be like if, say, it turned out that the people who say they are your parents actually murdered your real parents when you were young. Obviously you won't be the same after finding something like that out. Now, your characters might experience something completely different, so it's important to have them change accordingly.

Usually a happy mystery isn't quite as exciting, but it can be good for a happy ending. This would be something like a character having a million dollars in savings ready for the end of the adventure. This will make the audience feel good, but they might find it to be a bit too cheesy. But if your story relies on a bit of cheesiness, it's not always a bad thing. Sometimes the audience wants cheesiness, so long as it's still a bit realistic.

Either way, it's vital that your characters be affected by this in some way, emotionally. Often when people discover something they may never have wanted to know, they become depressed, or even suicidal. But as long as they have friends at their side, they can at least hold onto one very important thing: they themselves are who they are, not who they were. Everyone has a chance to change.

But there are also those who may want to return to who they were. Just play Knights of the Old Republic to see a superb example of that.

I know I'm focusing mostly on character mysteries, but I find those to be the most common of all of them. I'm sure people pretty much know what they're doing when they use non-character mysteries, since they're difficult to describe.

Merry Christmas.