Friday, July 6, 2012


Why do we love mystery?  Personally, I think it's because mystery invites our active participation in the story.  Obviously, the protagonist doesn't have the answer and we need to "help" look for it.

How does this translate to life writing?

While there are true-crime memoirs, they certainly aren't the bulk of the genre, yet mystery has a lot to offer us as well. From a life writing perspective, I can think of at least three ways that mystery translates into common stories:
  • The lessons of life--where babies come from, "like liking" someone, understanding what your parents meant by becoming a parent--which tend to be humorous, but not always
  • Coping with/Discovering a hard truth--how far money goes, dealing with a problem that is really unsolvable--these tend to be more serious and cognitive, and they are often poignant as well.
  • Coming to terms with people who are not what they seem--being dumped, divorced, cheated, betrayed--these tend to be traumatic.
A few threads link mysteries, and I hope to look at them in more detail later, but for the moment, here they are:
  • Mysteries are a search for cause and often blame.
  • Mysteries often assume that there is a right answer and that there is justice.
  • Many mysteries, though certainly not all, appeal mainly to our logic and the emotions that they evoke tend to be ones that make our hearts race, not break.
  • While eventually leading to answers and therefore "sight," much of a mystery is about inscrutability.  We never know everything fully--sometimes it is what the protagonist is thinking (take Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie), sometimes it is what the antagonist is thinking (take Crime and Punishment), and sometimes it is a realistic or complete view of the environment (Edgar Allan Poe's work), or something else.
  • Mysteries are about exploration.  If we view a novel as a maze, we never expect to go directly to the center of a mystery.  Truth be told, no novel's protagonist should ever go straight where he/she anticipates going, but in a mystery, we readers expect that we won't get it right from the get go whereas we are more "surprised" when things bomb in other types of stories.
So hopefully this has you thinking, and I will try to give you a practical outline very soon.

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