Tuesday, September 14, 2010

I Hate Music.

By Jay Stringer

(If you're just catching up on the week so far, check bak to Weddle's post from yesterday. It's got some cool news about DSD's development, and a few hints of things to come.)

My favourite band are The Replacements. I may have mentioned that once or twice. One of their early songs, back when they were loud snarky punks, was 'I Hate Music.' It's only about two minutes long, and never destined to be a radio anthem, but it did have the great line, "I hate music, it's got too many notes."

I've used variations on that line many times over the years, applied to different situations. Music, football, alcohol, comedy, movies....it's seen more uses than my big book of lame excuses. I've come to realise that, for me, it's not simply a throwaway line. There's something to it, something to all of it. Music often does have too many notes. Books can have too many words. A film can have too many scenes. My coffee can have too much sugar (i.e; it can have some.)

And you know what I often find to be the problem with mystery stories? Yep, that's write. Too much mystery.

I don't read mystery books for the trappings, the twists and turns. I read them for the character, for the soul of the book. Too often i hear writers complain that they leave behind the mystery genre because they grow tired of the trappings of writing them, and then later I discover those writers didn't create the kind of stories I want to read.

It's been something I've fought with myself. The series I'm writing at the moment starts out very much as hardboiled mystery, and then slowly changes into something else as the character changes. And I'm trying to hold myself to realism with the mystery element. In real life i don't think that crimes like theft or murder come with all that much mystery involved. Certainly not in the world of gangs, drugs and vice that I'm covering. Deaths will be for revenge, or to make a point, or for business. The only mystery would be whether or not the police could find the evidence to close out the crime.

Sure, there are mysteries. Someone can go missing, something can be lost. Mysterious things happen every day. But I find that the mystery genre has created a myth, and it can weigh stories down. I want my story to work because of the characters and the world. There are a couple of dead bodies in the book, and there's some work to do in order to get the right answer, but I'm not going to be throwing too many red herrings or conspiracies at you, because that all seems fake to me. Once you latch on to the logic of why things are happening, where the money is flowing, or who stands to gain, then you can get a step ahead of the protagonist. And that feels true to me.

If your story rests on the design of the mystery, then it falls down the minute the audience clocks it. If the mystery is merely one of the elements that runs through a well told story, then people will come back for more.

I'm thinking of this because I recently watched Righteous Kill. A tale of two NYPD cops on the trail of a serial killer, starring Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. The film is framed around a central mystery, it's what the whole plot is built on. It seems like it's meant to draw you in and then slam shut on you when you least expect it. Trouble is, because the film is telling you that one thing is happening, and because that one thing clearly isn't happening, it takes about ten seconds to reverse things and spring the trap on the film instead. You're then waiting for the film to catch up with you, or for the characters to somehow draw you into their story so that the mystery doesn't matter.

The film also shows the other easy trap of mystery writing; characters can start doing things simply to support the mystery. Characters in the film start saying and doing things simply to draw out the film's 'surprise.' More importantly, they don't say things that would ruin it. This feels forced, like a 90 minute cheap trick.

I don't know about you, but that sort of thing pulls me straight out of a story. I don't want cynical red herrings, I don't to have the kitchen sink thrown at me. I want a good story well told. I want solid characters, and I want the mystery to serve those characters. I want the mystery to make sense.

Like all rules there are exceptions. I'm still in love with The Usual Suspects just as much now as I was fifteen years ago, and that film is built around one looooong red herring. But where a film like that succeeds, i think, is in trying to fool you rather than treating you like a fool. The screenwriter knew that if we started the film with the question, "who is Keyser Soze?" we would figure it out within ten minutes. So the film showed us one thing, and then spent most of its running time convincing us that we didn't actually see that. It turns the question into, "where is Keaton?" But then when we look back on it, and in spite of the story belonging to an unreliable narrator, we find that the trick is a fair one. The pieces are all there and there is an internal logic. the mystery is still all in service of character, even if it's all in service of only one character.

In my writing, I'm working damn hard not to cheat the audience. I don't mind trying to fool them for awhile, but I'm not going to treat them like fools.

How about you? How to you find that balance between 'mystery' and 'contrived.' And in your reading, what have been the mystery books that have hit your sweet spot?

1 comment:

Chris Rhatigan said...

I'm with you there--if a story relies too much on what it's holding back, it generally doesn't work. Providing a satisfying ending with some surprises, which happens to come at the conclusion of an otherwise interesting story with good characters, is when mystery succeeds for me. Among contemporary authors, I think Harlan Coben does this well.