Mystery’s 90/10 rule

Detective (hans van den berg, CC BY 2.0)

If there’s one trope of the mystery that stands out among all other types of stories—perhaps the single element that defines the mystery—it’s the solution being announced at the conclusion.

Almost all story leads the reader to a suspenseful ending. The mystery is unique in that the main character is responsible for explaining the prior events back to the reader in such a way as to make sense of them all. There are plenty of poorly-written books that open with a great dump of exposition to get the reader up to speed. Mystery has pretty much cornered the market on stories ending with an exposition dump.

This leads to mystery readers inevitable slaying of a story: “I knew who did it before I reached the end.” Usually this is put at some great insult or shut-down of the writer.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess most mystery writers don’t cringe when a reader claims to have solved the whodunnnit before the last page. Why?

Magician Eric Mead describes a bit of inside baseball for his craft:

…if a magician shows somebody a trick and ninety percent of that trick fools them but there is a little ten percent sliver over here that does not fool them, the average person will say that the trick did not fool them even though they can’t explain ninety percent of it.

…if that same magician shows that same trick to his fellow conjurers, it only takes that ten percent sliver for them to admit that they were fooled.

The same could be said for mystery writers and their craft. The problem of penning a mystery novel isn’t managing to befuddle the reader to the point of utter despair before they reach the last page. If you want to experience such confusion, try Gertude Stein’s Blood on the Dining-Room Floor, a novella one reviewer notes “since it’s more or less impossible to work out who any of the characters are, up to and including the person whose blood is on the dining-room floor…then it can only be called a detective novel in the loosest sense conceivable.”

For almost every other mystery book written, fooling the reader is kind of a side quest for the novelist. Even in an Agatha Christie book where six shady suspects roam the English country house, the reader has a better than fifteen percent chance of simply guessing the murder by yanking names from a hat. Writing a mystery no one can guess is unrealistic and, bluntly, not terribly interesting. This is Eric Mead’s 90%, the part of the mystery other novelists don’t fret over when reading someone else’s work.

The 10% most readers overlook but keeps other novelists up at nights? Writing a novel that readers will pick up in the first place; writing a novel that will carry readers to the last page; filling pages with knockdown dialogue, tight scenes, and wonderful prose; and the perennial dream, writing a novel people are still talking about fifty years later. This is the sliver novelists concern themselves with when admiring (or critiquing) another mystery writer’s work. This 10% does require storytelling sleight-of-hand, and when it’s working it’s all-but-invisible to the reader.

Kurt Vonnegut on story structure and punctuation

Kurt Vonnegut

Previously I wrote on Kurt Vonnegut’s considerable body of interviews, especially his comments on story shape and fiction as a series of experiments.

One fascinating (Vonnegut-esque?) tidbit in his interviews was an offhand comment made during a 1971 profile by Richard Todd (New York Times Magazine):

The class began in a surprising way. Vonnegut remarked that last time they had been talking about form, and he walked to the blackboard and drew there a question mark, an exclamation point and a period. He said these bits of punctuation were the outline of a three act play or story:

? ! .

A student asked if the end might be “Dot, dot, dot.” Vonnegut agreed.

? ! …

Ok, so maybe this is a gimmicky or silly way to describe story structure, but I’m game to play along.

I’ve written about organizing structure to motivate my fiction, so this little lesson in punctuation caught my attention. The way I organize my thinking, the three acts of story (really, four) look something like this:

  • Act 1: Setup
  • Act 2A: Complication
  • Act 2B: Confrontation
  • Act 3: Resolution

This list comes from my reading of Syd Field’s books on film structure, which I’ve modified (slightly) for the purposes of writing fiction.

Syd Field

I agree with Vonnegut that most stories, if not all, open with question marks. Even if I’ve read a book two dozen times—and there are books I can make that claim—the pleasure of the opening chapters is the illusion I do not know what is coming. (I would say this is related in spirit to Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief.) There are numerous, sometimes playful, ways to pose those questions when a story opens, but those questions are almost always there. Rare if ever does an interesting story open with all the questions known and the main characters completely in charge of all the facts. Jim Thompson said there was only one type of story: “Things are not what they seem.” That is another way to say stories open with question marks.

Vonnegut’s exclamation point jibes with what I’ve labeled 2A, Complication. Exclamation points do not have to be action or cliffhangers. Sometimes a quiet revelation or admission can turn a story on its head and rearrange how we see the main character and their situation. I hold a pet theory that the art of storytelling lays in reversals (perhaps I’ll post about that some day) and, to my mind, the exclamation point is one such reversal for the characters: learning a well-kept secret revealed, a fortune amassed, a fortune lost, and so on.

But Vonnegut’s three punctuation marks and most of his story shapes imply three acts. I wondered if my idea about a fourth act, Confrontation, could fit into his ideas?

Confrontation, I think, could be expressed as an em-dash. Tension draws taut in the confrontation phase of a story. More than any other part of a story, confrontation is where the reader should be asking herself “Wait—what happens next?” In contrast, while tense endings are common, final acts are generally not “What happens next?” but rather “How will it end?”

With an em-dash, then, Vonnegut’s story structure could be punctuated like this:

? ! — …

Which seems about right to me.

The Concordance Depiction

While Googling for my own work—yes, I do that sort of thing—I discovered the video “The Concordance Depiction” by Michelle David.

Originally posted in September 2017, “Depiction” is a 1m04s silent video reaction to my short story “A Concordance of One’s Life”.

Her summary:

This video is about the short story by Jim Nelson called “a concordance of one’s life”. I try to depict the brain of the mentally unstable narrator.

“A Concordance of One’s Life” has inspired other art as well. It was the subject of a San Francisco art show and adapted to a musical by Thu Tran.