All Books Are Mysteries

November 22, 2016 § 8 Comments

It was Uncle Claudius in the garden with the ear-poison!

It was Uncle Claudius in the garden with the ear-poison!

Every so often, I’m asked to edit a memoir that’s more of a case file. That is, it’s a series of incidents showing an antagonist in the worst possible light, a justification of actions taken by the protagonist, and a summing-up that involves bravely coming into the light.

They don’t work.

Not because they’re badly written on a line-by-line level, but because structurally, there’s no mystery. We already know whodunit, because they’re the person being textually crucified.

We can learn a lot from Agatha Christie. Or Dorothy Sayers. Ruth Rendell. P.D. James. Any of the stellar writers of relatively formulaic mystery novels. There’s a crime. There’s an investigation. The culprit is identified and caught, and the book usually stops right before the punishment—it’s the “Law” half of “Law & Order.” Chung-chung.

In a classic mystery (and Hamlet), the question is, “Whodunit? And will they be caught?”

In narrative nonfiction, the mystery is “Where did this thing/idea/practice come from? Where is it going?” or “What really happened here?”

For memoir, it’s “Why’d I do that?” or “What really happened to me?”

Laying out the facts in a row and (often unconsciously) slanting them toward the protagonist’s hurt feelings is boring. It’s boring because there’s nothing to discover—it’s all right there. Telling instead of showing, on a whole-book level. No-one wants to be lectured about how everything adds up to a solution they just got told. Instead, make the reader your detective.

The fun of reading—whether it’s playful excitement or intense engagement—comes from spotting the clues and making deductions. The reader needs the a-ha moments of “Oh shit! He’s a bad guy!” or “Wow—no wonder they turned out like that.” The reader needs the investigative moments of “What’s going to happen? Who will it happen to?” The more the reader autopsies with you, the more they engage in the book. We don’t know what’s about to happen, but we want to. This tension makes us read to the next paragraph and flip to the next page. The more the reader almost-but-not-quite pieces together the solution, the more satisfying the final revelation that fits it all together and confirms a hunch. The reader experiences the situation with the narrator and makes their own emotional realizations (which are often but not always the same as the narrator’s).

On a narrative level, that means don’t give away the solution first and then present all the evidence that adds up, which is the format of a scholarly paper. We need a burning question—What happened to me?—and then to investigate with the narrator, and make discoveries not just along the way, but that must be made to get to the answer.

Investigating mystery leads readers to enlightenment, to empathy, and to catharsis. George Saunders says,

The idea I love is that is a story is kind of a black box. And you’re gonna put the reader in there, she’s gonna spend some time with this thing that you have made, and when she comes out, what’s gonna have happened to her in there is something kind of astonishing–it feels like the curtain has been pulled back and like she’s gotten a glimpse into a deeper truth.

As a story writer, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

It’s a bad start to write a memoir already knowing what the story is, and going there with fixed intention. “Let the story surprise you,” Saunders urges–what you think you know may not be the story, even if it happened to you. Be ready to look underneath.

With memoir, looking underneath is sometimes interrogating our imagination and sometimes out-there-with-a-recorder research. It can be challenging to change our own minds, especially about an experience or situation so powerful that we must write it, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt, how we reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why. When we lay out the clues on the page, and allow ourselves to investigate, too.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching a webinar on story structure in fiction and memoir for Editors Canada, December 3&4 (recorded for on-demand viewing after).



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§ 8 Responses to All Books Are Mysteries

  • Mrs. Mother Dirt says:

    I have never thought about memoirs in that way, but yeah!- you are right! I am engaged most by the stories that have an element of surprise….what’s going to happen next!

  • Monica Graff says:

    I’m having one of those freaky moments where this blog echoes what’s on my mind. While trying to figure out the essay I’m working on, I wrote in my journal this morning (before reading this): “I feel like I’m snooping around for clues–I’m the Nancy Drew of the writing world–and this is my investigation.” Thank you again, Brevity, for hitting the nail on the head. And thank you Alison for some spot-on insight that I’m going to print out and keep at my desk. You just helped me figure out my outline!

  • Jan Priddy says:

    I am always profoundly disappointed to read a memoir where there is to growth in the writer’s understanding. There is villain or some terrible situation but the narrator seems to have learned nothing because they have taken no share of responsibility. As if they had no part to play in the murder of their own peace of mind. I have read beautifully written memoirs where I kept waiting for that moment of epiphany, that acceptance of culpability . . . and it never comes.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      Wow, this is such an awesome metaphor: “As if they had no part to play in the murder of their own peace of mind.”

  • My novel in progress isn’t a mystery, but it does involve one character trying to figure out what’s going on in another character’s family, and there’s no way she can just ask around: secrets are being kept, and memories aren’t reliable. Now that I have a clearer idea of what’s going on, I’m borrowing mystery techniques all over the place, introducing clues and following the various characters as they change course and grow based on what they’ve just learned. (I also borrow liberally from what I’ve learned as a longtime f/sf reader, but that’s another story. 😉 )

  • GeorgieMoon says:

    One of these days I’m going to write a memoir, and your ideas are very useful indeed, thanks.

  • […] said before, all books are mysteries. Just as if we read a whodunit where the murderer didn’t show up at all until the page before […]

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