A Writer-centric View of SpoCon 2012, Part 3
In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
(Left to right: Erik Scott de Bie, Muffy Morrigan, Deby Fredericks, Cthulhu Bob, and Vicki Mitchell)
The “Creating Mystery” Panel: Sprinkle in clues and build tension without giving it all away: learn the art of creating mystery in your writing or GMing. The panelists were Erik Scott de Bie, Muffy Morrigan, Deby Fredericks, Cthulhu Bob, and Vicki Mitchell. (AQ is an audience question.)
CB: What is mystery? Fundamentally, it’s something that you don’t know. Something you have an interest in knowing. It implies some curiosity and some vague awareness. When you’re creating mystery, you need to know the answer. It’s not clever when you also do not know. You need to have the allusion to whoever or whatever it is and hook the reader, audience, or gamer to generate intrigue.
MM: In creating mystery, you need to know yourself. Sometimes I’m reading something and a character appears out of nowhere making it obvious that the author didn’t know what he was doing. Every book has a mystery. It leads the readers along. Do it in a way that you don’t talk down to the reader.
DF: The solution needs to be clued in the first chapter, even if it is veiled. Keep that so you will use it later.
ESdB: It’s important to have clues whether it’s a fantasy or game. Some readers will want to solve the mystery, so you need to give them clues. If you don’t, you’re a jerk to lead them on. It’s okay to misdirect, but you can’t actively hide things from the reader unless you give clues where it’s hidden.
CB: It’s gratifying as a reader when I find the link. It’s the aha! moment.
MM: Engage the reader, otherwise it becomes an over-your-shoulder book.
DF: I’m always afraid that I will be too predictable and that they will figure out too soon and get bored. So take it a step beyond the obvious solution. Even if the guilty person is who you think it is going to be, have more to the story. I had a story where a prince was killing other princes and my husband figured it out. So I made the prince a doppelganger.
ESdB: One technique is to layer mysteries by hiding many things. The reader only thinks there’s one, so they get sidetracked and surprised by a second revelation. In my dungeon crawl book, people get killed and you figure out there’s one traitor. But there’s also a second traitor.
CB: In a book, it’s cool. But a game with two traitors? No.
ESdB: It depends on the group.
DF: Sometimes a person comes in late in the game so you make them a bad guy. But you need to have a really together group otherwise there will be hurt feelings. Being angry might be effective as a villain. Or they might think others are mashing them.
MM: Don’t have a really likeable character who beheads the rest of the group at the end. It betrays the reader. I have read books where a likeable character did bad things at the end. And there was no hint that they were bad. Kill everyone or have a latte.
ESdB: A good way to diffuse the situation, if you want a likeable character to be the villain, is don’t let motivation to be killing all the other heroes. Instead, kill the princess who others are trying to rescue. Manipulating them to do bad things makes good drama. Villains aren’t entirely evil, they have motivations, and it’s not necessarily to kill everyone. The villain can be a friend but then goes his separate way.
DF: It’s the Long John Silver effect.
MM: You have the opportunity to build the path, so establish at the start that the character is bad.
DF: Have the character kick the puppy or whip the horse to show the cruelty within them.
VM: It’s planting the seeds that they are villains. Almost every story is a mystery of some sort where you figure out what happens. Is the hero going to succeed and how are they going to succeed? You need to plant clues subtly and keep seeding them throughout. Don’t necessarily make them important. Put them as part of the scenery, part of equipment, maybe something his grandmother gave him that turns out to be a powerful artifact.
ESdB: But you need to hint at it. Maybe it’s sparkling indicating it’s enchanted.
AQ: How do you put enough clues and make sure it’s not obvious?
DF: It’s like the hidden objects game on Facebook. You don’t know what to look for until you have all the clues. Don’t have just one detail. Have several.
MM: List out all the things you need and then build things around them. Embellish them.
VM: Characters don’t act with one motivation. Have one key action. You can also misdirect the reader and build the character and scene at the same time.
ESdB: If you really want just one clue, that’s fine. It’s fine to be obvious. But not necessarily “how” it’s obvious. Suppose you know the hair is from the killer and you need to find the killer. But then you figure out it’s from dog that had contact with the killer.
DF: You could send it to the lab, but lab has a fire.
MM: Or the lab tech replaces the hair with someone else’s hair.
AQ: How can setting raise the bar on mystery?
VM: Sometimes the clues are part of the setting. Don’t just show the clue. Also show other parts of the setting. Point out furniture other than the important object. Build it into the story.
CB: Say you have an idea for a one-shot gaming scenario as a murder mystery. For imagery, have a house and populate it with stuff the house will have and decide step-by-step what occurred. What trail would that leave? Also have other little things like a pulled plug, adjusted frame, changed clock, a latte.
DF: Use the scenery and setting for mood. In the story, it could seem innocuous. What is plausible is that the character wouldn’t realize what it’s used for. But don’t have cute bunnies in a serious detective novel. Unless they’re not so cute bunnies.
MM: For your setting and the world you’re building, any book you’re writing you’re creating a universe and characters need to be developed. Don’t have Bugs Bunny moving but the background remaining static. The setting should also be a character so the reader will want to return to the world.
ESdB: If it’s a science fiction or fantasy setting, take into account difference of cultures and how people will work. Say everyone is mildly telepathic. How can we not know who killed someone if everyone’s connected? How someone managed to block everyone else from knowing would be interesting.
DF: Some use a point of view where the reader won’t know everything. If you have a long work, have multiple viewpoints. If you’re trying to give the reader information that the character doesn’t know, use another viewpoint. Have a treasure hunter find the Rosetta Stone rather than the prof who would solve it immediately. With another viewpoint you also have a choice, and it gives the reader more clues of what is normal and what is not.
ESdB: You can have conflicting points of view. Maybe the characters focus on different things on the Rosetta Stone. Or have the characters all be right, but right in different ways. If all the characters have the same mind, then they all unravel. Each of the characters can have a piece of clue, but it doesn’t make it a mystery where everything could be solved if the characters just talked to each other.
CB: In military history, you find a lot of arrogant jerks who can’t work together.
ESdB: It doesn’t make sense to have characters who are friends not talking to each other. If enemies have to work together, there’s tension. If Muffy and I are roommates and Muffy knows that there’s a latte at the scene of the crime and I know the guy who likes lattes, but we don’t talk to each other, that’s a stupid story.
MM: You could make it work if there’s a miscommunication where one person thinks it’s coffee and the other thinks it’s latte, but don’t make the reader think it’s stupid.
AQ: How do you pace mystery with action?
ESdB: It needs to unfold gradually through the course of the book. Solve it at the end or where appropriate. It depends on the story. If you have characters hanging out in a coffee shop, don’t make any progress until they put the clues together to solve it. They can collect the clues. Or you can have action first and then collect clues. Generally, do it gradually.
MM: As a writer, you have it outlined. You may be tempted to pace it faster since you know what’s happening, so scale it back.
CB: Be wary of tedium. Be gradual but don’t make readers fall asleep. A cliffhanger can keep them reading at 2 am.
DF: Pacing is controlling the speed of the chapter. I’m not a fan of R.L. Stine, but I ended up reading him to my kids. I learned that Stine ends almost every chapter on a cliffhanger. Read Stine to look at his pacing since he is in total control of that. He never has a quiet moment at the end of the chapter.
AQ: We’re accustomed to drawn out explanations and villain monologues. Should we explain everything or not?
ESdB: You shouldn’t explain everything. The reader should have an aha! moment where they finally get it. Maybe explain a little bit but not info dump.
DF: Give the reader stuff to figure it out things themselves, but they don’t have to figure out everything. Keep some surprises in the end.
MM: It depends on mystery and other genres. I once read a story about Ireland where an author explains things for seven pages. Don’t have long monologues. Have it obvious enough so readers can go along, but also have the aha! moment. Don’t do The Speckled Band in Sherlock Holmes.
ESdB: Be careful of the Sherlock Holmes thing where everything is explained at the end. But the current BBC show is better because the audience can make leaps at the same time as Sherlock does. String evidence through the book. That makes it have good rereading value.
MM: You can also have that in movies. You want readers to read your stuff again and again.
AQ: Is there a difference in stringing it out in a game or a story? Is one more obvious?
CB: In a game, it’s maybe a bit more obvious since the gamer is both character and reader. The reader just reads through book. The GM may assume the players know too much.
DF: The game mechanics built in will help guide them, like the perception roll.
ESdB: It’s a unique challenge. Players can stumble onto something that you won’t want them to know, so leave yourself escape hatches if you’re running intrigue. You can make the informant suddenly die.
AQ: What are your favorite mysteries?
MM: Lynda S. Robinson who wrote Murder in the Place of Anubis. It takes place in the time of King Tut. She’s good at giving you all the clues. I’m also a Holmesian but it’s also frustrating. Most mysteries are not mysteries but something within stories. My first experience was writing Holmes fan fic. The BBC series does it better.
DF: They have the advantage of a hundred odd years of stuff written that expands it. Doyle didn’t know he was starting something that big.
ESdB: I like true crime stories and some are great, like The Innocent Man by John Grisham. It seems impossible that he committed the crime, so you follow the evidence. There’s great buildup of tension. You can go to Wikipedia to see what happened, but the novel is effective.
MM: Whatever world you’re building, you want readers to take the next step and not throw the book over their shoulder. You want the readers with you while building mystery. Engaged people are involved in the world even if they know the ending.
DB: Possibly my favorite mystery is Fallen with Denzel Washington. If you like horror, it’s a smart story.
ESdB: it’s older, but it holds up well.
MM: It’s like a mini master class on mystery.
AQ: What about an RPG game when an actual session is being played?
DF: I was once in a gaming group with a player who was a thief who took things. The GM got tired of it, so had him take this item. The thief picked it up and tried to handle it. It was a dagger of monster summoning. Each time he took it up, the monster power went up. Eventually he summoned a nazgul. Another player figured it out and knocked the nazgul into the sea. Which resulted in a tidal wave that swept the thief’s treasure cave out to sea.
ESdB: Readers and gamers have the impulse to have things fair, so that’s important to keep in mind for intrigue. If good people get killed, they want the bad guys to get theirs.
* * *
Stay tuned for Part 4, a world building panel.