Mystery is the first of three types of suspense that Hills analyzes, and I think it’s fair to say he’s dismissive of mystery as a technique. Despite my own life-long enjoyment of mysteries as a genre, I don’t disagree with his reasoning:
Stories where mystery is deliberately the method, and curiosity about the ending is the whole desired effect, are usually trick stories with wow endings.
Even as you may be bristling at Hills’ highbrow perspective, you probably know exactly what he’s talking about. Mystery can become an all-consuming, story-obliterating objective. As Hills himself notes, everyone has read a book in which the only reason for turning the page sprang from a singular desire — curiosity — to find out the answer to a mystery. Works in which mystery is the “whole desired effect” cannot help be feel insubstantial, if not insincere.
Yet: like sex, mystery does attract attention in fiction. It’s often meaningless attention, resolved by some equally meaningless bit of cleverness, but it works.
To see the raw effect of mystery and curiosity, think about any magazine headline with the word ‘secret’ on it. For a certain percentage of the human species that’s all that’s needed to invoke curiosity, prompting the reader to investigate further. It’s simplistic, even idiotic, but it works.
Hills’ disinterest in mystery is twofold. First, as a technique of suspense it’s relatively weak. There are better choices. Second, the invocation of mystery is at cross purposes with the harmonic aims of literary fiction. It gets you something, but “at too great an expense.”
Relative to fiction writing and craft and quality I have no choice but to agree. He’s right.
But. My favorite genre is the mystery genre. And whatever you want to say about the 90% of mystery fiction that is crap (see also: Sturgeon’s Law), there’s clearly good writing that’s been done. I put Raymond Chandler at the top, but there are plenty of authors who’ve managed to push past the resolution of a mystery as “the whole desired effect.”
It’s also worth remembering that the issue is not black and white. Personally, I don’t tend to favor puzzle-based mysteries. My preference is for hard-boiled fiction, which I see as more character based. By the same token, no matter where I might draw the line between engaging and two-dimensional mysteries, I’m sure you would draw the line in another location.
Or perhaps in another genre altogether, preferring your mysteries wrapped in romance or science fiction. Like ice cream flavors, preference goes a long way toward determining anyone’s level of satisfaction. (As does your individual comfort level with the idea of entertainment as a laudable storytelling goal.)
As a related aside, if you have an interest in interactive storytelling or game design, I think this comment from Hills is worth noting:
The more successful a story based on mystery is in the middle, the more likely it is to fail in the end.
Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular was written in 1977, so Hills clearly wasn’t referencing video or computer games. But a signature problem with interactive storytelling is that it’s almost impossible — even at the theoretical level — to design an experience that feels satisfying in resolution. The reason for this is that as the experience comes to a close the designers necessarily need to limit user choice (interactivity) in order to drive the user to the ending.
This intrusion of authorial heavy-handedness is a hallmark of interactive storytelling, as is the sense that the middle of an interactive work is much more entertaining and interesting than the constricted, strangulated ending. Food for thought.
Next up: Conflict and Uncertainty.
— Mark Barrett