The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
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. [ Read more ]