Crime writer Jim Thompson may have said it best:
“There is only one plot — nothing is what it seems.”
Yet I’ll go one further and say there’s only one genre: mystery.
I’m not referring to Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes — not to the established Mystery institution unto itself (with a big fat capital M). I’m referring to the most basic form of mystery: a question that needs to be answered; a problem that needs to be solved.
Mystery is the one thread woven into the fabric of every story.
The good ones, anyway. However the plots and styles and mundanities may vary, an element of mystery is always present. It drives discovery and exploration in all realms of life, so why not in writing?
At its core, mystery compels you to keep reading.
It is the biggest reason you turn the next page, make it to the next chapter, read all night until you slowly close the finished book — it’s because you need answers.
There is a very clear distinction to be made here between a question that a reader wants answered and one that they need answered.
‘Want’ is an urge that can be overcome. It can easily transition to indifference. Once it does, the reader sets a book down and move on.
‘Need’ is much, much stronger than ‘want’…perhaps irresistible.
A question that needs to be answered overwhelms your thoughts and stomps all other desires underfoot on its mad dash to revelation. A good writer knows how to prompt these questions. A great writer knows how to string them out over a long story and keep the reader coming back for more.
The most effective writers, and their best works, can spark desirable questions in a reader’s mind without actually posing them outright.
And this is a key point: the questions that must be answered come from the reader’s mind, not from the author’s text.
Inception in its purest form.
Before I start spouting book AND movie examples…
…I’d like to hone in on the true purpose of this essay, which is to address mystery as it pertains to a specific method for beginning a story — a method I uncreatively refer to as the action opener.
The true action opener drops you in the middle of a scene…
…usually one where the stakes are high.
It differs from a traditional prologue, which is often backstory or a tangential scene involving secondary characters which serves to fill in plot gaps later on (such as in Pushing Ice by Alistair Reynolds).
The action opener is the beginning of the story.
A prime example is Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Without preamble, the screenwriters thrust you into the now-iconic scene of Indiana Jones stealing a golden idol, then hightailing it to ‘safety’ as he runs from a giant, rolling boulder.
You know absolutely nothing about this character other than what you’re shown in the first few minutes. You don’t know he’s a professor of archaeology, or his name, or his reason for seeking the idol. In lieu of this information, what do you do?
You build a picture on your own. You ask questions.
You ask questions.
It is only after the intense opening minutes of the film that the narrative segues to a peaceful university, where details are slowly fed to you, answering a litany of questions that carried you through the initial blitz.
The script could have started at the university. You could have learned Indy’s name, his profession, met Marcus, and blah blah blah is anyone still watching?
Guess which opening is more enjoyable for the intended audience.
Even though there are no blatant elements of traditional mystery in the Raiders example, mystery still propels the narrative.
You conjure (on your own) a dozen questions from the start, and you must know more.
Ditto A New Hope…
…another spawn of George Lucas. You’ll find the action opener is a common recurrence in his films, whether he’s producing or directing.
Is this coincidence, or did he recognize effective methods of hooking viewers in the pulp serials of yesteryear?
Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right George? Or wait, go ahead and make arbitrary changes to the films SO MANY TIMES I CAN’T EVEN FIND THE ORIGINAL VERSIONS.
If I had been lucky enough to see Star Wars in theaters, I probably would have stuck around even if the movie opened on Luke at the farm on Tatooine, pining for his elusive destiny (after all, there was no internet back then, so what else would I have done?).
Yet I guarantee you my butt would have been glued to the seat after the opening space chase that jumpstarts the released film. No doubt about it.
The script immediately introduces you to both sides of an interstellar war, strange and interesting technology, and droids! So many questions with so little screen time. A true feat.
Ancillary Justice is another good example, although it’s more what I call character action (which can be massively compelling in its own right) instead of, you know, action action. There is no immediate backstory. The book doesn’t open on Breq in her past life.
Author Ann Leckie starts later, with the discovery of a body, when things get really interesting. It seems like such a small event at first. Yippee, another body. Why not start with an explosion, or a rolling boulder?
How very…mystery of her.
Yet you’re quickly shown glimpses of a vast and populated universe, given seeds of information that blossom into a garden of questions in your mind. Later in the book you’re treated to the events of the past, further fueling your desire for knowledge.
All of this ‘slow’ back-filling occurs only after Leckie proves she can supply a fascinating narrative and has earned some leeway from the reader.
As a writer, the most important commodity a good action opener buys you is trust.
It earns good faith with the expectation that you will continue to deliver after you take a detour to Exposition City later on.
Character scenes are vital, but you can only string so many of them together before the masses get restless.
A properly-executed action opener buys you the time to slow down and adjust the place settings before you rip out the tablecloth like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters.
But here’s the thing: if you do your job right, the readers or viewers will realize that you can deliver the goods, and they will offer you some grace to properly worldbuild…
…but then you must keep delivering.
That’s the deal.
It’s the burden of competence, and oh, how heavy it is.
Folks, here is where the good writing is sifted from the great.
Once the worldbuilding questions are answered, it all comes down to the characters.
If there are no compelling character questions to be answered — no driving mystery, no problem to be solved — then why keep reading?
The most basic question powering many stories is ‘will the protagonist survive?’
This is often enough to get the job done in the most technical, workaday sense, though rarely wholly satisfying.
I’m typically much more invested in a character that has major personal reasons for making it out of a given situation alive. The higher the stakes and the more hanging plot threads that will be disrupted by the protagonist’s failing, the more I’m invested.
I want all those mysteries solved, all those nagging questions answered before the end.
Please allow me to close this essay with a thought experiment.
Hold up the thumb and forefinger of one hand, spread as far apart as you can manage (make a big L).
Set the tips of those two fingers on a flat surface.
In the several inches between the tips of your thumb and forefinger is the timeline of your story as a linear track, from beginning to end. A straight line. A plot (hopefully).
Now imagine each side of the line extending off into infinity, both beginning and end, beyond your fingers. The small part of that infinite line between your fingers is your book or screenplay.
Now here’s the trick: you can slide your open fingers up and down that line, beginning and ending the narrative wherever you want.
But of course you can start following your character fresh out of high school as they begin their internship for Evil Corp!
Yet wouldn’t it be more intriguing to slide your fingers a little farther down the timeline and start later, when your plucky protagonist is a seasoned employee and is just now waking up to the sinister dealings of their employer? Imagine the suspense!
Or perhaps you go even farther down the line, when they are in danger of losing their own moral battle and fully committing to the company and its dark methods. What conflict! I must know more!
If you have a choice in picking your starting point (and trust me, you do), pick an interesting one.
The action opener is a fitting way to do this.
If you present it well enough, the reader will ask so many questions on their own that they will have no choice but to come along for the ride.