Thursday, May 18, 2017

Mystery vs. Mystery

           I was talking with someone a few weeks back about mysteries.  To be honest, she talked. I just got kind of confused.  In fact the more she talked, the more I was baffled.  Her thoughts on mystery were just... well, I couldn’t figure out where she’d gotten them from.
            And then I realized the problem was that she wasn’t talking about mysteries.  Well, she was.  She’d just confused mystery with mystery, and then mixed them up a bit.  It’s a completely understandable mistake.
            It isn’t?
            Okay, then...
            I’ve talked here a few times about mystery, suspense, romance, and comedy.  I’ve also done a few posts about mystery, suspense, romance, and comedy.  And maybe it’s worth clarifying that, because it’d be bad if someone was working on a mystery and tried to follow all the guidelines I’ve tossed down about mysteries.
            Totally confused yet?
            Excellent.
            When I’m talking about mystery versus mystery, I’m talking about a genre versus a literary device.  If it helps, think of sci-fi versus a twist.  It’s a lot clearer that way, yes?
            When I talk about mystery and mystery, I’m talking about two things with very different rules.  We have mystery, the genre, which has some solid guidelines about word count, page length, setting, and so on.  Then there’s mystery, the device I use within my story, where one or more characters are searching for information that’s been hidden from them.  The rules for one aren’t the rules for the other, and if I get them confused, it’s going to cause problems.
             Consider romance. I’ve talked about my world-famous, patent-pending Rules of Love (TM) a few times here, and also about avoiding the common traps of romantic triangles.  My book, The Fold, has a definite romance element that follows these guidelines.
            But... it isn’t a romance novel.  That’s a very different animal.
            Let’s go a little bigger.  I’m going to guess a fair number of you reading this saw Doctor Strange, yes?  Maybe in theaters, maybe through Netflix, maybe you splurged for the 3-D collector's edition BluRay or something.  There were some funny moments in that movie, right?  Usually pertaining to Strange’s complete fish-out-of-water situation when he starts learning sorcery.  There was also that sort of unrequited love angle between him and Christine, never lining up in quite the right way even though it’s clear they both care about each other.
            So... is Doctor Strange a rom-com?  It’s got romance.  It’s got comedy.  That’s pretty much the definition of a rom-com, right?
            No, of course not.
            Y’see, Timmy, we recognize there’s more to a genre than just containing a literary device of the same name.  Suspense does not equal suspense, some comedy does not make this a comedy, and the presence of a mystery doesn’t mean my story’s a mystery. And if I get confused about this—if I start mistaking the rules of one for the rules of another (or maybe even mixing and matching like those last few socks on laundry day)—then this is going to cause problems on the writing side and on the business side.
            Now, sure—you wouldn’t make that mistake. You’re clever and you’ve been at this a while now.  But I see this kind of thing happen a lot, especially when people are trying to force a story into a genre where it doesn’t really belong.  A lot of folks do it in an attempt to get someone to read their work. “Someone” might be an agent, an editor, or even just a general audience.  If mysteries are really hot right now, I might be tempted to fudge the description of my story a bit and play up that element—even if said story is nothing like a mystery.
            I believe I’ve mentioned how rarely it goes well when I tell someone they’re getting X and they end up with a few hundred pages of Y, right?
            Genre. Devices. I need to remember which is which. Cause if I don’t, I’m either going to mess up my story... or I’m going to mess up selling my story.
            Speaking of selling stories—another shameless moment. Dead Men Can’t Complain, my first short story collection, comes out as an Audible exclusive next week.  It’s got creepy stuff, exciting stuff, funny stuff, and some never seen (or heard) before stuff.  Check it out.
            Next time, I think I may talk a little bit about dialogue. Or maybe character-building.  If you have a preference—or a different request—let me know.
            For now... go write.

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