Mystery of a Novel

There will be spoilers about the TV series Revolution in this blog posting.

J.J. Abrams is devious and not to be trusted. He leads you to believe something is true when in fact it’s not.

I wrote a post on the Details of Character and about the importance of preparing readers for what is about to happen. That’s not always true. Readers like surprises. The unexpected creates a mystery to be solved. It draws the reader into the novel, or in J.J. Abram’s case, the TV series.

Revolution is about life after all the electricity has been turned off throughout the world. There is a militia that wants to take over America. There are factions of rebels who want to stop the militia. Then there are the heroes of our story.

When Revolution began, we are introduced to a father and his two teen children. Mom is dead. No one ever said how she died. We assumed the hard times of a world that has fallen apart after a worldwide blackout has killed her. All we know is, she’s dead and is not important.

There are a few things she did and said in the past, some ten years ago, that has carried over into the storyline, but over all, she’s not relevant. We don’t think much about her. We concentrate on the characters at hand.

Then to our surprised, we learn Mom is very much alive and well. She’s with the enemy, the Militia who wishes to dominate and intimidate.

But how did she come to be them? When did this happen?

And just like that a mystery is created. We want to know how and why.

As the series has development, we realize Mom is the reason for the storyline.

Father and children were just fine, living in a village among friends. They’d come to terms with her death.

The uncle had checked out of society and was hiding from his past and guilt.

Inter Mom …

Mom is a captive, but uncooperative. She must be made to talk. The militia decides to use a member her family as leverage.

In the process of obtaining a hostage, her husband is murdered, her son is kidnapped, her daughter is on a now on a crusade to save her brother, and the uncle finds himself back in the mix of things where he is forced to deal his past and overcome his demons.

Mom’s not so irrelevant now.

No, I’m not going to tell you how all this happens. It would take too long, and it would ruin the fun of watching the show for yourself. What is important is how J.J. Abrams set the story up and why, and how this translates to writing a novel.

A good mystery is what makes readers keep reading. They want to know what happens. If well written, they will stay up all night reading a novel just to find out.

A good mystery can be four in just about every genre: Science fiction, romance, literary, spy thrillers, the list goes on right up to the good old fashion murder mystery.

J.J. never lied. A good mystery should never lie.  That angers readers. They will stop trusting you as a storyteller and might stop reading your novels. Don’t want that!

A good mystery misleads. All the clues are there to lead you to the truth, but because you don’t fully understand what’s going on, you miss interrupt the clues and think something else is happening. The reveled true becomes a surprise.

It’s a game Reader and Author play.  Author tries to trick Reader. It’s all right if Reader figures it out, but it’s not all right if the puzzle is too easy.

Throughout the story, a reader will look for the clues and try to solve the mystery. The reader is happy if he/she has been tricked. The bigger the surprise the more pleased the reader.

I can’t think of a mystery novel that lied, but I can remember a movie. It was Ocean’s Twelve.

The story line promised one thing, but at the end, the characters had been playing a double con. I re-watched the movie to see where I’d missed the clues. There were none. They never let on that there was a second play going on. For me, the movie was a disappointing failure.

J.J. never lied. He let his characters believe Mom was dead. When they told us what they thought was true, we believed them. So we are surprised when we finally meet Mom.

In Revolution, JJ doesn’t give clues. He lets you believe one thing then shocks you with the truth. He then crates a mystery by not telling you the whole truth. He leaves you hanging, wondering how this happened.

And when he does tell you the truth, he shocks you with another mystery.

Mom left to get supplies. She never returned. Her family was secure in her love for them. The only logical conclusion for her not returning had to be because she died.

But when we see her with the militia we assume she was kidnapped. It’s the only other logical conclusion for her not returning.  But just like her family, we don’t have all the facts.

Mom walked away from her family directly into the enemy camp.

J.J. showed us the unthinkable. Why in the world would Mom leave her family for the militia to become their captive? It doesn’t make since.

And as of this post, that’s where J.J. has left that thread of Mom’s story.

J.J. put in a mystery with no explanation so we will keep watching. He then builds on the mystery. With each answer comes another surprise so the mystery grows larger and more questioning.

First we learn Mom is alive and is a captive. But how? She went to them of her own free will.

Now the question is why? What could possibly have made her leave her family and become a prisoner for the last ten years?

It has to be something serious. So largely serious that we will completely understand and agree with her actions.

It’s the same in a novel. There has to be a plausible answer to the mystery and a plausible reason that set the mystery in motion. It all comes down to motive. There has to be a reason. Once we learn the reason, the mystery is solved.

The end of a novel should explain all mysteries to the satisfaction of the reader. If it’s too easy, or things are not properly justified, the reader will be disappointed. And no matter how well written the novel, it’s a bad mystery that will get remembered and reviewed.