Writing the Mystery (And Reflections on the Action Category).
By John Jarvis.
Mystery writing is an art that some writers never master. There are a number of reasons for this problem. For one, most writers have had it drummed into them by a myriad of creative-writing teachers that they must create what I call a Theme Category character. Theme Category characters, though, belong in Theme Category stories, not Action-Category stories. In short, a Theme character is death to the mystery.
The second reason is that few realise that the mystery takes a certain pattern — specifically, the Puzzle Type, in most cases. And whereas it might be possible to write one or two good mysteries without knowing anything about this pattern-Type, to write consistently high-quality mysteries requires an intimate knowledge of this plot template.
To look under the hood for a moment, the two items I refer to here (Category and Type) were distilled by me into the “Jarvis Method.” There are, of course, many more Types besides Puzzle (Local Adventure and Revenge, to name two others). Yet as important as it is to understand the Type of your story, such knowledge pales in importance to knowing how to choose the right Category. And in the mystery, there is generally only one Category: Action. And it is in misunderstanding that fact where most aspiring mystery writers make their biggest mistake.
My software and courses provide numerous examples of Categories (as well as Types). I will, however, give an illustration of Category here as it relates to the mystery. To do so, let me tell you a brief story.
During the last month, I have had a close relative in a nursing home. As she is pretty sick, my visits with her are frequently interrupted by nurses, and I have often been kicked out for long periods of time.
At first I simply looked at TV in the waiting room. However, I soon got tired of doing that (sorry, Bob Barker) and decided to bring along something to read. I was hardly in the mood for dark prose or tragic endings. So I picked up some stories by Agatha Christie.
Although my intention was simply diversion, the writing teacher in me began to kick in as I began to notice how perfectly Christie used the Action Category (and, for that matter, the Puzzle Type). It was somewhat of a shock. You must understand that years ago — literally decades ago — I had derived the concept of an “Action Category” main character from studying Sherlock Holmes stories as well as the writings of some lesser-known mystery writers. For some reason, though, I had never gotten around to Christie.
Anyway, the point is that in all those stories you can find perfect examples of the Action Category mystery story. Now normally the Theme Category is the best Category to use for the majority of stories, but it doesn’t work for all of them. Alice in Wonderland, for example, would never work in the Theme Category.
Now, this newsletter is written both to review fiction and to help the writer with illustrations of the Jarvis Method. (My software and courses cover the Jarvis Method in detail; the illustrations I’ll be giving are intended to supplement the information contained in them.) So here’s how my illustration can help you improve your writing of mysteries: go back over some Christie mysteries and Sherlock Holmes stories, either in your mind or by reading them again. Or if you are more into film than prose, or you want to write mystery screenplays, an excellent modern example to consider that uses the Action Category is Primal Fear.
As you read or view these works, note the quality of superability in both the Antagonist (in mysteries, the Antagonist is the mystery itself) and the main character. If you are not familiar with the Jarvis Method, I’ll give you a free definition of superability. Superability is the quality found in a main character who can do no wrong and is above ordinary mortals. The character is eccentric, but has no life beyond the plot of the story. Certainly these traits apply to Holmes and the Christie heroes and villains, as well as to most good mystery characters of that ilk.
While you’re absorbing the meaning of superability, you should note also the main character’s lack of a backstory and character need – two traits that, if they were missing in a Theme Category story, would spell disaster.
This is probably a good place to mention that some mysteries and crime stories confuse the Action and Theme (Myth) Categories. How many of us have felt ripped off by the Batman films? Do you know why the Batman films are a rip-off?….
Time’s up. The answer is that the writers of those films have been so brainwashed into putting character everywhere that their stories shrank. Like good little creative-writing students, they have given their main character and antagonists needs and backstory….and in the process have ruined what could have been intriguing crime/mystery stories.
Too many writers confuse “action-adventure stories” with what I have identified as “Action-Category” stories. For when I speak of an Action-Category story, I am referring to a story primarily concerned with plot. Just because a story is an “action-adventure” does not determine whether or not it’s an Action-Category story. Indeed, many action-adventure films use the Theme Category. What determines whether a story falls under the Action Category or the Theme Category is always a matter of emphasis: if character stands out the most, then the story should be Theme. If plot (or the main character’s nature) is outstanding, then the story should be Action. But never, ever, mix the two categories.
In fact, there are rare cases when even a Puzzle story can be in the Theme Category: Citizen Kane, for example. But note that when the writer of that film abandoned the Action Category, he did not give his main character the key trait of the Action Category figure: superability. No. The character Kane is flawed and has need, as must all good Theme-Category characters.
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There are many other elements in the Jarvis Method’s Story Development stage (used in the StoryCraft Software), all of which introduce and refine the ideas of Joseph Campbell. I delve into each element – Story Type, world development, character development, antagonist development, shape shifter development, etc. – in depth. Then I move to the Story Creation Stage, in which the Story Type is combined with structure steps based on Campbell’s progress of the hero (as outlined in Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces). So, as there is much to cover, the future discussions in this newsletter will usually go far beyond the subject of Category, the main topic of this issue.
Keep writing and see you next month!
— John Jarvis