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Writer's Craft: What is a mystery?

(From a transcribed lecture by Erle Stanley Gardner in May 1959, as excerpted from Francis and Roberta B. Fugate's “Secrets of the World's Best-Selling Writer”)

When the story is finished all of the events must have a logical explanation. Therefore when we know the facts there is nothing mysterious about the opening events. In other words it is the job of Perry Mason to correlate those opening events and the subsequent events in such a manner that they do fit into a logical pattern, and this logical pattern points to the culprit in the case.

My definition of a mystery is that it consists of a series of interesting events which have sinister implications and the logic of which cannot be instantly comprehended by the audience.

Therefore it seems almost essential to me that we should open our stories with some event which attracts the interest of the audience, which seems to have somewhat sinister overtones because they know they are going to be watching a murder mystery, and which simply intrigues the hell out of the audience.

Obviously, getting such a situation is not an easy matter and if we try to conjure one up without knowing the basic rules pertaining to such a situation we are simply wearying our minds by trying to climb a mental greased pole.

There are however certain basic laws for getting such a situation and once we understand those laws we can build the situation into our story just as we can start with a common denominator of public interest and build that into the story.

In a mystery story the opening situation can best be understood by referring to what I have called the “Murderer’s Ladder”.

Understand that it is not always necessary for the audience to see every step in this ladder but the writer should have each step in mind when he starts to think about the murder. He should know the motivation for the murder, he should understand the temptation, he should know the over-all plan.

However, the basic story situation comes when the murderer starts to climb from the rung of the ladder which represents the first action which can’t be withdrawn. In other words, at a certain point the murderer has committed himself; he has started his action; he has broken into the house where he intends to commit the murder; he has surreptitiously boarded the yacht where his victim is sleeping; he has put the poison in the glass. He has done something which he isn’t supposed to do and which, if detected, will expose the fact that he has murder in his mind. It is the point where he can’t back up. In the motivation of murder it is the point of no return.

Once the murderer reaches this point it is only necessary to provide some event which makes his plans go awry in order to bring about a story situation. The murderer can’t back up. He has to go forward. His plans have been knocked into a cocked hat. Therefore he has to improvise. He starts improvising with an image of the hangman’s rope dangling over his neck. He has to improvise in a hurry. There is this terrific element of urgency which is crowding him.

Therefore he does something which brings about a sufficiently paradoxical situation as far as the audience is concerned, knowing only what it knows at that time, so that the audience is intrigued and sees a pattern of interesting or perhaps exciting events taking place with the unmistakable background of urgency, yet those are events which puzzle the audience, which arouse its interest and which bring about an atmosphere of mystery.

If we simply have characters thrown into a story, we have them push each other around and then have a murder and call on Perry Mason to solve that murder in the courtroom, we have insured ourselves an eventual ticket to oblivion.

Perhaps the best illustration that I can think of offhand of this necessity for a mystery lies in The Case of the Borrowed Brunette, although there as I remember it, it wasn’t a question of the murderer’s plans going astray but it was all a part of the murderer’s plan.

In any event the murderer wanted a brunette of a certain description. He didn’t want to have the persons who didn’t answer that description get a good look at him. Therefore he put ads in the paper by which brunettes who had the necessary physical attributes were brought into contact by correspondence or by telephone and each brunette was told to be at a certain corner one block apart at a certain time so that the man who wanted to employ them could ride slowly by in an automobile and size up each brunette as he went by to see if she had the physical characteristics and the physical appearance that he wanted.

Now this is what I mean by starting the story with a mystery, by encountering a subordinate act of villainy but not the crime itself. In other words, in place of being called upon to solve a murder, Mason, driving down the street following the schedule of the murderer was astounded to find that on each street corner of a somewhat deserted residential district (that is, a residential district which was devoid of traffic at that hour of the day) there was a striking brunette very similar in appearance, each one waiting expectantly on the corner.

This aroused the interest of the audience. It had sex, it had mystery and it was a paradoxical situation which impinged upon the life of Perry Mason.

Please bear in mind that I am not laying down arbitrary rules or trying to put the imaginations of writers in a straitjacket, except insofar as the lowest common denominator of public interest is concerned. On that point I am adamant. I think that our stories must have one of the lowest common denominators of public interest or else they simply can’t hold the attention of the audience.

As to these other matters, the murderer’s ladder and all of the other aids which I brought out and demonstrated yesterday, the point I am making is that these are means by which a writer can build mystery and suspense into his plot. I don’t claim they are the only means by which mystery and suspense can be built into the plot. I don’t claim they give a good plot.

As I mentioned before, they do give a structure because we know we are using building blocks that are sound and we know we are putting them together in a construction of ideas which is going to give us a house. As 1 remarked before, it may not be the house we want but it is much easier to take a house and then start tinkering with the interior than it is to try to build a house without materials that will stand up, such as putting sand in the foundation and expecting it to bear the weight of a superstructure.

All I am doing and all I try to do with my methods of plot building is to stimulate the thinking along constructive lines so that ideas are being put together so as to make a cohesive whole.

Once I get my plots I nearly always revise the hell out of them but the point is that by that time I have something in the nature of a plot.

If a writer will start following the murderer up the ladder he sometimes will find steps taken by the murderer which can be translated into an interesting opening mysterious situation. He will sometimes find that the murderer is confronted with an emergency from which it is difficult for him to escape unless he does something and the doing of this something involves the lives of the people who are to become prominent in the story.

Then there are factors in the solution which should be taken into consideration. Chief among these factors is a division which I have made of mystery writing which I refer to in my files as “clue sequence,”

It is only necessary to cite the one incident which I cited yesterday in order to show what is meant by clue sequence. On a warm, humid day a person who pours a glass of beer, if the beer is taken from the icebox, will find that the glass has left a ring on the table or that the glass has beads of moisture on it. If he finds a man sitting drinking beer and the man tells him he has just taken the beer out of the icebox and there is no moisture on the outside of the glass the detective knows the man is lying.

Another interesting clue sequence which I think I used once in a story is that a person wearing slippers and pajamas and approaching a bed, standing facing the bed, getting ready to get into bed, will kick off his slippers so that the toes are pointed under the bed. Whereas if he sits on the bed, talking with somebody, then takes off his slippers to get into bed the toes will be pointing away from the bed.

Any person who is going to write mystery stories should start looking for these clue sequences. He will find them by the dozen if he simply keeps observing various phenomena and the events which take place around him. He can then start a card file of clue sequence events and will find that he has some very interesting material.

What I am trying to do here is not try to write a complete treatise on plotting but simply to hit the high spots of the points we covered yesterday so that you can recall them to mind and to emphasize above all and to reiterate over and over again that writers must be trained to build plots. They can be told there are certain ingredients which exist in a Perry Mason story and by the time they are told to come up with a likable character, a common denominator of public interest, an opening mysterious situation, they are pretty apt to find that they have created something which so intrigues them that they will be racing ahead to finish a script. Whereas if they grope around in their mind trying to find a starting point that starting point is altogether too apt to be related too closely to some story which has been done time and time again, or some act of violence which unfortunately in the minds of many writers is the trigger by which a story comes into existence.

Suggested: Carolyn Wells' "Mystery Story Technique for Writers"

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