I spent last week at the San Francisco Writers Conference and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. I must say that I strongly recommend any writers out there to look into attending a Conference at some point. The SFWC is excellent, but it isn’t the only one out there.
Whether you are a published author, or you are looking for an agent or publisher, working on your first novel and looking to hone your craft or if you are writer just looking to network with other writers and people in the business, it is an invaluable opportunity to get some face to face time with like-minded folk.
That, however, is not the subject of my post today. While I was at the Conference, I was fortunate to be able to talk to Ransom Stephens - a PhD holder and sci-fi writer - about the writing craft and the writing process. His focus was primarily thinking about the neuroscience of writing - what made people laugh, cry or get excited in the brain. I was particularly interested to ask him about how he felt that applied across different genres, and if there were any central threads.
The conclusion, which I think has a lot of merit to it, was that all stories should be mysteries, regardless of the genre. Now, this is something I have already expressed on other posts. I have talked about the importance of the ‘dramatic question’ behind the narrative, which in many ways in the central ‘mystery’ of the story (whether romance, fantasy, horror, or anything else). But his take was fascinating and I wanted to write some of my thoughts on it.
Brain Chemicals and Puzzles
Our brain is hard-wired to produce dopamine rushes for certain evolutionarily beneficial experiences. This is a universal thing, and one we can’t fight. For example, we get a dopamine rush when we get praise or recognition, or through physical attraction, and a wide variety of other things useful for our survival and procreation.
Transpose this to the modern era, with new technology and consumer products, and we get dopamine rushes with some strange things. It’s a big part of the cause behind addiction, as drugs and alcohol will trick our brain into giving it to us. It’s part of why social media is so popular - studies have shown that the dopamine rush you get from receiving likes, or upvotes, even from faceless strangers, is identifiable.
So where does that leave us with literature? Well, one of the great dopamine rushes we get is in working things out. The ‘AHA’ moment is an intensely pleasurable one, whether in solving mysteries or coming across a great ‘twist’. It is the moment where it all comes together and you finally understand something that you haven’t quite been able to get.
Think about a jigsaw puzzle, or a crossword. It’s that feeling when you finally find the right piece you’ve been looking for or you find the right word and suddenly everything falls in place. If you can give your readers this experience - this sense of discovery - they will come back and back to read your work.
However, in order to do this, you need to have a clear and purposeful mystery for your reader to work out. Let’s think about how this has impacted some literature and fanbases in the past few decades.
Presenting A Puzzle
I am sure you are all now aware of George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice And Fire series, made into a hit HBO TV show ‘A Game of Thrones’. Some of you, like me, might remember it long before it was shown. Back when the series was first garnering popularity and we were still waiting for A Feast for Crows and A Dance of Dragons as patiently and frustratingly as we now are for the next.
It gained popularity at around the same time that internet fan boards did, and one of the things that made it so popular was Martin’s ability to set up mysteries for the readers to solve. He would leave hints of information about the place and it would take several books and even a couple of re-reads to really piece them together.
Internet message boards were dedicated to working out the puzzles in the narrative, and when they did the dopamine rush across all readers was palpable. The moment where the pieces of R+L=J - or the idea that Jon Snow is the son of Rhaeger and Lyanna - fell into place for a reader was basically a guarantee that they would be buying the next book. It was such a rush of excitement.
And the interesting thing is, the reader doesn’t even need to work it out themselves. If I read the book, then went on the internet and read the ‘theory’, the pure act of all the pieces coming together is enough to give me the rush.
The TV show LOST experienced a very similar sensation in the mid to late 2000s and the experience of putting together pieces and working out puzzles was what made the show so amazingly popular.
I know, I know. You are probably wondering how you are going to come up with complex puzzles that are just enough there for your reader to work out, but not quite enough to be obvious? It might seem tough, but the good thing is there are ways to provide the rush in less subtle and complex ways than GoT or LOST.
Character As Proxy For Reader
Often it is possible to use the protagonist as a proxy for the reader. That is to say, when the protagonist solves the mystery, the reader received their dopamine rush by proxy.
What I mean by this is that the reader doesn’t need to work the mystery out themselves. Much like the internet message boards of above, it is sufficient to watch someone else do it. This is at the core of murder mystery novels. While I love them, I am actually not very good at working out whodunnit. I read too quickly and focus too much on character and story, I think, but I love experiencing the detective work it out.
One of my favourite representations of this rush can be found in the BBC TV series Sherlock. This is from episode 1, and we simply watch Sherlock deduce, and get excited about the deduction, and feel the rush with him. Here's an example of what I'm talking about:
Putting Together the Pieces
Let’s look at another example:
Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, a heist film, has a perfect example of giving the reader this dopamine rush. After robbing the bank and things seemingly going wrong, we are treated to this wonderful scene:
As it all comes together, we realise what the pieces of the plan were and the jigsaw puzzle is finally complete. We experience a dopamine rush, even though we haven’t worked it out ourselves. We are just shown it all coming together.
The way that Soderbergh does this is by deliberately withholding and concealing information from the viewer. Brad Pitt’s face is hidden behind the SWAT mask, then shown. The vault is revealed to be the fake vault they used. When we realise what is really going on, it is very exciting.
However, it is important to remember all the pieces were there. We knew, as an audience, that the fake vault had been built. It was just given another reason for being built (rehearsal for the robbery). In cinematic terms, he actually shows us the same scenes again in a different light. All the pieces make sense because they’ve been given to us already, we have just been hidden the thread that links them all together in the end.
The evidence needs to be there or the reveal won’t give us that same rush of putting pieces together. It will be like someone showing you a finished jigsaw without ever showing you the pieces - there is no excitement in that.
The truth is that, from the perspective of a writer, it is easy to create a reveal like this that looks far more complex to the reader than it really is. You just need to work backwards.
It's actually easy to do from a starting point of knowing what the plan is going to be. More importantly, you can make a plan seem far cleverer than it is by hiding the right information at the right times. That is what is happening here and it works so well. We love it when it all comes together.
Twists: Surprising, but Rational
Let’s think about this concept in a different way, and how it can be applied to drama, horror and thriller plots.
The example I’m going to use here is Martin McDonagh’s wonderful Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to skip past this part as I will be ruining an absolutely heartbreaking twist for you. I’ll indicate in the post where the spoilers begin and end.
[THREE BILLBOARDS SPOILERS BELOW]
In Three Billboards, we are treated to the last day of Chief Willoughby, played by Woody Harrelson, without knowing it at the time. He takes his wife and kids out and has a final perfect day with them. It is only later when we realise that he has done this because he plans to kill himself, and the result is heartbreaking.
For me, at least, the realisation came just before he did it. When he was standing outside by the horses and saying goodbye, I knew what was going to happen. And it made complete sense, despite the fact I hadn’t seen it coming. I realised it couldn’t really have gone any other way.
In many ways, McDonagh is using the same techniques as I explained above. The perfect day could easily be explained as Willoughby just wanting a lovely day out, and we accept it as such. But it is clear why he did that as soon as we realise he is about to commit suicide. The evidence was there, we just weren’t given the narrative reason until later.
What makes this scene work so well is that the reveal is simultaneously a surprise, and also makes complete sense. If you can achieve this - surprise your reader with a twist, but also have enough of the evidence dotted throughout the book that it makes complete and utter sense - then you will have readers coming back for more. They won’t be able to help themselves.
[THREE BILLBOARDS SPOILERS OVER]
To give another example from another genre, Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense does exactly the same thing. The reason the twist is one of the most famous twists of modern storytelling is because it is a surprise, but everything fits when we find out. All the evidence was always there, we just missed it because the links were being deliberately withheld.
The same is true of the Tyler Durden reveal in Fight Club. It is true of all the great twists in stories.
In all three of the above examples - Fight Club, Three Billboards and Sixth Sense - these were also mysteries that the viewer didn’t even necessarily know were there. But they still provide the rush because of falling together of pieces into a single realisation.
When you write, look for opportunities to provide your reader with a similar experience, where seemingly unconnected pieces of evidence fall together into a big reveal that is both surprising and completely understandable. Treat every story - whether horror, drama, romance, fantasy or sci fi - as a mystery story. Give your readers something to get that rush about.
1. Do this by actively withholding information and connections from your readers until you want them to see it all fall together at once.
2. Do this by having your protagonist experience the realisation with your reader, thus heightening the rush for you both.
3. Do this by planting evidence all through a story, like pieces of jigsaw, that the reader doesn’t even realise are pieces until the realisation happens.
If you can do this, your readers will love you for it. It’s in their biology.
I am a writer, a reader and a teacher. I write about writing. Sometimes I write about other things too.