November 22, 2004

avoiding melodrama?

I've been thinking about mysteries lately. Novels, movies, and maybe a few TV shows, to spice things up. How do you construct a mystery? You take a twisty unsolved conundrum (usually an unexplained death). Then you find someone who cares a whole lot about the answer. A paid sleuth is easiest to establish but unpaid may be more intriguing why does this person care so much? Then you figure out who dunnit and why. But with clues that lead only one place, it's a path, not a maze. So you also conjure up a number of possible culprits, every single one complete with motivation and access.

This is where I get stuck. Because when you do this, when you create multiple suspects, what are you really saying? That everyone is capable of murder, given a strong enough reason? But is that true? You're certainly, without a doubt, saying that you can't trust people, that everyone has secrets. Because inevitably the sleuth uncovers some dirty laundry, some melodramatic backstory that leads her to suspect Ms. X of the murder. And then maybe she confronts Ms. X, who breaks down and sobs, "No, it wasn't that way at all! I didn't kill him, I loved him! He was secretly my bastard son, I kept it from the world so he would inherit his supposed mother's wealth!" And then the sleuth hands poor grieving Ms. X a tissue and moves on to Suspect Y.

I haven't counted, but I'm guessing there have to be at least three, if not more, of these false leads in your average mystery novel. Each one has to have a potent enough reason to commit murder and ideally a compelling enough twist to show why it's not true in this case or that one. That's a lot of drama. And this, in particular, is my problem. How do you do this? How do you create a world in which everyone has an extremely powerful, dramatic dirty secret? When does it tip over into soap opera? How can you keep it real?

I'm a couple of weeks behind watching the TV show Lost, but this show is a good example of what Im talking about. Every week the A story concentrates on a different major character. Inevitably we flash back to that person's life pre-plane crash. And apparently also inevitably we watch an extremely dramatic story unfold in said person's past. Running from the law (literally). Following a cold, harsh but apparently mentally ill father to Australia only to discover his death. Marrying the love of your life only to see him follow in your Korean Mafia father's footsteps, complete with literal blood on his hands. And so on. And so forth. Everyone has a story, yes. But does everyone have this kind of story? At some point, that delicate suspension of disbelief that allows you the reader/viewer to stay engaged breaks. And then we the creators are in trouble.

This is where I get stuck.

Posted by Tamar at November 22, 2004 06:11 PM

Maybe I see it a little bit differently. Instead of every person being capable, the situation is that whatever quality makes one capable is invisible. So, you can't tell by looking who is or isn't.

I guess this is what I get for watching too much CSI :-)

Posted by: Ambre at November 22, 2004 06:46 PM