This week I have been working on my new book and a film project. Both are loosely based on “Real Life” events. Perhaps because I have watched so many episodes of Law and Order, or from a youth spent reading too many Nancy Drew mysteries, I think of all storytelling as having a mystery that must be solved. While solving the mystery is obvious in an actual mystery or thriller, like my recent novel, The Book of Zev, this concept of solving the mystery works well in most other genres as well.
While in a crime story, the mystery revolves around “Who dunnit?” in other kinds of stories, the “crime” that has to be “solved” may not be so obvious. In my new story the mystery revolves around why the main character chooses someone, and why she tries to hold onto him. In the other real life story that I am working on, the mystery is why one woman decides to reject most of her Arab culture and brave terrible hardships to become an educator.
Having worked on many projects over the last seventeen years, I feel that finding the mystery is the key to discovering the organic structure of any story. When I work with students I try to begin by asking them these two questions: “What is the mystery of your story?”, and “What is the mystery you are trying to solve in your personal life?” The answers to these questions will give more depth than you could have imagined because your interest will be piqued not just as a writer, but also as a reader. This additional perspective will also help guide your story choices.
For example, in my new book, if the mystery is why she chose this guy – then the answer to that question will suggest the structure of the book or movie. In the other project, because the mystery includes braving the confines of an anti-female culture, the story must begin much earlier, in childhood, so that we can understand where it all began.
This sounds simple, and it is – but it is also deceptive because the simpler the foundation the more detailed and elaborate the kind of “house” you can build.
Find the mystery, and then let that dictate the shape and structure of the piece. Once you have determined that information, you can then create a kind of timeline of the events. In a “true” story, you would lay out the details chronologically first, so as to get a sense of whether or not the story will translate into dramatic terms. Even the most horrific life story becomes boring because of the repetitive nature of life. By finding and focusing on the mystery to be solved, the process of both creating scenes and eliminating others becomes clearer, because you are working towards a specific goal.
So to recap, by focusing and discovering the “mystery” that must be “solved” in your book or screenplay, you will not only tell a better story, but your creation process will be made efficient because the dramatic choices you need to make will be clear.