Mark Terry

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A 100,000 Year Tradition (At Least)

December 26, 2006
I was over on Lee Child's website and if you dig around in there on his bio page you see that there are about 30 interviews. And on one of the interviews, with Publishers Weekly, Lee said this:

So in what genre would this aspiring author write? Easy, says Child. "To me there is only one genre: suspense/mystery/crime. It's bit Jesuitical trying to work out exactly which is which. I think there are only two kinds of books. One is the kind you miss your subway stop because of and you stay up too late reading so you're tired the next day at work. Or you don't." Child wanted to be in the former category—"it's where the humanity is. I don't want to be too academic about it, but in human evolution we developed language, we developed storytelling, and that must have been for a serious purpose. I think right from cave man days, we had stories that involved danger and peril, and eventually safety and resolution. To me that is the story. And that's what we're still telling today, 100,000 years later. That's what a page-turner is. Why do we turn the page if we're not in suspense about what's going to happen next?"

Yup. I agree with Lee. It's a blunt instrument way of looking at the written word, and even many so-called "literary" or "mainstream" novels have some sort of mystery of some sort involved, or at least, if they're going to work at all, they have to set up the "what happens next thing" one way or another.

Mark Terry


Blogger Rob Gregory Browne said...

I've long said that every story must have a mystery -- even if you're writing a romantic comedy or a coming of age piece. The writer must always hold something back that keeps the reader wondering and wanting to keep turning the pages until the mystery is solved.

4:16 AM  
Blogger Shannon said...

So, do you guys (and gals) think that the difference is just a matter of degree? A suspense pulls you in slowly and more delicately, while a thriller cranks it up a few notches? Higher energy, maybe?

6:23 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Essentially. Let's look at a very non-mystery mystery, and in this case I'll use a movie example, the first one that came to mind: Kramer vs. Kramer.

No mystery. Or is there? Will the Dustin Hoffman character engage with his son? Will he become a competent parent? Will he get custody? Will the Meryl Streep character get her act together? When she sues for custody, who will win? Just how ugly will it get?

It's suspense and mystery, and except for the possibility of calling it a courtroom drama, it's a mainstream story about parenting, divorce and child custody. But the biggest similarity is: What's going to happen next?

You have to be engaged with the characters, but the story has to be done in a way that parcels out information and makes the viewer/reader curious about what's coming.

I've heard this described as like knots on a string, pulling them along, one after the other, which although I'm not wild about the metaphor, seems apt.

6:47 AM  

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