What is the topic of this week’s episode? No one knows. You’ll have to collect clues and interview suspects to find out. It’s a total mystery! Which fits, because the topic of this episode is mystery stories. Listen as we discuss how important the final reveal is, the best uses of red herrings, and ways to keep readers from guessing whodunit. Also what might be the worst Game of Thrones pun of all time.
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Opening and closing theme: The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton. Used with permission.
Generously transcribed by Bunny. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro Music]
Oren: And welcome everyone to another episode of the Mythcreant podcast. I’m Oren. With me today is …
Oren: And …
Oren: … And I have startling news, guys. I just found the topic for today’s episode: murder.
Wes: What? No!
Wes: What? How could this have happened?
Oren: I don’t know but I’m gonna get to the bottom of this. We’re going to find out who killed the topic of today’s episode. And it was definitely one of you two –
Oren: – Because you’re the only other characters here, so it’s not hard to figure out. Unless it was me. That would be a real twist.
Chris: It’s definitely you in this instance.
Oren: Yeah, that would make the most sense. So, today we’re talking about mystery stories, and I realized looking at the website that we don’t actually have a lot of mystery-related content or mystery-specific content. I think part of that is, to a certain extent, all stories have an element of mystery, but not all stories are mystery stories.
Wes: Yeah, if I’m in a bookstore and there’s the mystery section. It’s like, “What does that mean?” The important thing is, all stories can have a mystery, like Southern Reach and Annihilation, but I think for it to be put on that shelf, it needs crime. I think that is a key component of these. You guys might have other thoughts, though?
Chris: Yeah. I mean, we can think of mystery as a genre, but there’s also a lot of plots that are basically mystery plots, even if it’s not really the mystery genre. It’s not always obvious when that’s true and when it comes to setting up the ending and revealing the mystery. They have a lot of things in common with the typical plot of a story in the mystery genre. And I think the big thing is that the tension in the plot is as much about a question as it is about a threat, so usually there’s some threat even in a typical crime story. We have a murderer and then usually that murderer is also threatening. It’s not just about “Whodunnit?” unless you have a cozy mystery which, from what I understand, are not published often these days. I mean, I’m sure they still exist, but a lot of mysteries are not cozy mysteries. But if you have a story of any type where there’s a big question that’s really forming one of the big throughlines or big reasons to keep going, it kind of becomes a mystery and it has some of the same burdens of that big reveal. I think a good example that’s kind of counterintuitive is actually Game of Thrones.
Chris: The question of “Who will sit on the Iron Throne?” was a really big deal, and they didn’t have to set it up that way. For instance, Jon Snow. We knew that he had a lot of things building towards him being on the Iron Throne, and if it had felt like it was his story, then there wouldn’t have been a question. It would have just been, “We’re going to watch as Jon grows as a person and watch him struggle to get the Iron Throne.” But because George RR Martin was, at least in the early books (and the show picked this up), just so devoted to keeping readers guessing about who would win, we basically set up the story as a big mystery where the question is not who murdered somebody, but who gets that throne. I think this is one of the really big issues for the end of Game of Thrones, because they were not actually prepared to deliver a reveal about who got the Throne that would satisfy people.
Wes: That’s interesting. I didn’t think about it like that.
Oren: Yeah, their ending was about as satisfactory as Bran Flakes.
Chris: No, nooo!
Wes: Nooo, you’ve killed me! And we know who did it! All the evidence is there, just turn it back 10 seconds.
Chris: In Game of Thrones, they were basically choosing between an answer that was too obvious to be satisfying, like Jon Snow, or characters that couldn’t realistically get on the Throne, like Bran, so they chose a character who was surprising but they could not actually make it believable.
Oren: And that’s actually a common problem that a lot of mysteries have: if you spend the entire story asking the question “Whodunnit?” … in Game of Thrones it was the same except it was, “Who’s going to be on the Iron Throne?” whereas in the case of the Southern Reach, there’s a certain amount of, “What is it?” because the mystery is, “What’s the Area X caused by?” No matter what your answer is, there’s a good chance it’s just going to be underwhelming. Even if you manage to make it so that the audience doesn’t guess who it was going to be, but it’s still someone that it makes sense for it to have been, that answer is just going to be underwhelming. If you spend the whole story, especially a long story, asking the same question, whatever the answer is it’s gonna feel underwhelming. Game of Thrones was definitely in that position because even if they took one of the characters that it made sense for, like Jon Snow or Dragon Lady Daenerys or, to a certain extent, Cersei – even if they took one of those three, there was no technical way to guess who it was going to be. You could have just made it one of them and the odds were just as good. There was a 30% chance you were right.
Chris: Game of Thrones was in an especially hard position because they were so popular. Any show has to deal with the hive mind. There is there is simply no outwitting the hive mind. The Internet hive mind knows all. But in a lot of shows, you can just say, “Okay, look, just ignore the hive mind. Most people aren’t going on the Internet and getting in discussions about how the show will end. Just let those people guess.” But the more popular the show is, the more that becomes impossible. Game of Thrones was so big and so anticipated that basically everybody gets roped into the hive mind and the hive mind discussions.
Oren: Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem. It’s remarkably effective, and I’m surprised that not everyone uses it. Instead of focusing on trying to make your answer surprising, you change the question. For example, if you have a murder mystery and you spend the whole thing being like, “Who murdered this person?” and then you’re like, “We’ve got these suspects and it could be any one of them!” and you spend the whole thing trying to figure out who it is. Then, at the end, you reveal that actually it wasn’t a murder. Then you get a satisfying and surprising reveal even if people technically guessed it was going to happen. We just read a story called Magic for Liars (spoilers for Magic for Liars), and that story does have a lot of problems, but it has a reveal similar to the one I was just talking about where at the end, the murder turns out not to have been a murder. I totally guessed it. I saw it coming. But that was fine – I didn’t mind that. I was still a cool reveal because it wasn’t really about whether or not I guessed it. It was about whether or not it clicked in a satisfying way. It wouldn’t have clicked if it was just “Oh, well, one of these possible suspects is the one who did it.”
Chris: One of the possible suspects just doesn’t have any novelty. It just doesn’t feel like it’s fresh or original. You just need something that doesn’t feel like, “Okay, we had several options, and we just chose one.” It’s just it’s too predictable to be satisfying.
Oren: That’s why I kept expecting Game of Thrones was going to end with no one becoming King. That just seemed like the way to go, and to this day I’m surprised they didn’t. It feels like they kind of wanted to, with the whole “Now you’re part of an aristocratic oligarchy, but you’re still a king and who you are still matters.”
Chris: My favorite solution for Game of Thrones is the idea that we don’t destroy the Lannister Army, but Cersei dies, Tyrion becomes able to actually take over the Lannister side, and then he married Sansa. Now, this might just because I shipped Sansa Tyrion –
Wes: You were not alone in that!
Chris: – but at the same time, Jon and Daenerys had their tragic love story, they’re gone now, and they’ve left the situation so that there’s no one person who is capable of holding the country together. But with a marriage we can make it work. So that would have been not just picking between one of the many options. It would have been something else.
Oren: Change the question.
Chris: Right. Changing to a democracy was an idea that was folded.
Oren: The problem is that it’s just unrealistic for the setting changing from a from a feudal monarchy in the equivalent of the War of the Roses period to a citizen democracy. You can’t do it just like that. You gotta work up to it.
Wes: Yeah, but we’re still gonna have Sam asked that question, just to make fun of him.
Oren: Yeah. Exactly. I hated that. I was not a fan.
Wes: It was so bad.
Oren: All right, so, I was actually meaning to get to the whole change the question thing last, but it came up first, so, surprise!
Chris: We spoiled the mystery, it seems, of this podcast.
Wes: I think that’s a hard thing with mysteries, especially “Whodunnit?” ones for writers, because if it’s a crime-based mystery, the crime has to happen to start the investigation and unless it’s an isolated crime (like Chris said with the cozy mysteries), then it’s like, “How do you maintain tension at all if they’re just collecting clues?” And I think that’s why we see a lot more of the crime mysteries dealing with true villains out there that are going to be Zodiac Killers or repeat offenders. That kind of stuff works because suddenly there’s definitely a time crunch to like solve this case before murder happens again or something like that.
Chris: And also just giving the crime solver a personal stake. Hitting close to home definitely makes a big difference in mysteries because now we care more about the death, and how it happened, and the people who are suspects are also people that are close to the protagonist. It really helps. Cozy mysteries are just very low tension, and some readers really like that, but it does tend to lower the entertainment value, which makes it harder to sell those.
Wes: I think those really rely on there being a changing question or a twist at the end. I’ve read quite a few Agatha Christie novels and she’s good at getting the reveal right, especially with the ones that have Poirot as her detective. He does the pivot to look at it from a different perspective and answer different questions in order to present you with the solution. There’s a reason why the only thing that’s outsold Agatha Christie is the Bible.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, it also definitely would put more burden on the story to have an intellectually intriguing puzzle and be interesting and novel that way.
Wes: Those are hard to write. Those are hard to think up.
Chris: It’s very hard. So it’s a lot easier to just throw in a threat.
Oren: Also, my recollection of the few cozy mysteries that I’ve read is that there also tends to be a lot of quirky characters interacting.
Chris: So more novelty through character.
Oren: Yeah. In my opinion, that works better on TV because then there are cool charismatic actors doing stuff, whereas in prose there’s only the strength of the word craft, but I mean that can still work in prose. It’s just harder.
Wes: I like the extension of that to the quirky characters and their interactions, and then you get into the Noir ones with Detective Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. Philip Marlowe? I think that’s right. It’s still quirky, just a different type of quirky right there. The mysteries are actually kind of straightforward, but they’re dealing with antihero people and it’s dark and it’s gritty and they’re all brooding and drinking and smoking and somebody died and we gotta go have a look at it. And then that presents the entertainment more so than puzzling out what the deal is with the Maltese Falcon.
Chris: I also would say that with novelty in characters, what you can get away with does probably partially depend on whether you’re in speculative fiction or not, because generally in speculative fiction works because we have a fantastical world. Generally, there’s more burden on the characters to be believable and realistic and a lot of the novelty in the setting. Whereas if you have a non-speculative work, like a typical mystery story, the setting is all real but the characters are much wackier. And it’s almost easier to accept that they’re being wacky, or at least, audiences that are used to those genres are more likely to accept their being wacky. Whereas, I think, in a speculative work, there might be a little bit more questions about whether this is a realistic character or not.
Oren: Right. There is kind of a middle ground in historical mystery. Those stores like are sort of speculative in that if its historical, it’s not present day, so there’s something there that’s not there in the real world. But at the same time, there’s no overtly supernatural or magical elements, and so there’s a lot of mystery stories that take place specifically in the 20s or the Victorian era for that reason. The setting provides novelty. Speaking of speculative fiction and mysteries, one really important thing that all magic mystery people and tech mystery people should learn is that you’ve got to establish your supernatural elements early. You should always do that in most stories, to be honest, but it’s especially important in mystery stories because a big part of the fun of a mystery story is trying to be like, “Oh man. How did that happen? What’s going on?” and trying to puzzle it out. You can’t do that in a magic world if you don’t know how the magic works! That’s a thing that Magic for Liars did very badly. The main character, and by extension the audience, has no idea how magic works, even a little bit, and so every time she’s investigating, it’s like, “Well that person has an alibi.” I’m like, “Does that alibi mean anything?”
Chris: “Okay, can you just cast magic from afar?”
Oren: We have no idea! “Can you think with portals?” No one knows. And it felt honestly felt like someone from the 1700s trying to investigate a plane crash. This character just felt wildly unqualified.
Chris: Especially since this was explicitly a magical murder. It wasn’t like somebody got stabbed with a knife. The protagonist can’t even understand how the murder was committed because she doesn’t understand magic. I do think it’s really important to mystery that the protagonist is making conclusions and decisions and piecing clues together, and the audience should always be along for the ride. Sometimes we want to reveal the conclusion the hero has come to Sherlock-style. It’s hard to pull off. I’m not going to say you can never do that. But for at least the vast majority of the story the logic that is being used to solve the crime should be clear, and you know all of those things and if we don’t understand magic and tech, that’s going to be really difficult.
Oren: Yeah, and I would say that you can have some mystery about how the magic and tech works. If it’s a limited amount, that can be a cool reveal. If you foreshadow it properly, like, you can find out that old man Wilikins actually could clone himself the whole time, and that’s a cool reveal about how this crime happened, but it has to be limited. Ideally, it should be a reveal to the character as well as the protagonist.
Chris: It should definitely be a reveal to the protagonist. We should talk about how to not give things away, because that’s really tricky and again, especially with shows, one thing that’s really hard to defeat is the process of elimination problem. Oren’s idea for just changing the question is probably the best way to defeat that, but there was one mystery in Teen Wolf about who was turning into this big were-monster and Oren was just like, “It’s that guy.” It’s like, “How do you know it’s that guy?” Well, it can’t be anybody else. There’s been no foreshadowing for this minor side character, but no, it has to be that guy because good storytellers only put something in the story if it’s necessary and especially with shows that are very strict with pacing and have limited ability to hire actors.
Wes: Yeah. It’s like, “Oh, there’s a new character. Suspicious, right?”
Chris: They usually only have as many people as absolutely necessary. That was not really satisfying because even if you didn’t expect that, there was no way to tell. There was really no foreshadowing. It was just that person ‘cuz it wasn’t anybody else.
Wes: They really tried to distract from that with the dread doctors. This is like, “Well, maybe these dread doctors will just be so scary they distract everybody from the fact that that guy over there is also new.”
Oren: Yeah, who knows? It could be anybody. Except yeah, it’s definitely that guy because we know it isn’t anyone else and there aren’t any other named characters and it’s not going to be an extra. So I guess it’s that guy. The alternative is you could just like go on like fan reddits and just see what the fans are theorizing and then do the opposite of that.
Chris: Don’t do that. Don’t do that. Don’t try to beat the hive mind. So, I think the biggest tip that is the most effective for keeping your foreshadowing from giving things away is to disguise your foreshadowing as having another storytelling purpose. When you put something in your story, the audience knows that it’s there for a reason (generally), especially if you’re a storyteller that’s good at trimming a story down to its necessary components. So, people really overlook foreshadowing a lot more if whatever you put in looks like it has some other purpose. If it doesn’t appear to have any purpose, then a lot of times that really makes it feel like foreshadowing because “Why did that character just say that? Oh, it’s got to be important later. Therefore it’s foreshadowing.” The best example of foreshadowing that was disguised and worked really excellent is in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. So they’re going out to search for the Holy Grail and they passed this castle, and I don’t know if they’re going to his castle just to try to get help from the guy in charge or something, and they tell the people the castle that they’re on the quest for the Holy Grail. The people in the castle are like, “Oh, Our Lord doesn’t care about that. He’s already got one.” And it’s like this big joke, because Monty Python is really silly. It’s this big joke about how he’s already got a Grail and who cares about this and at the end we find out that the guy really does have the Holy Grail! But there’s no way you’d suspect that because it was a joke. We thought the purpose of saying that was that it was a joke. So again, it can be kind of tricky to do this. You do need to think about the story and know what storytelling tactics there are. There are other ways to hide foreshadowing. You can make it broader or more general. I mean, foreshadowing a lot of times is about setting the right expectations. It doesn’t necessarily have to specify a super specific thing to work. Disguising it, I find, is probably one of the most effective ways of doing it and it works regardless of the situation if you can pull it off.
Oren: Oh, another thing you can do that is a very effective tactic is employ your red herrings to distract from the guy that it actually is or whatever the reveal is. In most cases, it’s “Whodunnit?” but it could be other things if you have the person’s suspect them. Have the main character suspect them and then have it turn out to be a red herring. It’s like, “Oh man. This victim was burned to death. I bet it was the fire mage.” And then you have the reveal of actually they were drowned and burned after they were dead to make it look like someone burned them to death. The fire mage is innocent. And then, later, double twist! It turned out the fire mage is a secret hydromancer.” That’s very effective because we’ve already suspected the fire mage and then cleared them, so now it’s we’re less likely to think, “God, I wonder if it’s that rascally old fire mage!”
Chris: Now, of course, with any of these things, it’s about staying on top of what’s commonly happening in mystery stories at the time. If that’s used too often, it will stop working, just like any of these things. It’s about trying to be different than what other people are doing. That’s how you surprise audiences and it’s kind of an escalating battle. There’s other things like, “The hero did it!” don’t try that at home, though, that would be the most most difficult reveal ever! Or somebody who’s dead did it – they’re not really dead. Or the person that was murdered isn’t really dead … that’s really changing the question more.
Oren: We’re back to changing the question.
Chris: Yeah, or basically changing the premise. When the mystery is built on certain assumptions, and it turns out one of those assumptions is not true, that’s another way of putting the whole changing the question thing.
Wes: I’m not a fan of this, but I’ve heard it mentioned before that … what do you think of the case that the reveal is just some random person? I’m thinking of when Amon was unmasked in Korra. There’s always those people that are like, “Well, come on, that’s totally realistic. It’s not like they know everybody. It could have been anyone! That makes it like an actual mystery!”
Chris: Maybe that’s a case of what we call real-world fallacy, which is the assumption that just because it’s realistic somehow means it’s good storytelling.
Oren: Which is funny because the Amon reveal is not in any way realistic. There’s nothing realistic about Amon’s story. The fact that he’s someone that they’ve never met – you could argue that that’s realistic, I guess. But if that’s where you’re going to plant your flag, then I’ve got a whole lot of other realism problems for you in the show.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, I think that goes back down to what is a mystery and what is not and when you are setting up a mystery. Because it’s not like the villain always has to be somebody who is supposed to be a protagonist or an ally in hiding. Sometimes they can be a stranger. But when you do that, you don’t set it up as a mystery. So if that were the case there would be no reason that we would hide Amon’s face. We would see him around in the background and we would kind of know who he is. It would be more of a question of defeating him as a threat as opposed to deliberately withholding details that would reveal who he is as a person. Another book I recently listened to is Trail of Lightning which has this villain who is creating monsters in it. It would be possible in a story like that for the villain just to be some witch who the protagonist has never met. But if that’s the case, we would know that it’s somebody the protagonist has never met because there’s nothing interesting to reveal. So there’s no reason to withhold that knowledge. We would know that it’s a stranger and then the actual tension the story would be created by the how threatening that person is. So if you deliberately withhold information until the end, you are setting an expectation that when it’s revealed, it will mean something. The problem with the “some guy” reveal is that it’s meaningless. All of that expectation, all of that build-up was for nothing.
Oren: Specifically hiding a person’s face and then revealing what they look like as if that alone is a satisfying reveal … I’ve seen that a lot of TV shows. Korra is not the only one. Leverage did that, too. There was this side character who we saw a couple times, but her face was in shadow and then we see her later and she’s just … someone. We don’t know who that is. On Fringe, they had this whole implied mystery about … I think Gabe L was the guy’s name? I forget. Gabriel Bell is Cisco’s character … Jonathan Bell? I don’t know. He was like a guy and the narrative made like this huge mystery about who he was and refused to show us what he looked like and then we have this big reveal and it’s that he’s played by Leonard Nimoy. That’s the reveal. It means nothing to the actual characters. It’s like an out-of-game reveal because Abrahms was really proud of having gotten Leonard Nimoy to sign onto that show. I guess that’s what was happening and it was very frustrating.
Chris: I think Dollhouse did a little bit better when they had this big villain that they built up called Alpha and they brought in Alan Tudyk as a side character who seemed to be a side character. It wasn’t that the reveal relied on meta-knowledge, like people recognizing the actor, but the fact that it was Alan Tudyk, who plays Walsh in Firefly, playing this quirky side character just automatically made viewers not suspect him because they have that in association with that very innocent, very kind character. And so then it was revealed when that side character was Alpha, right who was just good at acting. The fact that it was that recognizable actor added a lot to the reveal, but the reveal didn’t rely on that meta-knowledge of this previous role that he had played.
Oren: This may sound weird, but I’m actually about to praise season 2 of Heroes.
Oren: Yeah, okay, garbage season overall. Everyone knows that. There is one thing it did well, which is that for a while, they’re like, “Who’s Adam?” There’s an implied mystery of Adam because they don’t show us Adam’s face. We just know he’s a bad guy. We’ve never seen him, and we don’t know who he is. And then there’s this whole arc of Hiro going back to feudal Japan and meeting this guy who we thought was his idol but is actually a drunk white dude. And that arc is problematic and goes on for way too long. But in that arc, we do find out that this guy also has powers and that his power is regeneration. Then, in the future, Hiro meets Adam and it’s the same guy. And it’s like, “Oh wow, that’s pretty cool.” It makes sense because you can kind of fill in that his regeneration means he doesn’t age and so it’s that same guy and now he has this connection with Hiro. The Japan plot didn’t need to go on for nearly that long to establish that, so I’m not saying that was a good decision, but it was a cool reveal in the moment.
Chris: Yeah, there is definitely a trick to foreshadowing where are you can sometimes set enough of an expectation to make something believable without letting that foreshadowing give something away, and this is a good example of that. He has a similar power; he can heal. It’s not enough to make you think that he’s immortal, but it is enough to make it so that the idea of him being immortal feels like it fits and feels believable. But it’s not actually leading the audience too much. Not all foreshadowing is easy to find. It’s enough to make it feel like it fits in it. It’s not enough to point to it. But sometimes you can pull it off and it’s generally the way to go.
Oren: Yep, and speaking of the way to go, we are pretty much out of time for this podcast. So before we go, I want to thank a couple of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who’s a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com. Those of you at home, if anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro Music]
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