We know what’s happening in this podcast, but we’re not going to tell you. At least, not right away. We’ll string you along with little clues about what we actually know until, finally, we tell you that this is a podcast about meta mysteries, and then act like that’s a very clever reveal. Oops, well, we’ve given that away. But that’s probably good, since our main advice on meta mysteries is: don’t. Listen to today’s episode to find out why!
Generously transcribed by Fussilat Ibrahim. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle. [opening song]
Chris: You’re listening to the mythcreants podcast. I’m Chris and with me is…
Chris: Is today’s topic is about people saying each other’s names. We’re not going to say.
Oren: The real question is who can actually tell our voices apart? Well enough, to know who said what?[laughter]
Chris: Yeah. This time we’re not gonna actually tell you what the topic is about. We’re just gonna kind of allude to it, and then change the subject really abruptly.
Wes: Because we know what the topic is. That’s the important thing.
Oren: But enough about that![Laughter]
Chris: It’s very intriguing. You see? And then like halfway through the episode, we’ll reveal it and then be like, wow, doesn’t that just blow your mind that this is what we were talking about the entire time.
Wes: We only do about like five time jumps in between there as well, just to make sure that you get all the pieces, you need to figure out what’s going on.
Chris: Yeah we’ll edit it into pieces and then like rearrange the edited chunks. So that like, when you listen, you have to piece them back together, you know, it’s non linear storytelling. It’s very deep
Oren: Right! And we’ll do lots of clues. And I really like leaving clues because I never met – a mystery that I didn’t like.[ohhhh – Chris and Wes]
Chris: Okay. Yeah. We’re talking about meta mysteries. And I have to say, when we were talking about backstories, I had to like, hold myself back from getting into meta mysteries.
Oren: Me too.
Chris: Yeah. They’re very related to each other and understanding what a meta mystery is helps, you know, whether or not you should have that flashback.
Wes: mm hmm
Chris: So we can talk about that more. First of all, what is it? It is any information that your viewpoint character/protagonist knows that is hidden from the audience for the purpose of revealing it to them later.
Wes: So it’s like the opposite of dramatic irony.
Oren: Yeah, pretty much.
Chris: Yeah. Basically that’s a pretty good way of describing it. And for the purpose of revealing it later, a lot of times, if you have something like in visual media where they can’t use exposition or give out information quite as easily and they temporarily have this, you know, just because they’re trying to dole out information carefully, not overwhelm you at once. And they’re not trained to make it into a big reveal. They’re just trying to pace out information delivery. I wouldn’t necessarily be like, oh, that’s a meta mystery, right. Cause they’re not hyping it up.
Chris: And then delivering a reveal.
Oren: And I mean, all mediums do that to a certain extent because due to the linear nature of space-time, you can only introduce information at a certain rate and it has to be in order. So you can’t start off with everyone knowing everything they need to know about your story. There are going to be periods at the beginning where the protagonist knows things that the audience doesn’t. And just, it’s the question of how long do those last and do you deliberately play them up to try to make the audience wonder what’s going on here?
Chris: Contrast with a real mystery, which is something that the viewpoint character / protagonist does not already know. And they have to figure it out so that they can solve the problems with the story, but this knowledge actually matters and enables them to do things. One of the tricky boundaries here, if the viewpoint character protagonist has amnesia, their backstory is a real mystery.
They don’t know it. They’re probably trying to figure it out. And then when they get their memory back, it’s now a reveal to the protagonist, not just to the audience, but if the viewpoint, character or protagonist doesn’t have amnesia and you purposely hide their important backstory and hype it up to reveal it later, that’s a meta mystery.
Oren: It’s also bad. Don’t do it.[Laughter]
Oren There we go. Done episode over.[Laughter]
Chris: Just don’t do it. I wish that worked. Do we talk about this so much because people love doing it?
Wes: They do. And I’m racking my mind around why, other than like, oh, look how clever I am. We were talking about bingeing shows and then like, you know, how much people want to sell it. But then there’s, there has to be a rewatchability component to like TV now, you know, they want you to do that first run through and they’re going to confuse you meta style, but then you’ll get that reveal and you’d be like, oh wow. I can’t wait to go back and watch it again and pick up on all the things I missed. I feel like that’s like a deliberate play for engagement and I hate it.
Chris: I mean, maybe, I mean, that is a good question because certainly there are people who try to like to write for the second read, which is just a bad idea.
Oren: Yeah. I’ve actually had clients who thought that’s what they needed to do and they deliberately made their story more confusing because they thought this would get fans to talk about it more. And all I can say in that regard is that it’s not worth it.
Wes: Yeah. Please don’t!
Oren: I promise you if fans like your story, they will find things to theorize about. That is what fans do. It is 90% of a fan’s existence.[Laughter]
Oren: Don’t worry. You need to make a story they like first that’s the thing that will make them theorize about it.
Wes: Yeah, exactly.
Chris: So the reason why I decided to call the Meta mysteries in particular is because of the idea that they’re not mysteries in the story or in the world of the story, they don’t exist there. They’re only a mystery to the audience. They’re a mystery about the story like, you’re wondering what is actually happening in the story, for instance, what are people talking about? Why are characters doing what they’re doing? The characters know what’s going on. Only you don’t. You’re confused about the story. Hence why it’s called a meta mystery.
Oren: And if I’m going to talk about my own preferences for a minute beyond my editorial professional opinion, the reason that I hate meta mysteries so much is that they feel insulting. Just tell me what’s happening and I’ll decide if it’s good or deep. If you want the story to be deep, you have to make it deep. I don’t have time for you, making the story more confusing than it needs to be. And like, I understand that not everyone has that same visceral reaction to Meta mysteries. I know that I’m a little unusual in that regard, but that’s that’s me. Okay. That’s how I feel.[Chris laughs]
Wes: But I mean like sure. There’s that emotional component and yeah. Like I also feel that way perhaps less strongly, but still on like a technical level. Like if you’re putting in so much effort to just provide this kind of confusion for a reveal, then it needs to be like, damn well be worth it because if it’s not. Then you just made people do mental gymnastics for no reason. We talked about the Witcher and Chris has the Witcher or example post here. You don’t gain anything from figuring out the timelines on your own. Uh, I don’t, I don’t see how the effort is worthwhile. And I think that is kind of insulting to the audience just on a technical level.
Chris: Now, there are people who will say, this is why they’re so tricky. They’re actually very insidious because when they do have bad and fits, it’s really obvious because people will say, but the damage that they do oftentimes is much more subtle. And that’s why a lot of times storyteller can get feedback on their stories and think that they’re working out. Even if they’re not. With something like the Witcher where you have these different timelines and you’re trying to figure out where the scene is and the timeline and trying to piece them together. Yes. Some viewers will get some satisfaction from solving that puzzle, but you also have to take into account the viewers that are trying to relax and enjoy a story. And the damage to immersion in that story that occurs when they’re spending their mental energy trying to figure out what’s happening instead of being along for the ride and being immersed in the world.
Oren: Right. And it’s also like some stories have to be confusing or at least have to be complicated because some stories are complicated. And in that situation, it can be in my opinion, a worthwhile exercise to try to piece them together and be like, yes, that was cool. I earned that. But like, with something like the Witcher, this is not a confusing story. It’s actually very simple. It’s only confusing because they feed it to you out of order, they make it more confusing. It would be like making the film blurry and then be like, yeah, it is harder to tell what’s happening. Now.[Weslaughs]
Oren: You might get some satisfaction out of figuring out what’s going on, even though the image is blurred. But is that really what you want? Like, I don’t think so.
Chris: A lot of times it also feels like what’s happening is they don’t have a lot of substance and they’re trying to hide that. It’s like, if you have low quality computer graphics and then you make sure it’s a dark scene, so you can’t see them very well. Right. So that people can’t tell how like cheap your computer graphics are and how bad they look. And if meta mysteries are like that for the story, it’s like, we don’t really have a lot going on here.So we’re gonna hide information and make you sort it out so that you don’t notice how empty the story really is.
Chris: In some cases.
Oren: Yeah I mean. And that’s what it feels like to me anyway, that’s part of the reason why I find it so insulting. But in a more professional view that isn’t just me being upset. A lot of the time, what you have is the author will save a Meta mystery reveal for a later point in the story. And then it will seem kind of cool. Cause it’s like, yeah. Oh, that’s neat. That actually does provide some cool context. Like I liked that that’s a neat thing that you revealed. And so at that point, if that’s what your beta readers are saying, it’s easy to imagine that this was the right choice. But you’re not getting to see what they would said. If you put that event in order and had the leaders experience it as the protagonist did, one really glaring example of that is from The Way of Kings.
And this has probably been in a post by now by the time you’re hearing this podcast, but in The Way of Kings, there is a scene where the main character kaladin defeats an enemy who has these very powerful magic weapons. They’re called shards. And the tradition is supposed to be that if you defeat a shard bearer, you get their shards and that’s super important. And so he does it. And then the commander of his army instead has every member of kaladin’s squad who survived, executed for pretending they were desserts and then sells Kaladin into slavery. And that’s a really important moment that really informs who Kaladin is and why he feels the way he does about the settings, like aristocracy and the feudal system that they use. But you don’t find that out until way after it happens, because we see kaladin like getting up to that sequence and then it cuts and then it starts again, eight months later and you don’t find out what happened until near the end of the book. And it’s like, that was a cool moment. I liked that moment would have been cooler if it had happened in order.
Chris: Yeah, just to give another example of how using meta mysteries really robs a story of emotion, robs a feeling and prevents attachment to characters in the novel Boneshaker and I’m going to give away the reveal at the ending.
We have two viewpoint characters. We have a mother and son. The son goes into this enclosed. It’s like a post-apocalyptic zombie, Seattle in search of his father. And then the mother blames herself and she goes after him to find him. Because it’s very dangerous in there. And the entire time when you’re in her viewpoint, she’s being like, oh, it’s my fault. I should have told him everything, but you don’t know what she should have. And then at the very end, there’s a reveal that his father was a bad person who stole stuff and she killed him. She didn’t tell him that his father was dead or how she knew he was dead. And then as a result, he went and endangered his life.
Now it’s much easier to feel that guilt with her once, you know what she didn’t tell him and how he went into the city as a direct result of that. And you can’t feel that guilt with her and really like sympathize with her and be in her shoes without knowing that information. Now that doesn’t mean that it’s not enjoyable to get the reveal at the very end of the story, that if you listen to the story, especially when some information is being denied to you, that might be the funnest part. And so you would naturally have beta readers and be like, oh, there was, this reveal was so cool, but like beta readers, aren’t storytelling experts. And so they don’t know how much more they would have been engaged with this character. Had they simply have known that information earlier. And so what we have is the vast majority of the story starting with her viewpoint that has lower engagement just to pilot on a reveal at the end.
Which is generally not a worthwhile trade off. Generally, you want to build attachment and emotional investment early. And if they don’t like the beginning, they’re not going to get to the end. So meta reveals, like that matter when people like them, it means that that information was important and they should have known it earlier because to evoke emotion stories, give the audience the same information the character has and let them respond to that with their own emotional reaction. Right. You can’t tell somebody to feel something, you give them context and information and stimulus and you show them why it matters. And so if you hide that information, they can’t react the way that they’re supposed to emotionally react to the story.
Oren: Meta mysteries also increased the possibility of a character acting in a way that doesn’t actually fit the events of their life. It does not flow naturally from their established traits as the Vulcan dictates of poetics would say. And this is a thing that can happen to lots of characters. It happens a lot with villains where there’s like a secret villain, and then once they get revealed, it’s like, actually we had this other plan and it’s like, well, hang on. Why were you smashing all the mana crystals? If your plan was to use everyone’s monocrystals that’s kind of weird, but that doesn’t happen to the protagonist as much because it’s easier to spot. But when you have a meta mystery. It is much easier to make that mistake because nobody knows that this character is acting wrong until you get the reveal later.
Like again, The Way of Kings, we have Shallan who is a second, another character. And we find out at the end of the story that she killed her father, like right before the story starts. And she certainly didn’t seem like someone who had recently ended her father’s life. Now there could be reasons for that. Maybe she hated her father and killed him in self-defense or maybe she’s a bad person. I don’t know. But it feels pretty weird when you get that reveal and you’re like, really this person committed fratricide like a month before the story started.
Wes: You would think,
Chris: Think that would have some emotional effects on her, of some kind.
Oren: Right. But if that had been in there, people would have been constantly like, what, what is she feeling so weird about it? Because you didn’t tell me if the, if her emotional reaction was appropriate, it would have felt like a mistake because we didn’t know what she was reacting to.
Wes: I like Chris, what you’re talking about with the reveal satisfaction versus increased engagement, having experienced these things, you get the reveal and you’re like, oh, that’s why that character did that.
And blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Like that satisfaction is really, you know, that dopamine hit kind of gets you, but it’s frustrating to not have a good point of comparison to go back, get that information at the start and then experience those events. In real time as they progress, knowing that the character has like the secret. And then actually wondering if that is going to come up in the events of the story, you know, it’s like, there’s that old Alfred Hitchcock adage about if dynamite goes off in a room and blows it up, that’s a surprise. But tension is knowing that it’s there while people are playing cards or, you know, something like that.
In your posts, you brought up Carnival Row. And I wish we had known that Orlando Bloom had wings and was a fairy guy at the start. because then it would have been better tension with the police who he’s working with. It just would have been better than the reveal.
Chris: Yeah I have a whole post, if anybody’s interested in this.
Oren: Please read that. It’s very good.
Chris: Breaking down the fact that the first three episodes of carnival row have, a meta mystery in them, essentially, that makes it so that, Orlando Bloom’s character really needs to be the linchpin of the show because it’s a show with very disconnected plots, and it has no character that you can just be like, yes, this is the person I’m going to pin my emotions to. He’s capable of being that character once you know him.
Wes: Mm hmm
Chris: But it’s concealed for the first three episodes. And this is like an eight episode season. So that’s a huge portion of the show. And that beginning is when people decide whether they’re going to get into the show or not. It’s very crucial, so I go into detail exactly how hiding that really crucial information about him, that he knows, obviously, that he’s responding to. You can see him, you know, Orlando Bloom playing his role. With this information in mind. and the audience doesn’t know why he’s acting the way he does, but it makes a huge difference.
Oren: It’s also very easy to over-hype a meta reveal and you can overhype anything, but meta reveals are particularly vulnerable to it because if the meta mystery is hiding something, that’s not making you feel like you’re missing something about the character. For example, knowing that Shallan killed her father makes me think the character is missing something. But if you have a meta mystery that isn’t doing that, like, for example, another one with Kaladin how his younger brother died. Like we know his younger brother died and we know it was in battle and that he was an inexperienced soldier, but the book just keeps cutting away. Whenever Kaladin is going to think about how he died and it’s like, okay, well, I guess this is going to be pretty big. And then it reveals that it was exactly the way you thought he was an inexperienced soldier who got killed in battle. Because he didn’t know how to fight very well.[Laughter]
Oren: It’s like, well, okay, that’s a let down. And like, it actually would have been fine if I had seen it happen in order. Although in this case, I don’t think it was necessary because that’s part of Kaladin’s flashback life, which you could just cut from the book and it would be great, but that’s a different problem entirely.
Chris: It’s like how much people actually like it when you give the reveal is directly related to how much damage it does to the story before you reveal it. The more essential the information is to the story. The more people like it when you have the reveal, but they needed that earlier. And so that’s why they’re so much of a problem. Why it’s easy to think that your meta mystery is working when it’s not.
Oren: I’ve also come to the conclusion recently that this isn’t really any different with film. Like I used to think maybe film was different, but in retrospect, I don’t think it is. I think film just takes a little longer for film to catch you up to what the protagonist knows, but that film still wants that.
Chris: And it’s that you have less of the like contrived narration problem and. Because film has to put more effort into telling you things in the first place. Whereas if you’re in somebody’s head, it starts to become really contrived when they just decide not to think about something, right? So film doesn’t have that problem, but all the basic mechanics of do we have the emotion, do we have the context that we need to, you know, feel what the protagonist is feeling and get emotionally invested in the story?All of those things are the same.
Oren: Yeah. The issue of it feeling really contrived that the protagonist doesn’t think about the thing you don’t want them to think about is a particular extra problem that meta mysteries have in closely narrated stories. Literally at one point in The Way of Kings Shallan is like, don’t think about that. She thinks that to herself and it’s like, does that work for anyone? Has anyone been thinking of something unpleasant or bad or harmful and thought don’t think about that. And it worked cause if so, please teach me.
Chris: Okay. So let’s go into more about why they’re popular. We’ve talked about some of the reasons, right? Does that beta readers can give you feedback that makes you think that they’re working out? I think one of the base reasons is simply that people want reveals and storytellers want reveals because that’s a moment when a reveal is really good. When people understand how much work went into the story and are actually impressed. And we’ve all experienced that moment as the audience. And so trying to chase that, and I’ve definitely talked to writers who felt that just having a solid story that worked wasn’t enough that they had to put in, oh, does it have enough big twists? And it’s like, look, if your story is a satisfying story that has good tension and has good attachment and it just isn’t super predictable.
For as long as it’s not super predictable, no, you don’t need big twists if the fundamentals are good, but a lot of times people feel like they need to, you know, but that’s what makes a good story. If they do lots of impressive flashy things and reveals are an impressive flashy thing. And a Meta mystery reveal is just much easier to do than a conventional reveal because all you have to do is deny the audience information and then reveal it and it doesn’t change anything about what’s actually happening in the story.But that’s also why it doesn’t have a good impact. And it’s not particularly important because we don’t think about it. But traditional mysteries use tension. The information is there to help you solve a problem. And if you’re like people are disappearing and nobody remembers them. That’s a really compelling mystery because it has lots of tension because there’s a problem happening. People are disappearing. And that’s a really important part of any kind of mystery plot line. And meta mysteries don’t generally have that because they make no difference to the story and its outcome. So they just don’t really matter. And they’re basically only curiosity and curiosity, honestly, isn’t enough for mystery. We need more than that.
Wes: I’ve also just encountered authors who think it’s cool to not tell readers things. And I went through that phase. It made me feel clever where I was like, yes, you’d think you know what their protagonist’s weapon is, but actually it’s a living snake and it has been this entire time. And I just didn’t tell you, woo. That’s a phase. We all go through. You know, one of the things that I do is try to convince writers that that’s not actually a good thing to do. But there is a certain thrill that some people get from feeling like they’re smarter than other people. And it’s very easy to get that, if you just withhold information from the reader and then be like, ah, they don’t know what’s going on. Because I didn’t tell them.
Chris: Or, again try to do something flashing, clever and impressive and writers naturally want to be. If your art is putting your thoughts on the page for other people to consume and wanting to be clever is going to be a pretty universal impulse. So that’s understandable. It’s just trying to get people to refocus on, no, tell a good story, communicate honestly about that story. Give your audience something to care about and focus on that first. Once that’s good. If there’s a few flashy things that actually enhance the story and don’t detract from that, then that’s great. But those fundamentals matters more.
Wes: Novelty needs to come from, like story elements. Novelty needs to be in your story and not just what you’re denying people, which it seems like what they’re trying to do here. Oh, I’m being so clever and novel by not doing this. No, like it’s, if it’s in the story, it’s more novel. It’s more engaging. That’s a good way to show how clever you are by your take on things that exist in the story and not you gatekeeping knowledge from your readers.
Oren: I like calling that gatekeeping. That’s good.
Chris: I think it’s also worth talking about over candied characters in this context, because I think that’s another motivation is when people really like a character, one of their impulses to try and make their characters seem cool and impressive is to make them mysterious. And I think we’ve touched SKUs before. Why making your protagonist mysterious is a bad idea, but it’s for this very reason. The important part of the protagonist is that the audience cares about them because if they care about them, then by extension, they will care about all the things happening to them. And the rest of the plot, which the protagonist is at the center of, there is like your emotional magnet. If you don’t understand anything about the protagonists, cause they’re mysterious. Then that doesn’t work anymore. But certainly like this has to do with the hidden plan turning point, which we talk about sometimes in this context. And I want to say that the hidden plan turning point is useful. I’m not saying not to do it. I don’t think in a novel, it works great for a climax because I don’t think it’s as tense as other turning points, but it’s still a turning point and you can still use it, but it’s a little tricky. And oftentimes these go hand in hand because if. I want your protagonist to be so bad-ass they never struggle. Then the best thing you can do is make, pretend, oh, look, they’re totally in trouble. Wait they had it all handled the whole time and they had a secret, clever plan. So you can kind of build tension by denying information about what the protagonist is doing,
Oren: Rude of you to personally call out Red Rising like that.[Laughter]
Chris: And when it’s done well in a book what’ll happen is you never know information is missing. It’s for a really brief period of time, as opposed to a lot of meta mysteries where there’s a mystery that we’re building up and we’re advertising that there’s something the audience doesn’t know. And then we take a long time. And then the longer it lasts, the more payoff the audience expects. And then sometimes it’s really underwhelming, whereas with a hidden plan turning point, a lot of times, if it’s done well, you’re not advertising that there’s information the audience doesn’t know. They don’t know that there’s information,they don’t know. So they never experienced that frustration. And to pull it off better, you try to make it a short period of time to make it more feasible that you can’t tell. The protagonist has a hidden plan. And when things go down, it looks like they’re in trouble. They’re like, but wait, I planned for this all along.
And because the smaller the conflict is, and the less tense the situation needs to be, the less you kind of have to build it up. And the more casual it can be in the less struggle there needs to be involved, then that can work. Okay. But it’s hard to do tension when the protagonist is only faking their interest. So, you know, I definitely don’t advise that for a climax.
Oren: Right. And that was the thing about Red Rising is that individually, most of its hidden plan turning points worked. Most, there were a few that didn’t, but most of them worked fine on their own. The issue with Red Rising was actually just that, that was the only way conflicts were ever resolved. It was always a hidden plan. And that just got extremely tiresome very quickly.
Chris: Yeah, because if you’re not willing to make your protagonist struggle, what else you got?
Oren: And that was part of the problem of Red Rising making its protagonists, just extremely over-candied to a truly ridiculous degree. And an example of like a specific, hidden plan turning point that doesn’t really work. An example of why you probably shouldn’t use this as your climactic turning point is from The Last Colony by John Scalzi, where they’re having this battle and they’re getting attacked by aliens. And the turning point is that they have this like super powerful piece of tech that they use that neutralizes all the enemies weapons. But that fight doesn’t work for a number of reasons is that one, the protagonist doesn’t seem worried because he knows that we have this tech, but we, the audience don’t know if we did the fight would just be extremely boring, but it’s already kind of boring because we can tell that the protagonist isn’t really that worried.And then the other issues of are things like, where did they get this tech from? But the main issue is simply that the protagonist doesn’t seem worried because he knows what’s going on and that’s just hard to build tension that way.
All right. So I think that’s going to be the time for me to reveal my hidden plan, which is that we’re over time.Haha. None of you saw that coming. I could have just told you we were over time, but I didn’t so that I could have this reveal.
Chris: That was a pretty small payoff considering we were waiting for that for this entire podcast.
Oren: All right. So those of you at home for anything we said piqued your interest. You can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com. Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First we have Cathy Ferguson who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next we have Ayman Jaber, he is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally, we had Denita Rambo and she [email protected] We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro Theme]
This has been the Mythcreants podcast, opening, closing theme, The princess who saved herself by Jonathan Colton.
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