Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Most Popular Story

Some statistics that I have seen indicate that the most popular book category is mystery and suspense, with a 19% hold on the fiction market. I don’t know how old those statistics are, so it may be different now, but all we have to do is look around to see that mystery and suspense are popular. We can draw a distinction between these two, but we don’t need to, for our purposes. The story that is typically told in both mystery and suspense is that of the Whydunnit or Whodunnit, if  you prefer. There are nine other stories that we can tell and if we do nothing more than divide the rest of the 81% evenly between them, the average popularity of the other stories is only 9%. The Whydunnit enjoys more than twice the popularity of the other stories. In other words, mystery and suspense are hugely popular. Even romance writers are getting into the act by writing Romantic Suspense. If readers love the Whydunnit so much, it would do us good to understand it better.

What It Is

This type of story follows a very distinctive pattern. We have a puzzle and we must put the pieces together. Something has happened. We may know what has happened, but we don’t know who, when, why or how. Or maybe we don’t even know what has happened, but as we move through the story, we are going to gather the pieces until we can piece them all together and reveal the final picture, but the image in the final picture is always the same and yet it is the biggest surprise of all.

Why It Is Popular

Have you ever looked at two pictures in which one shows a path leading up to a closed door and the other shows a path leading up to a door that stands ajar? We can see just enough to tell that something is on the other side, but we aren’t sure what it is. We want to step into the painting and follow that path so we can push that door open a little farther and examine what stands on the other side. This type of story invites us to follow a path that leads to a door, though which we will discover something interesting.

How It Is Formed

Blake Snyder, in his discussion of the subject, talked about a process of turning over cards. If there is ever a time when a writer needs to use an outline, it is when he is writing this type of story. The characters alone cannot carry the story. We must know who, what, when, where, how and why before we begin to write. We must be able to lay all the cards out in front of us, but then we should turn them all face down. We should order them in such a way that the stuff about the who of the story comes last, so that the most shocking revelation will come at the end. As we move through the story, we should turn these cards over, one at a time.

Who It Is About

We typically thing the protagonist is the person a story is about, but in this type of story, that is far from the truth. In this type of story, the protagonist has the job of turning the cards over, nothing more. In fact, the protagonist isn’t changed by the story. Look at a television show like Monk, in which the story is always of this type. While the character changes throughout the series, due to other things, the cases he is on do not change the way he handles the next case. He solves the next case in much the same way as the last. The person who is changed the most and the person who the story is about is the same person who is revealed at the end. We put the final piece of the puzzle into place and we expect to see the murderer, but what we discover is that we have been staring into a mirror the whole time.

What Carries Us On

We keep reading out of a desire to see what is behind the next door. When we open that final door and look inside, we ask ourselves whether we would really respond the same way as the villain of the story if we faced the same situation. While we hope we would not, it is within the nature of all of us to respond in that way, if we allow ourselves. Unlike many stories, where we find it easy to hate the villain, this is a story in which we have a hard time hating the villain because the villain looks like us.