Creating in Flow

The world of creativity—with a twist of rationality

Mystery's Role in Writing

It's no mystery (even when it is): Mystery matters when writing fiction.

To keep readers motivated to turn pages, much fiction contains an element of mystery, even when the book isn't a genre mystery novel. Just as the unknown keeps the reader intrigued, it helps the writer keep writing.

To find out more about mystery's role, I interviewed Dennis Palumbo, M.A., MFT, a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), who is now a licensed psychotherapist specializing in creative issues. Palumbo's short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and elsewhere. His latest book, a collection of mystery short stories, is From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press).


Q: Have you been a reader of mysteries throughout your life? Why did you decide to write your own book of mysteries?

Dennis Palumbo: I've been reading mysteries since I was about ten, when I was home sick from school and my dad bought me a copy of Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I was pretty much hooked from then on, but only to mysteries with strong lead characters. I like a good plot, of course, especially whodunits that play fair with the reader, but characters matter as much if not more. I started writing mysteries in my early 20s, my first story being sold to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine way back in 1978. In fact, even during my 20-year career as a Hollywood screenwriter, I still occasionally wrote and published mystery stories.

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Q: How much of the plot do you know beforehand?

DP: I usually don't like to know where I'm going when I write, apart from a vague sense of who the character is and what he/she needs or wants (not always the same thing!). I usually have the salient plot twist or red herring in mind, though how I build to it and how the characters react to the story are all a mystery to me as I write it. Often, as when I was writing my new collection of whodunits, From Crime to Crime, I have to keep making little side notes to myself, such as, "Don't forget, where did he get the gun?" or "If he says that here, it ruins the surprise at the end."
With more character-driven crime stories, however, I usually know less about the plot and just see where the characters I'm writing want to take the story. That was true in "Players," one of the stories in the collection, and "Blood Lines," a story published in The Strand Magazine a couple years back.

Q: When you get stuck (if you get stuck), does your work as a therapist help with the blocks?

DP: Of course I get stuck—all writers do—at least all the ones I know. I think both my work as a therapist helping writers, as well as my own journey as a patient in therapy, have been helpful. Not so much in solving whatever story problem I'm struggling with, but in having the psychological tools to challenge the self-recriminating meanings I used to assign to any writing problem: that I wasn't good enough to solve the story, that I'd "bitten off more than I could chew," etc. For me, learning to deal with these self-invalidating meanings, these negative voices in my head, has been the saving grace for me. After that, working through a story problem is a lot easier...!

THE MYSTERY OF IT ALL

Q: What would you say is the role of mystery itself? The not-knowing how the story's going to turn out: how much of a motivator is/can that be for novelists, in particular? For example, when I interviewed science-fiction novelist David Gerrold about his creative process, he told me:

If you want to see a book where flow really kicked in big time, look at A Season for Slaughter. The whole book was written in an extraordinary state. I had no idea where it was going. I was aiming somewhere else and chapters kept adding themselves to the book. About midway through I realized I was not going to get to the ending that I had intended. As I got closer and closer toward the end, I realized exactly what the transformation of the hero needed to be, and it all came together beautifully.

Another example: Judith Freeman, author of Red Water and other novels and non-fiction, said about her writing:

I often have a feeling of destination. This woman, at the end of this story, will be in this place, but I'm not quite sure who she'll be with, what her feelings will be, exactly what she will have discovered. And I do actually write stories so I, too, can discover what's going to happen to these people.

 

DP: For my writing patients, I've seen both types over the years: writers who methodically plot out every beat of the story, and every stage of the characters' narrative arcs, to the point of writing detailed outlines or putting dozens of 3-by-5 cards on the board; conversely, I've seen writers who, like me, have only the barest sense of where they're going, whether it's a novel, screenplay, short story or even nonfiction piece. As one of my patients says, she "writes to find out what I think."

Q: What's your next project?

DP: I have a couple right now. I'm in the process of re-writing a crime thriller, a novel, and I'm also writing a book proposal for a nonfiction book about doing therapy. When I get these two big projects more or less in hand, I hope to write another mystery short story. I just need to think of something cool to write!

  • For a sample chapter from Palumbo's From Crime to Crime, click here
  • For a discussion among mystery writers, "Working out the solution: before or during writing?" check out this site

Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and author. Her current focus is on the creative aspects of rationality and atheism.

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