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But What’s In the Box?

I’m in the middle of reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. It’s beautifully written and has a really interesting and unique premise and, as I haven’t finished the book yet, this isn’t going to be a review, exactly. Mostly, reading the book has reminded me of an interesting complication when trying to deal with the mysterious in your writing.

Throughout The Night Circus, there is some kind of mysterious “competition” going on, the details and purpose of which is unknown to the reader and even unknown to the participants. It is, apparently, the driving conflict of the book and the central mystery of the plot, but here I am, halfway through, without any real idea what it is. That worries me.

Mysteries are double-edged swords. They draw the reader in and are also key to creating suspense. The longer the mystery draws out, the more intriguing the solution seems to be. However mysteries, once revealed, lose their magic. There is a danger, therefore, that the longer you draw out the mystery without revealing it, the more disappointing the reveal will be (or the more difficult it becomes to create a satisfying reveal).

There is a clip from Weird Al’s UHF that always comes to mind when I think about this problem:

Weaver, the contestant, is drawn in by the mystery of the box. Indeed, we all are – that’s why the mystery box is a thing in game shows – but the box, in this case, contains nothing at all. The reveal is a let-down and what makes it funny is that it is a deliberate one. UHF is mocking television conceits – it’s the crux of the whole film’s humor – but I also think the warning here is weirdly instructive: just because it’s mysterious, doesn’t mean it’s worth discovering.

So, back to The Night Circus and, by extension, writing in general. The thing that worries me about the central mystery of The Night Circus is that, once I get the reveal, it won’t end up being very interesting at all. It will break the magic that the rest of the book has worked so hard to construct. Now, part of me thinks that maybe this is intentional  – the book is all about a magical circus that creates an artificial environment through mystery and subtlety – and that maybe Morgenstern is setting the reader up to have their illusions crushed (and no spoilers, please). However, even if so, that means Morgenstern is deliberately mining the precise pitfall I’m trying to elaborate, here.

Sure, yeah - I get that. But how long do you expect us to care?

Sure, yeah – I get that. But how long do you expect us to care?

Perhaps some more instructive examples will help explain what I mean. The two most obvious ones are the two mega-hit shows The X-Files and LOST. In The X-Files, we are introduced to the idea that there is some global secret conspiracy to conceal the existence of aliens to the public. This is central to the show, and drives it through most of the run. However, every time Mulder gets close to the truth, it gets stolen away again. This works to create great drama through the early part of the run. However, at some point it lost steam. We kept wondering what was in the box so long that, once the box was opened and we looked inside, we just saw a bunch of old, nebulously rich dudes and, well…it was a let down.

The trouble was, ultimately, that Chris Carter (show creator) let the mystery drag out for too long. So long, in fact, that there was no possible reveal that could justify the delay. Instead of having a revelation that rocked our world, we instead just shrugged. That was it?


How mind-blowing was it when you first saw this? I mean, seriously, right?

How mind-blowing was it when you first saw this? I mean, seriously, right?

LOST sought to sidestep this problem by solving mysteries only to lead to larger mysteries. So, yes, they opened the box (literally, in the case of the Hatch) only to reveal another box. This was pretty brilliant, by the way. However, this was ultimately just an act of grand misdirection: the show got most of us to stop asking “what’s with all these boxes” and instead trust that newer and more interesting mysteries would keep revealing themselves until it all made sense.

Of course, the creators of LOST never actually planned to or cared to connect or make sense of all their mysteries. They just kept showing us more and more boxes until the whole thing refused to make any sense and then expected us to just shrug and accept that “life is a mystery.” Yeah, no – if The X-Files disappointed its audience, LOST deliberately cheated it. I still enjoyed that last season, mind you (the character arcs were perfect), but the mystery aspect of the show was a grand betrayal of everything much of the audience had invested.

So, okay – mystery is hard to balance. How, then, do you do it well? I can’t claim to be an expert, myself (though I do try), but generally think the key is that you have to reveal your mysteries before the payoff is eclipsed by the build-up. You can either do this by having a very subtle build-up (The Usual Suspects) or by revealing the great mystery about halfway through (the original Star Wars trilogy). You could even, perhaps, do what LOST was doing, except instead of throwing up your hands and not solving anything, you could roll up your sleeves and try to come up with the most God-awmighty big reveal in the history of storytelling.

But yeah, good luck with that one. No, “they’re all in heaven” isn’t an acceptable plot twist. Nor is a glowing Jacuzzi.

The Impossible

Author’s Note: In the interest of completeness (backwards, but still complete) here is an excerpt from the first chapter of  The Rubric of All Things, the book  which precedes the book from which “Hond’s Interrogation” was taken. I’ve been shopping this book around for a while now and had a few nibbles (two full or partial manuscript requests), but no full-on bites yet. I’m putting it here because, well, it can’t hurt and hopefully can give interested parties some idea of just how far the reader is taken from here to Hond’s non-room. Anyway, hope you enjoy it:

Cal’s heart pulsed in his chest like a diesel engine. The sweat on his face mingled with the cold March rain while his lungs, like a pair of steel-mill bellows, fed oxygen to the fires in his quads and calves. He was going full speed along the Charles river, blazing past casual joggers in an intimidating display of athletic prowess. He was the fighter jet and they were the two-seater prop-planes and ponderous jet-liners. They stayed out of his way.

            It was early, and the gray waters of the river shuddered and leapt with each rainy gust of wind.Calfelt good, even considering the miserable weather. He was on pace for a four-and-a-half minute mile, he guessed—not a personal best, but the best he’d done in a while. More than the time, though, was the feeling of getting back into the regimen of his morning run. At this speed his whole body felt like a well-oiled and tuned device, as simple as it was elegant. He wasn’t some messy pile of meat and juice wrapped around a jigsaw puzzle of bone struts—he was a functional, precise thing, like a watch or a bicycle. It meant a lot to him to feel that way. Things had been crazy lately.

              Cal’s cell phone broke into the first few bars of Suicide is Painless. It was the kind of sick joke a homicide detective would find funny, particularly one like Cal’s partner, who had selected it. Slowing to a manageable pace,Cal answered. “Lyons here.”

            “Morning, Superman!”Cal’s partner, Detective Theodore O’Brien, or ‘OB’, sounded cheery, which was generally a bad thing.

            “What’s up? I’m not on duty for another hour.”

           OB’s chuckle was mostly static over the phone. “You’re on duty now, buddy. We got us a good one.”

            “What is it?”Cal inwardly hoped it wasn’t messy—he and OB had just finished working a murder-suicide where an old woman had strangled her husband, drowned herself in the bathtub, and wasn’t found for two weeks. He had only just gotten the stink out of his jacket, and he had to buy entirely new shoes.

            “Well, see, that’s the problem—we haven’t decided what it is, yet.”

           Calblinked. “Whaddya mean? Have we got a corpse?”

            “He ain’t dancing, if that’s your question. Look, just get your spandex-clad butt over to Charlestown. You’re gonna have to see this for yourself.”

           Cal memorized the address.OB hung up with a giggle and a “We’re gonna love this one, Supes.”


* * * * * * * *


Cal sprinted home and changed without showering. Altogether, it took him a little over a half hour to get to the scene. It was on a narrow side-street, where the roads coiled around Bunker Hill like so much discarded rope, and the blank granite face of the obelisk that stood there watched over everything. The freezing rain drifted off the eaves and gutters of the surrounding buildings in misty swirls and umbrella-eviscerating gusts of wind raced down the alleys. When Cal pulled up, there was a cruiser blocking the end of the street and another parked just outside the entrance of a narrow building with worn concrete steps. This second car was parked just outside the tell-tale yellow tape that indicated the perimeter of the crime scene, which ran in a rough triangle in front of the building. Next to the second car, a huddle of uniformed police gathered around a single golf umbrella, which was doing its best to pull a Mary Poppins and sail into space. Cal got out, flashed his badge to the first uniform to challenge him, and then spotted the massive frame of OB chatting it up under the umbrella.

           OB saw him coming, and ducked out from under shelter and into the rain. His trenchcoat was sodden and his Red Sox ball cap was looking a shade darker than usual. Still, good humor was evident on his broad, meaty face. He clapped his hands together. “Beautiful morning, ain’t it?”

            “I hate this crap.”Cal said, and added, “You interrupted my run.”

           OB shrugged. “Get your high like everybody else—drink coffee. Come on.” He led him over to the two other officers under the umbrella. “Boys, you know Detective Lyons.”

            Officers Amaral and Lopez nodded. Lopez added. “How’s it going, Superman?”

            “Fine, Mike.” Cal resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He liked to think they called him ‘superman’ because of his stellar work at fighting crime, but the fact was that ever since everybody on the Boston Police had gotten wind of his competing in the Ironman triathlon a couple years back, the nickname had become permanently affixed. He tried not to let it irk him—he knew it was done in good humor—but the fact was it simply reminded Cal of how a lot of guys on the force would never accept him as one of their own. The smarty-pants kid from the suburbs turned city cop would always, in their eyes, be analogous to an alien from the planet Krypton.

           OB pointed at Amaral. “Steve found the guy this morning on a call from one of the local residents. Mike was in the area, so he helped him secure the scene.”

            Amaral nodded. “Nobody’s touched anything since we got here. There were a couple bystanders, but it’s still early and the weather sucks, so…”

             “…so what happened?”Calcut him off. “What have we got? Accident? Murder? What?”

            The three of them exchanged glances and then turned around and looked. Cal followed their gaze. Just past the tape and dead center in front of the building’s steps was a telephone pole adorned with a skirt of bright yellow police ponchos affixed at waist height. This perplexed Cal at first, but his initial confusion melted away as soon as he noticed that around the base of the pole was a puddle that was much too red to be pure rainwater.

           Cal looked at OB, who took a deep breath, reached forward, and tore back the ponchos. Then all Cal could do was stare.

            The corpse was a white man in his mid-sixties, wearing a cardigan sweater, tweed jacket, and half-moon spectacles. His lips were pulled back into a grimace, as though he had just stubbed his toe. He had not. He was, rather, impaled through the exact center of his torso by the telephone pole and was suspended three feet above the ground. A human ka-bob.

            Cal said nothing. Everything—the rain, the wind, the cold—seemed to fall away from his notice. It was just himself and the spectacle of the corpse. He scanned the telephone pole from top to bottom—no cuts, wires still intact at the top. The body was not mutilated; the man’s clothes didn’t even look mussed. It was as though he had simply materialized inside the telephone pole, realized his error, and died instantly.

Vaguely, he heard Amaral talking. “…him this morning. No witnesses—nobody was walking around in this crap. Called the coroner, but we couldn’t figure out how to get him out, so we called public works, too. Then we were waiting on you guys.”

           Cal pulled on a rubber glove, never taking his eyes from the bizarre body. “ID?”

            Lopez pointed. “We think that’s his wallet on the stairs, but we didn’t move it.”

            OB, gloves on, retrieved the sodden leather wallet while Cal gently prodded the dead man’s ribs. Amaral asked, “How do you think it happened?”

            “I have no idea.”Cal answered as he walked around the pole, looking at the corpse from every angle. “Can you guys knock on some doors and ask if anybody’s power or phone service or anything went out?”

            As the officers dispersed, he looked up at the top of the pole, twenty feet up. “Maybe somebody disconnected the wires, stuffed our man down the pole, and then re-connected them. Whaddya think?”

OB snorted. “Gimmie a break, Cal—what’d they do, rent a goddamned telephone truck? There isn’t even any blood on the damn thing above his body.”

            Cal threw up his hands. “You got another theory? Did they show up with a giant robot, lift the freaking pole out of the sidewalk, and stuff him up through it?”

           OB shook his head, still staring at the telephone pole. “Jesus. Could this be an accident or something?”

            “Yeah, sure. Telephone poles sprout up through people’s guts all the time.”Cal snatched the wallet fromOB’s hands. “Gimmie that.”

            “Easy there, big guy. Don’t have to get mad at me.” OB chided.

            “I hate when things don’t make sense.”Cal snarled.

            OB chuckled. “Cal, we’re in homicide. When does anything make sense?”

            The wallet contained a variety of paper currency from five countries, a smooth blue stone, a collection of business cards following no obvious pattern, and an expired license. It read ‘Aldous Hambury,’ and sported a picture of the dead man wearing a blue bow-tie and smiling wider than anyone in the DMV had a right to. Cal handed it back to OB, who looked himself.

            “Aldous? What kind of name is that?”

            “British, I think. Notice anything weird about that license?”

           OB held it up to the pale light. “No hologram—it’s a fake. Why would you fake an expired license?”

            “Why would somebody stuff an old man through a telephone pole?”

            OB snorted. “Screw that, Cal—how do you stuff an old man through a telephone pole?”

           Cal crouched down to get a better look at the underside of ‘Aldous Hambury.’ He was looking for…well, heck, he had no idea what he was looking for. Blood, guts, a calling card—some kind of explanation written in physical clues. What he found was that the telephone pole seemed to have neatly punctured through Hambury’s jacket, as well as his body. He shook his head. “This isn’t possible.”

           OB stepped forward and prodded Hambury’s side with a gloved finger. “Well, he’s here, ain’t he?”

            “The goddamned pole has to go through his spine, OB. The spine holds the body together. If he hasn’t got one then…” Cal trailed off, circled the body twice more, and wound up standing next to OB and staring down at Hambury’s strange grimace.

           OB nodded. “Fifteen years, Cal, and they just keep getting weirder.” He pulled off a glove and produced a small plastic box that rattled as he shook it. “Tic-tac?”