I had a dream last night in which I had an epiphany about what makes a mystery satisfying. It has to do with cognitive science.
There are two kinds of satisfying mysteries in fiction. One is the mystery which is meant to be completely revealed. This is often a whodunnit, à la KNIVES OUT, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, CSI, etc., in which the revealing is an actual scene where someone explains. It could also be a story in which it is pretty clear by the end what the storyteller means to be the truth, whether the hero figures it out or not. E.g. "Is Deckard a replicant?" in the director's cut of BLADE RUNNER (but not, thankfully, in the theatrical cut). Or, "did Quaid ever go to Mars at all?" in TOTAL RECALL.
Then there are mysteries meant to be enjoyed as mysteries. At the end of a story, we're left with a question that is meant to be left unanswered. It could be something as simple as "what happened to the blonde?" in L'AVVENTURA or "what happened to the missing girls?" in PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK.
What makes a mystery satisfying? And what does it have to do with cognitive science?
The human brain is a powerful pattern-matching computer, so powerful that the biggest computers are only now nibbling around at the edges of human capacity. People can identify a dog by eye in dappled shade, no matter the breed, no matter the haircut. I remember going to a dog park in Venice Beach, seeing a dog for about five seconds, and realizing, "that's not a dog, that's a wolf
." There was just a wildness in how it moved. Just a whiff of danger. (It was indeed a wolf.)
Possibly we could train a computer to distinguish a dog from a wolf these days, but it would be a project costing north of $20M, I'd guess, and it would still tell you half the time that you're looking at a hat.
Meanwhile, the brain is identifying patterns constantly, everywhere, trying to questions from "is that silk?"
to "does she really love me, or does she just love having a boyfriend?"
The brain tries to make stories out of things that happen. Stories are how we make sense of the world. When we are trying to figure out what we need to do next, we try to figure out what story we're in. Should I flee to the country to avoid the plague? Well, it depends. Would I be in The Decameron
, in which case, yeah, go!, or would I find myself in The Masque of the Red Death
The brain is so hungry to match make stories out of things that happen around it that it is driven to make stories even when the events are completely random or have nothing to do with each other.
A large part of the gambling industry lives off people who see patterns in the random roll of the dice.
Overmatching is why cops will pick up a suspect, and then ignore evidence that they're not the perpetrator: they'd rather have a story than no story.
Overmatching is what scientists fight against every day, trying to make sure they're not seeing a pattern that isn't there.
Paranoia is what we call it when someone thinks that everything around them is about them. That guy isn't just walking in the same direction I am -- he's following me!
The brain evolved to over-interpret clues in the environment because it was adaptive. If you over-interpret some movement in the tall grass, or a sudden cessation of the birds calling, as a possible tiger, the penalty for being wrong is a few minutes. If you do that twenty times, it's still just a little bit of going out of your way. If you under-interpret a tiger to be just the wind on the grass even once, you're dinner.
What does this have to do with satisfying mysteries?
Most fiction tells us explicitly what we are meant to know. If you are fortunate enough to have an editor for your novel, many of her comments will be, "this is confusing, please make clearer." Video game development involves a great deal of making as clear as possible to the player how they are meant to interpret the world. We highlight interactable objects. We put health bars over enemies.
But sometimes we put a mystery in there. We carefully build story events that raise a question for the audience to answer for themselves.
These could be philosophical questions. Is Don Quixote a delusional idiot, or is his struggle against a world lacking romance a meaningful one? In FRANKENSTEIN, who is the monster?
They could be questions of what to make of someone. The unreliable narrator, staple of 20th century novels, gives you an interpretation of events that you, the audience or player, are free to interpret another way. Humbert Humbert does not make himself out to be Lolita's rapist, but read the book now, and that's how you'll see him. What made the novel so outrageous at the time was that it does not explicitly condemn him. SPEC OPS: THE LINE has a main character who fails to understand until the end that they are not the hero, they are [redacted].
(Sometimes you only realize the narrator is unreliable with wisdom. Watch TOP GUN as an adult and see if you don't agree with Iceman 100%. Also, Ferris Bueller is a fucking monster.)
The mystery might be a moral question. In WITCHER 2, the player can choose to regard the Scoia'tael as righteous guerrillas defending the rights of non-humans, or murderous bandits.
(Yes, I know I'm using "mystery" here, in my own tendentious way, to mean "an important question left unanswered by the storyteller.")
What makes a mystery satisfying is when the work of art throws out enough clues that the brain understands that there is
a mystery to be solved, and then enough more clues that the brain engages with them, analyzing insufficient data to come up with a tentative conclusion that may change as more information comes in.
What makes a satisfying mystery is when the storyteller gives the audience enough hints that their brains engage
with the mystery. If there is going to be a conclusion, the storyteller lets the audience come to that conclusion before the story does. If there isn't going to be one, the storyteller gives the audience enough to chew on that they can argue with each other over dinner.
Oddly, many whodunnits don't
do this. The Sherlock Holmes stories aren't written so that the reader can draw conclusions; most of the evidence isn't even mentioned until Sherlock calls it out and interprets it.
That's okay. What makes a satisfying mystery isn't necessarily what makes a mystery story satisfying. A lot of stories termed mysteries are really about the extraordinary characters. A lot are thrillers, and the fun is rooting for the hero to solve the mystery. We can't solve the conspiracy before Cary Grant does in NORTH BY NORTHWEST, but we're enjoying the suspense. The question isn't so much "what is the conspiracy?" The answer is kinda silly, anyway. The question is, "will Cary Grant uncover the conspiracy, and will he survive doing it?
Agatha Christie novels do give the clues before they're interpreted, but they tend to be arcane clues that only the cleverest and most careful of readers will put together before the detective does.
Nonetheless the characters are rich and fun, and we can interpret their behavior and guess who done it.
If you want your mystery to be satisfying as a mystery, then give your audience or player enough clues to chew on before it is (or isn't) resolved.
The Encyclopedia Brown
books for kids, for example, give you all the clues you need to solve the mystery before Encyclopedia Brown announces the solution; they encourage you to read the stories verrrry carefully, because you know, for sure, the answer is in there.
Horror movies often have satisfying mysteries, at least until they break into thriller at the end. The protagonist is often clueless, or willfully blind, that they are dealing with a monster. In the classic werewolf story, the protagonist is all, "Every full moon, I have bad dreams, and also people in town are savaged by a large wild animal, what a world, huh?" In the classic poltergeist story, we guess that these aren't accidents, and the house is haunted, before the main characters come to terms with it. Part of the fun is guessing that going into the basement is terrible idea. CABIN IN THE WOODS makes much of the tropes. There has
to be a Harbinger, who warns the main characters not to do a thing, and we can guess that bad things will come of ignoring the warning of the crazy old man at the gas station. If only they knew they were in a horror movie, eh?
In our WE HAPPY FEW dlc, LIGHTBEARER, our hero, Nick, is confronted with quite a bit of evidence that he's murdering people during his drug blackouts. But maybe he isn't, and there are clues that point another way. Or maybe something else is happening altogether.
A key part of all storytelling is tracking what the audience knows, what they suspect, and what they expect. Without that, how can you make the ending surprising yet inevitable? To create a satisfying mystery, I think we have to make it clear that there is a mystery and it's important, and then give the player enough clues that they can attempt to solve it. There don't have to be many clues; your audience's brains are raring to make up a story behind the story. They just have to be compelling, salient, juicy clues.
Then the audience or players can say, "I knew
it!" when the big reveal comes. Or, "how did I not see that???"
I've noticed that game developers are fond of surprising the player. I sometimes bring up sexual harasser and director Alfred Hitchcock's famous parable about surprise and suspense:
“There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”
That's why it's important to make sure the audience or players know that there are
clues. By now I hope everybody knows that THE SIXTH SENSE has a surprise twist at the end. All the clues are there, right in front of your face. But the movie does not call attention to them. So for all but the most clever audience members (i.e. not me), the ending was a surprise. Likewise, it's pretty obvious who Darth Vader is in the original Star Wars movie: for heaven's sake, what does the German word "vater" mean? But at no point does the movie really kick up the question, "who is Darth Vader exactly in relationship to Obi Wan Kenobi, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker?" So it came as something of a surprise in the next movie. In fact, it was a surprise to the cast during the shoot; they found out at the cast screening.
(I'm not saying there's anything wrong with these movies, which made a ton of simoleons, and became iconic. I'm saying that they were not satisfying as mysteries.
So there you have it: my epiphany last night. You can use your audience's, or players', drive to interpret patterns to draw them into a compelling mystery. You just have to give them some juicy clues and make sure they know that they are
clues and there is
People love making up stories. They can't help doing it; their brains are on fire trying to make up stories all the time. That's why we talk about "push vs. pull" story telling. As much as possible, get the player or audience member or reader to ask a question before you answer it. As much as possible, get them rooting for something to happen or not happen before you make it happen. At the broadest possible level, all this is, is creating satisfying mysteries.