The Female Carries the Mystery
I’m re-reading one of my favorite books on writing, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! Goes To the Movies.
Blake Snyder (who died tragically at age 51 in 2009) was a screenwriter who did a lot of thinking about what makes a story work and what makes it not work. His first book, Save the Cat!, is a classic.
One of Blake Snyder’s writer-friendly inventions is what he called “BS2,” the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet.
The beat sheet broke a story—any story from the Iliad to La La Land—down into about sixteen “beats,” e.g. Opening Image, Theme Stated, Catalyst, Break into Two, etc.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the light of my ongoing “Reports from the Trenches” struggles.
I’m asking myself,
What am I learning through this process of rebuilding a story that has crashed?
How can I help others in the same straits?
What’s the Big Takeaway?
When you and I say that we “write instinctively,” what we mean is we trust our gut. That’s how we shape and flesh out our story. We might feel something like, “The story should be told by Character X, and not in memory but in the present.” Or, “Something’s missing in the middle. We need more with Characters Y and Z.”
What Blake Snyder was trying to do with his Beat Sheet (and what any good editor does, or what I myself am trying to do now with my Trenches project) is to formulize that process. Blake read a million novels and watched a million movies, and he concluded that the ones that work all follow certain timeless story principles or guidelines.
All stories that work have a similar shape, Blake believed. The specific one you or I might be working on at the moment will have its own unique shape. But it will cohere, in pretty predictable fashion, around the perennial “beats” of a narrative structure that has existed since our days of telling stories around the fire in the cave.
Every story fits into a genre and every genre has conventions.
Here’s one I learned (I never knew this before) over the past five and half months beating my head against the wall on my police procedural/supernatural thriller.
The female carries the mystery.
(Sara Paretsky’s wonderful V.I. Warshawski notwithstanding, I’m speaking in the old-school idiom where the detective—Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Rick Deckard—is a male.)
The above convention helped me enormously in reworking the story I was stuck on. I applied it and it worked.
What exactly do I mean by “the female carries the mystery?”
I mean that in a traditional detective story (which is what a police procedural is, even it’s set in the future like Blade Runner or Blade Runner 2049), the detective protagonist is usually following three threads as he drives the narrative forward:
- Solve the crime/bring the villain to justice.
- Unravel some inner personal conflict of his own.
- Unearth the secret(s) of the female lead, with whom he has become emotionally involved.
There’s always a woman, and the woman always has a secret.
Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) in Chinatown.
Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon.
Helen Grayle (Charlotte Rampling) in Farewell, My Lovely.
The female can be a femme fatale or a damsel in distress.
Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, Kathleen Turner in Body Heat, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep.
But the bottom line for the male detective/cop/lover is
Unravel the woman’s secret (“She’s my sister, she’s my daughter!”) and you solve the crime.
What I’m trying to say is that genre matters.
The story principles that work in other stories will work in yours and mine too.
Maybe the reason ours is not working is that we’re either violating a convention or we don’t even know it exists and so we’ve left it out.
I like the way Blake Snyder thinks because he looks to timeless storytelling principles and tries not to ignore them or to blow them off but to respect them and enlist them in our own story’s cause.
I haven’t seen Blade Runner 2049 yet, but for sure the female’s secret in the 1982 original (Rachel [Sean Young] is a replicant and in desperate need of help because of that) is central to that plot and to Rick Deckard’s (Harrison Ford) actions throughout.
Had to get up in the middle of eating oatmeal to tell you something about this post, Steven… I love the way your headlines often announce universal truth, with or without reading the entire post. Very deep and skillful. I’ve noticed it before, but today’s post is a perfect example. Women carry the mystery of an unborn child of course, which makes them the ideal carrier of the unknown. Oh, how I love it!
Thanks for this Steve! I’m adding Blake Snyder to my “must read” list.
From Robert Mckee to Larry Brooks to Blake Snyder to Shawn Coyne: Story has structure, genre meets expectation. Brains are wired to find pattern, story meets pattern to satisfy.
Interesting observation. So, working backwards, does that mean if a woman doesn’t carry the mystery, the genre isn’t true mystery? I’m thinking about films that straddle genres, like “The Usual Suspects.” I suppose you would call it crime versus mystery, which is a blurry line (thinking the same of “Chinatown,” “LA Confidential,” etc.).
There are a lot of shadings in there, aren’t there, Patricia? “Se7en” didn’t have a woman carrying the mystery, nor did “The French Connection” and many others. I haven’t figured out genre to my own satisfaction either. Police procedural slash private eye story slash mystery. It’s tricky!
I think it’s more a convention of noir/hardboiled (which I take it Steve’s story will be) than of detective stories in general. Notice that all the examples Steve cites are in that category.
I finished my oatmeal before writing this…it was cold leftovers but very filling. Look at Camille Paglia’s “Sexual Personae”for more on the innate female mystery.
So this begs the question that if the protagonist is a female detective/cop (common these days), does the story require her emotional involvement with a man, and does he then carry the story? My observations to date appear to say no. Today’s female law-enforcement ladies seem to come with more than enough baggage that forces me to extend your conclusion that women rule these genres regardless. Why is that?
So… if the investigator is a woman, does that mean the man/love interest carries the mystery? As I’m writing this kind of story, I’d have to say yes. You give me some good things to chew on with the three threads. Thanks, Steven!
I was thinking the same thing. Are women only a mystery when written by men? I find men pretty mysterious personally. Let’s challenge this convention.
I believe our biology/anatomy has a lot to do with where mystery inherently resides. That said, what I’m pondering with this post is the idea that a mystery needs more mystery than simply the case the deceive is working to solve, and that the mystery of the case and the mystery of the woman are intertwined. Fascinating!
(Can’t wait to hear what Shawn has to say about the new from-the-trenches draft.)
Congrats on the send off to Shawn! What do you do in the interim until the critique? Start a new story? Take a break with something completely different?
Now that you said it, I see it everywhere–the female carries the mystery. That is so cool! Thanks again, Steve.
I keep working!
Thanks Steve! ???
I always learn something from you Steven. The community’s comments are thought provoking and really make me slow down and think through everything. Very worthwhile time spent. Thanks.
Thank you Steve for once again shining light on another important tool. Blake Synder’s Save the Cat is my favorite screenwriting book. I had the pleasure of having a phone consultation with him as well. He was a treasure in the field!