The Female Carries the Mystery

I’ve got a new book coming from W.W. Norton in November. It’s a novel called 36 Righteous Men. If you followed last year the series on this blog called “Report from the Trenches,” you know the details of the huge crash this book took, midstream in its writing, and of my six months of nonstop hell trying to regroup, restructure, and reanimate it.

Barbara Stanwyck as the fatal female in “Double Indemnity”

The concept that saved the day came from Shawn Coyne’s editorial notes:

The female carries the mystery.

This is a helluva deep subject and one that, even now, I have only the sketchiest and most tenuous handle on. Bear with me please. I’m gonna try, in the next few posts, to plunge into this topic and see if we can extract a kernel or two of wisdom.

What does it mean, “The female carries the mystery?”

It’s not hard to see in a movie like Chinatown, where the character of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is literally the woman of mystery, or in Double Indemnity, where Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) fulfills the same narrative purpose.

In both films—and just about every other film noir or detective story you or I can think of—the female lead has a secret she is hiding from the male lead (and from the world in general, including, at least partially, herself.)

The story is about finding out that secret.

Only when that secret is revealed does the movie deliver its knockout dramatic and thematic punch.

 EVELYN MULWRAY

She’s my sister! She’s my daughter!

or

PHYLLIS DIETRICHSON

I’m rotten, Walter. Rotten to the heart.

But the idea that the female carries the mystery can be applied, I believe, even to novels and movies that literally have no female characters.

In Moby Dick, the female is the ocean.

The unplumbed, unknowable depths of the sea, into which the whale plunges, taking Ahab with him.

The eternal, unfathomable sea is the female.

In Seven Samurai, the flooded rice fields are the female. They are the well of fertility, the source of life. They are in fact what all the heroism and slaughter were about. They were the stakes of the story. They were the mystery.

Remember the final scene of Kurosawa’s all-time classic, when the villagers, to the beat of the communal tom-toms, replant their now-preserved fields while the surviving samurai can only watch and move on? That’s the mystery revealed.

Even in a story without human female characters, like Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” the female still carries the mystery

In my book, 36 Righteous Men, the central female character is a defrocked rabbi named Rachel Davidson.

In the first version of the novel—the one that crashed—I had Rachel indeed bearing the mystery (in other words, she knew all the details of the occult understory) but I had her trying deliberately and passionately to reveal this mystery.

Huge mistake.

Only when Shawn pointed out the error was I able to regroup and reconceive the story, at least as far as Rachel was concerned.

The change I made was to make her carry the mystery and hang onto it for dear life.

In other words, I turned every scene with Rachel on its head. Instead of having her seek to reveal, I had her seek to conceal.

It worked.

It made the other primary characters—two NYPD homicide detectives, a man and woman—dig deeper and harder. It made them do real detective work. It tripled the power of Rachel, and it supercharged the villain, whom Rachel was now covering for instead of trying to reveal.

I’ve been working on a new book for the past year—a totally different story, in another century and another genre. But the principle

 The female carries the mystery

remains foremost in my working mind. I have stayed hyperconscious (and conscientious) at every stage—conception, construction, and the scene-by-scene writing—of who the “female” is, what mystery she carries, and how I can maintain that mystery and enhance it through Act One, Act Two, and Act Three to build to its maximum emotional impact in the climax.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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17 Comments

  1. Joe Jansen on August 7, 2019 at 7:32 am

    A new book, you say. Brushing up on my Jewish mysticism and “Tzadikim Nistarim.” Looking forward to it.

  2. Anonymous on August 7, 2019 at 8:12 am

    hmm

  3. Kent Sanders on August 7, 2019 at 8:14 am

    This is a profound insight. Thank you, Steven. The book I’m working on has only a couple of minor female characters, but you have helped me see how to apply this.

  4. Mia Sherwood Landau on August 7, 2019 at 8:16 am

    Wow, deep is right. I am not being coy or condescending when I say it’s pretty cool that two guys (not regular guys, mind you, no, incredibly smart guys) are majoring in this topic of the scary depth of femininity. Being female, I can tell you it’s hard enough for women to grasp. Seriously, it’s scary to us, too. You can go out on the web and see all the New Age teachers and coaches who charge women to “get in touch with their feminine.” We usually go through our whole lives out here in the world and don’t do it. Just reading this post, Shawn’s words and yours, was more instructive than any expensive workshop. Once again, thank you for being you!

    • Mia Sherwood Landau on August 7, 2019 at 11:14 am

      I’m commenting on my own comment because I realized you guys used the word “mystery” and I used the word “scary.” I guess mysteries are not necessarily scary, are they? That’s what I’ve been thinking about. I think the mystery of woman is, to men and women and perhaps other gender definitions these days, simply scary. Women are scary because they are unpredictable and powerful. What isn’t there when a woman leaves a home or another space is palpable, it leaves a gap. That is when we notice the power of a woman. And that’s scary. Just thinking out loud here.

  5. Amber on August 7, 2019 at 8:28 am

    I was reading this with some faith but also some skepticism as I usually do when ti comes to females roles in stories. It’s something that really bothers me for some reason, so I was concerned when I first started reading this article..

    But then that was consoled the moment you mentioned one of the two primary detective was also a woman. Then I understood that it wasn’t female as a gender, but female as the concept. The feminine pull vs the masculine push. In this instance, the female “hide” vs the masculine “seek”.

    I really like it. I didn’t even think of like that before. It’s not just enough to have a female character, but also to understand the female energy in stories. Very interesting!

  6. Andrea Reiman on August 7, 2019 at 9:44 am

    Yes! This column was quite Jungian. The feminine is chaos, the masculine is order. Mountains are masculine, water is feminine, etc. But your distinct wording here is animating for me. “The female carries the mystery” is a more nuanced understanding of chaos. Well, she does conceive, carry, and give birth, but it is a complete mystery how the conception took place, what is developing in utero, and what specific impact that offspring will have, right? Love you, Steven! Thanks!

  7. Birdman on August 7, 2019 at 10:08 am

    Go for it, Steven. And thank you.

  8. Jule Kucera on August 7, 2019 at 10:15 am

    “In Moby Dick, the female is the ocean.”
    Wow.
    I am
    Always wary
    When men
    Speak of the feminine.
    In this case
    Two men
    Have parted
    The water
    To reveal
    The mystery,
    The truth.

  9. Travis Fields on August 7, 2019 at 12:47 pm

    I like this concept — simple but profound!

  10. Elizabeth Rose on August 7, 2019 at 1:36 pm

    Fascinating! I’m so pleased that you worked this one out with Shawn’s insight. It’s a wonderful act of professional generosity to share this with us, too. Thank you Steve!

  11. Rebecca Jean Downey on August 7, 2019 at 1:48 pm

    Wow. You have made a transformation discovery. Thank you. I write about the U.S. Mexico border, and realize that the border is the female. Profound. Thanks.

  12. John on August 7, 2019 at 1:55 pm

    Profound thoughts that have got me mulling – thanks very much for sharing them.

  13. Pauline Brin on August 7, 2019 at 6:09 pm

    In the Power of Myth documentary, Joseph Campbell said, “Women represent life. Therefore, they represent all the mysteries of life”. Yes, the female carries the mysteries. Life’s mysteries are deftly concealed. And so it is with the feminine.

    Great read today. Inspired me to think of a story, without female characters (save offstage), but the theme being (I’m talking about what the story is “really” about) the centrality of women.

    Best,

  14. Jill on August 8, 2019 at 5:48 pm

    I’m unclear how this works with a female detective as protagonist. I can see how it works in stories without female characters where men are the leads, or any story with a male lead. If the hero is a woman working to solve the mystery, and using her feminine power to do that, as well as her reason, who embodies the “mysterious chaos” and holds the secret? I don’t see how this can work with a strong female protagonist.

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