The Female Protects the Mystery

We said in last week’s post, speaking of novels or films with characters of both sexes, that

The female carries the mystery.

Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray in “Chinatown”

This principle, true as it is, is not enough to make a story work. In addition

The female protects the mystery.

Every story has a secret. Every tale has a meaning, an interpretation of depth.

The protagonist’s role (either a male, or a female acting in a “male” capacity) is to uncover that secret.

In Robert Towne’s script of Chinatown, the protagonist is private eye Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). His role in the drama is to get to the bottom of the “case”—to find out who murdered Hollis Mulwray, who hired him (Jake) and put him on this case, and what greater, deeper, more hideous crimes these first two issues conceal.

Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is Jake’s client. She is the character who carries the mystery. She knows the answers to all these questions.

And, critically important for the story, she conceals them.

Evelyn knows what Jake, at the start, doesn’t. She knows the crimes her father Noah Cross (John Huston) has committed. She knows the further, even more despicable crime he’s trying to commit in the present.

For her own reasons—primarily to protect her daughter Catherine, but also to shield her own shame—Evelyn will resist to her final breath revealing these secrets.

For us as storytellers, this is exactly what we want.

We want in our stories a character who conceals the tale’s secret—i.e., its theme, its metaphor, its meaning—and who will do anything to maintain that secret.

Why do we want that? Because it provides powerful, drama-producing obstacles for our protagonist to overcome.

In some stories, like Chinatown, the female who carries the mystery knows what the mystery is. She’s aware of it. She’s deliberately concealing it.

In others, the “female” carrying the mystery doesn’t know it at all. She’s blind to it. She’s ignorant of it.

Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri), the memory-maker in Blade Runner 2049, is unaware that she is the daughter of Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young) and that she is thus the “miracle” that proves that replicants can reproduce and therefore possess souls and have hope for the future.

Carla Juri as memory-maker Dr. Ana Stelline in “Blade Runner 2049”

She carries the mystery but is unaware of it.

Likewise Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) in Far From Heaven is utterly clueless to the mystery of self-delusion and willful blindness that she carries.

This obliviousness works in story terms in both cases because it serves the same narrative purpose as Evelyn Mulwray’s conscious concealment—it keeps the protagonists (K [Ryan Gosling] in Blade Runner 2049; in Far From Heaven, Cathy Whitaker herself) laboring against powerful obstacles throughout the story to unravel the mystery.

A third category of mystery-carriers (and mystery-protectors) consists of primal or societal forces like the sea in Moby Dick or the farmers’ rice fields in Seven Samurai. Though these are not literally female, they are so metaphorically.

These also work story-wise because they cannot reveal their mystery. They are the mystery.

The takeaway for you and me as storytellers is that

One character in our drama must carry the story’s secret

and that character—for reasons of conscious will, ignorance, or incapacity—must present a monumental obstacle to the uncovering of that secret.

The female carries the mystery

And

The female protects the mystery.

 

 

 

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11 Comments

  1. Rock on August 14, 2019 at 10:47 am

    Love the concept of every story having a secret…and a character that is in possession of it. As always, thanks!

  2. G.R. on August 14, 2019 at 12:07 pm

    Thank you very much, Steven. Very helpful for me! ))))

  3. Joe Jansen on August 14, 2019 at 12:34 pm

    Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.

  4. Katie Jane Thomas on August 14, 2019 at 1:20 pm

    This is super cool that you posted this on the Thursday before the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary which is tomorrow. Rock on Divine Feminine!!!

  5. Candace on August 14, 2019 at 7:07 pm

    Those marvelous rice fields in Seven Samurai become more so with their significance revealed.

  6. Pauline Brin on August 15, 2019 at 5:46 am

    Good read. Spot-on. Well spoken.

    With gratitude,

  7. John J Hruby, Space Spiders on Prom Day on August 15, 2019 at 10:09 am

    I appreciate the boldness of your post in light of being politically correct. I also appreciate your comments at the end of the sea and the wheat field being the feminine. I imagine a feminine male could also conceal the mystery. All the best.

  8. James on August 21, 2019 at 7:40 am

    I’m learning so much about writing from these posts, as well as your books. Thank you

  9. Travis Fields on August 21, 2019 at 9:48 am

    Great examples from great movies — Blade Runner 2049 excepted.
    I wanted to love BR 2049, because I loved the original, so I had high hopes.

    *SPOILERS*

    BR 2049 actually had a lot going for it, but it felt long and slow. I don’t mind a movie being long if it sustains tension, but sometimes it didn’t. Among its more serious flaws to my mind was the way they ended the story of the VR woman Joi. It felt unsatisfying and pointless for an important character. Surely there must have been a better way.

    Re: Chinatown, I’ve occasionally wondered how much of a difference it would have made if Polanski had kept Robert Towne’s original ending in the script, where Evelyn Mulwray kills Noah Cross with a pistol shot to the eye.
    Although it wouldn’t have been as “Noir” for the protagonists to win, it surely would have felt more satisfying.
    But. Would people still talk about Chinatown with the reverence they do today? I’ve no idea.
    It’s a great movie as it is, no doubt about that.

    Knowing what we now know about Roman Polanski, one wonders if he liked the idea of Noah Cross getting away with his monstrous crime for personal reasons. I expect history will judge people harshly for glossing over his crimes simply because they worshipped his talent.

    Speaking of his worshippers, I found the end of Tarantino’s latest movie to be pretty depressing. Because I love his best work and this wasn’t it. The worst thing is, if the movie plays for ten more minutes, we would surely see DiCaprio’s character Rick Dalton become friends with Polanski, who’d just had a big hit with “Rosemary’s Baby”.
    Polanski casts Rick in his next movie, thus fulfilling Rick’s dream of becoming a bona fide Movie Star.

    Ok, back in 1969, I can see that would be a happy ending for old Rick Dalton.
    But in 2019? Knowing what we know now?

    Was Tarantino saying “maybe if that one night had been different, Polanski wouldn’t have become a bad guy” ?
    That’s wishful thinking to my mind. Plenty of people have suffered terrible losses without becoming bad guys.

    Maybe there was no better way to end that movie, if you start with the idea of putting Sharon Tate in it.
    At least Tarantino had the mercy to cut it before Polanski came back on screen.

  10. Travis Fields on August 21, 2019 at 9:54 am

    Btw, one of my pet peeves about writing on the internet:

    When you write a post with multiple sentences, you might take a minute to arrange it so it looks nice and neat.
    You might make sure the line breaks are where you want them to be by using the ENTER or RETURN key in the appropriate places. As I just did. And then you post it….and more often than not, the places where you used ENTER and RETURN to make it look nice and neat in the window where you were writing just make the posted paragraph look choppy. Some sites give you the option to “Preview” or at least Edit what you post.

    Might seem silly, but I feel like the way words look on a page matters, even if only a little bit.

  11. Hailey on October 3, 2019 at 9:56 pm

    Every story has a secret.
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