The How and Why of the Mystery

Every story has a mystery that drops hints along the way until we finally understand what’s going on. If we know too much too soon, there’s no reason for the story to continue. Think of “Star Wars” where we know Darth Vader wants something, but initially we don’t know what’s going on with Darth Vader boarding Princess Leia’s starship and Princess Leia putting something in R2D2. Wanting to know that mystery pulls us through the rest of the story because we first want to know What’s going on? When we finally know what’s going on, we want to know How will it happen?

The mystery of your story revolves around both your hero and your villain, and often times your mentor, hero’s allies, and villain henchmen. In “Star Wars,” we gradually learn that Darth Vader wants to find the rebel base and wipe it out. Everything he does relates to that goal, even if we don’t know it until much later. When we finally know what Darth Vader’s goal is, our final question is how will he achieve it? By Act III we finally get our answer in that Darth Vader will use the Death Star to blow up the rebel base. Since we saw the Death Star blow up Princess Leia’s planet earlier, we know the horrible consequences that will happen if Darth Vader succeeds.

Luke’s goal is more abstract. He just wants to get off his planet but Princess Leia provides him a goal. First, Luke sees her hologram. Next he tags along with Obi-wan to deliver R2D2 to Princess Leia’s planet. Next he rescues Princess Leia and brings her to safety. Finally, he has to blow up the Death Star to protect Princess Leia. At all times, Luke’s goal is to protect Princess Leia, which is a goal that Darth Vader inadvertently set before Luke.

Once we know that Luke wants to protect Princess Leia, most of his story revolves around how he will do it. First he breaks her out of her cell. Then he swings her across a chasm. Then he blows up the Death Star. Luke’s actions are all related to a single goal. When stories allow characters to take action that doesn’t support a single goal, the story often feels muddled and unfocused with lots of wasted scenes that simply make the overall story drag and seem far less interesting.

Think of a race in the Olympics. When the starting gun goes off, you want to see who will get to the finish line first. That’s exciting. What you don’t want to see if a break in the action that tells us the childhood of one of the athletes, what his or her favorite color is, or what that athlete ate last night. None of this information is relevant to the final goal of wining the race. Stories also need to remain focused on each character pursuing a single goal where we want to know What they’re going to do and then How they’re going to do it.

In “Star Wars,” Obi-wan also has a goal in dealing with his past by confronting Darth Vader. We don’t know what that goal is, but when we finally see him face to face with Darth Vader, our next question is how will he do it?

In your own story, what mystery is your hero and villain pursuing that your audience gradually learns over time? That’s the What of your mystery. When your audience finally knows what your characters are trying to achieve, ask How will they achieve it. Both the What and the How will create suspense to hold your audience to follow your story from beginning to end.

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