Mystery persons

Some random thoughts on my favorite kinds of plot.

Back in the dim mists of history, when I first saw the trailer for the Wes Anderson animated The Fantastic Mr. Fox, I squealed like a kid. Let me tell you--it was my favorite book of all time when I was a kid (well, okay, maybe The Black Stallion and Satan beat it out. And I do have clear memories of mystifying my playmates by insisting that we pretend to be Hazel and Bigwig and Blackberry. But it was a close thing.). But that is not the sole or only reason that I squealed.

No, I squealed because it has a Caper plot. And Caper plots are my favorite thing in the whole world to read or watch (they're much harder to do in text than video, because the clues are harder to hide), and they're so rarely done well, with play-fair setup.

Fair Warning: I am now going to spoiler some stuff.

What, you ask, is a Caper plot? Oh, Oceans 11. The Prestige. Any given episode of the TV show Mission: Impossible, but not the movies. (The movies are Thrillers, which are different, and I will talk about that in a minute.) A first season episode of the TV show Criminal Minds, entitled "Lessons Learned." Hannibal Lechter's escape plan in The Silence of the Lambs. (The last two, by the way, are both lifted entirely from Mission: Impossible episodes. Yes, fandom notices such things.) Both version of The Taking of Pelham 123. The Sting, and the UK TV show Hustle. Leverage.

Basically, a Caper is any plot that revolves around an exceedingly well-oiled plan going off without a hitch, and to be a true Caper, there has to be a last-minute reversal and reveal which (ideally) surprises the audience, even though the actual clue as to what happened has to be shown clearly onscreen. (This is why Oceans 12 doesn't pass the test--the critical piece of information (the backpack switch) is withheld until the end of the movie. Tch tch, that's cheating.)

The movie Sneakers is a Caper plot, but it's a Caper as told from point of view of the victims, who then construct a Caper of their own to get even. My book Undertow is also a Caper--and I've just spoiled it for you by revealing that, because part of the big reveal is the reveal that there's a Caper going on.

Basically, they're stories about con games. Hustles. Incredibly clever people creating incredibly clever clockwork scams that somehow work without a flaw.

They're the reverse of the Cascading Disaster Narrative, where one little thing goes wrong with snowballing consequences and then the protagonists have to figure out what happened and how to stop it. I love 'em.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to talk about some related ways to construct a mystery plot, and how they differ from the Caper--and then I'd like to talk about the Caper. We have a selection of options: the Whodunnit and the Thriller (I said I'm come back to that!), two frequently confused plotting techniques, and the Procedural and the Caper.

The basic difference between the Thriller and the Whodunnit is not how much information the protagonist has, but how much information the audience has. To illustrate this, I’d like to borrow from a movie that uses both plot techniques to counterpoint each other. If anybody is upset by spoilers for a 16-year-old film, this would be where to start skipping.

The movie is The Fugitive. The Thriller plot (please excuse my Portentuous Capitalization) is whether or not Kimble will escape Gerard long enough to prove his innocence. The Whodunnit plot is how he goes about proving his innocence. It’s often been said that a story walks better on two legs (by which is meant, strands of plot, so that an A plot and a B plot can each pick up the slack in the other, and according to Nancy Kress, Gene Wolfe says that ideally, the two plots resolve each other. All good writing advice eventually traces back to Gene Wolfe. It's a True Fact.); this is one of the clearest examples I can think of of using not just two plots, but two completely different plot structures to balance each other.

Without giving away too much about the movie, let me point up some of the distinguishing characteristics. In the Thriller plot (the pursuit of Kimble by Gerard, and their clever clever cat and mouse games) the audience has far more information than Kimble does. We know where Gerard is, what he’s doing, how he’s going about finding Kimble. This heightens audience tension, because we can watch the two of them on collision courses, scoring narrow misses and occasional hits.

In the Whodunnit plot–the search for the one-armed man and then, eventually, for the man who hired him–we have exactly as much information as Kimble does. We can put it together along with him, and have the joy of attempting to deduce the right answer. A good Whodunnit plays scrupulously fair with information, while a good Thriller supplies or withholds information as necessary to heighten the reader’s tension and suspense.

Sometimes this can be done poorly–Anonymous Killer POV is a particular pet peeve of mine, and I have been known to lob books for that alone–and sometimes it can be done well. Daniel Silva (The Kill Artist) excels at this kind of plotting, and I commend him to you for the purpose of studying same.

A related but not identical form of plot is the Procedural. In its really classical form as a mystery plot, the audience actually knows in advance who the suspect is. You see the crime committed on page one. The interest in the story comes from watching the story unravel, rather than from trying to outsmart the detective. the classic TV show Columbo follows this strategy.

Now, it’s perfectly possible to marry the Procedural to a Whodunnit or Thriller plot–this is done successfully in television a lot, where one of the major issues these days is extreme time compression, and telling a story in the most efficient manner possible.

Last but not least, I’d like to visit my own personal favorite school of plotting, for the viewing rather than for the crafting: the Caper plot. I said above that a Caper is a con game. It’s actually a dual con game, done perfectly: both the antagonists and the audience are conned.

The way a Caper works structurally is that at the beginning of the storyline, the audience is presented with a seemingly impossible task. Over the course of the story, information is revealed in a carefully metered flow, and a certain amount of that information passes unexplained, or occluded by misdirection. Ideally, the audience think they've been watching one narrative, but, in the end (usually when it seems as if everything is about to go disastrously wrong), the second narrative is revealed like a magician producing a dove.

To be successful, however, the information to solve that mystery has to have been present in the narrative. It can be explained, but new clues cannot be introduced. In other words, we have to have seen the trick take place, and simply failed to understand it. That's what gives that incredibly satisfying sense of closure that makes the narrative work.

(It's also possible to use this Reveal trick without constructing a Caper plot. The Usual Suspects is all about unreliable narrators, for example, and the catharsis comes from the realization that somebody has been lying.)

The Full Caper, as it were, is--to put it mildly--as hard as spit. You have to construct a machine as play-fair and as carefully structured as a whodunit. You have to hide the clues in plain sight. And then, at the end, you have to handle the reveal without getting caught and without bogging down in exposition.

(Whodunits also suffer from the closing expository bolus problem. I love Dashiell Hammett, but the obligatory chapter at the end where he explains everything? OMG. He was just making that stuff up. Even Bogey can't make it fun. Somehow, Rex Stout and Dorothy Sawyer seem to get away with it better.)

Ideally, you want to give the reader the joy of discovery, of figuring it out for themself. That's where a good deal of the reward in a good whodunit or Caper comes from--the moment when the reader gets it.

The Prestige does a very good job of this, and sets up its answer at the beginning, reinforces it throughout, and then--bang. Killer ending. Incredibly satisfying.

Just don't think too much about storage issues.