Earlier this week, I listened to my surgeon tell me what the risks were associated with the major surgery I’d be having. I listened with only half my attention — I’d heard the exact same risks before because I’ve had the surgery three times before — while the rest of my mind thought how much I wanted him to say that despite the risks, my surgery was sure to be successful and without complications. The uncertainty of the future drives me to distraction sometimes. At other times, it gives me anxiety attacks. How do I live with life’s uncertainties?
Mysteries. When I’m in a particularly uncertain time — the novel isn’t selling the way I need for it to sell and I don’t know if it will, and I’m going to have major surgery — I crave mystery novels. I love P. D. James’ novels especially, but I’ll read any mystery as long as it’s well written and plays fair with the reader. I was thinking this morning as I showered that there must be a specific reason that I crave mysteries when uncertainty increases. Then it hit me. Of course! At the end of mysteries, the mystery is solved and all the loose ends are tied off. Although a mystery novel begins with a lot of uncertainty and questions, the protagonist answers the questions and changes the uncertainty to certainty.
Life is full of uncertainty, and I have no way of knowing if there’s structure to my life or not. Yes, I have a schedule each day that I’ve learned needs to be somewhat flexible, but that schedule gives my day structure. That schedule reduces the uncertainty. Mysteries may reflect life in many ways, but just like any story written or told, they have a structure to them that life truly lacks. I turn to mysteries for the comfort of structure and certainty.
Structure gives a story an inner logic. If a story lacks a structure, it confuses and often alienates readers. What is the most common narrative structure in literature? It’s called the 3-act dramatic narrative structure. Here’s the outline:
Act 1: Exposition or Set Up
In this act, the writer sets up the protagonist’s situation, introduces the characters, creates tension between them, and introduces the main conflict which will force the protagonist at the end of this act to make a decision to accomplish something — a goal or a final decision.
Act 2: Conflict and Development
Conflict is the essence of story. Without it, you have nothing. Conflict motivates characters. In this act, the protagonist must overcome all sorts of usually nearly impossible obstacles and conflicts in order to reach or accomplish the goal set at the end of Act 1. Finally, disaster threatens the protagonist in some way so it doesn’t look like he’ll accomplish his goal.
Act 3: Climax and Resolution
In one final attempt, during the climax, the protagonist’s success or failure hangs in the balance. During the resolution, he’s either succeeded or failed to accomplish his goal. Any loose ends are now wrapped up with some indication of what’s in the protagonist’s future.
Variations on this structure exist, as well as the same structure with different descriptors. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, boy loses girl, boy must regain girl but all sorts of people and other obstacles are in his way, but then he finally does something that brings her back to him, and they reunite. All nice and neat and tidy.
In mysteries, the protagonist is usually a detective of some sort who decides to solve the mystery presented to her. She must deal with clues, red herrings, suspects, and detours before finding that one piece of evidence that clinches the case. I have yet to read a mystery in which the detective does not solve the case.
Writers live with constant uncertainty, just as all artists do. There is no job security of any kind, no retirement fund or pension. We must constantly work and hustle to defeat the uncertainty in our professional lives compounded by the uncertainty of life in general…..