How to Plot a Mystery, Part 5: Figure Out What Went Wrong

It might seem easy to plot a mystery or conspiracy story. You have four steps:
  1. A villain comes up with an evil plan.
  2. The villain begins to put that plan into effect.
  3. Our hero sees the effect of that plan.
  4. The hero figures out who the villain is and stops him/her.
And indeed some mysteries, especially police procedurals, are plotted in this exact manner. But it’s hard to write this sort of mystery in a satisfactory way. Audiences want mysteries that are hard to solve. The easiest way to solve a crime is to ask quo bono: Who benefits? If the nature of the crime is obvious from the beginning of a story, then the quo bono will usually be too obvious as well.

In order to get around this problem, most mysteries add step 1a: Life complicates the villain’s plan before the hero finds out about it.

Usually this means that something has gone wrong with the villain’s plan: Someone else already found out about it and had to be killed, for instance. Or another conspirator had to be knocked off. Or an innocent bystander was killed by accident as part of enacting the plan.

This makes the mystery more satisfying, because it makes the quo bono much harder to figure out. The initial crime the hero discovers is not something that obviously benefits the villain. The villain has killed someone they didn’t originally intend to kill, merely in furtherance of the conspiracy, rather than in pursuit of the original benefit.

Zootopia is another mystery in which things haven’t gone according to the villain’s original plan, in a way that complicates the story, and makes the mystery much harder to solve.  (The difference here is that the complication winds up helping out the villain.)

Here’s the original plan: Assistant Mayor Bellwether (in collusion with some chemists and a sniper) has been shooting predators and making them go savage, in order to make all predators look bad, especially her boss, Mayor Lionheart. And indeed, this movie could have begun with predators going savage in public places. Some would blame it on their DNA, but our heroes would investigate, find the poison, track it down to its lab, etc. It would have been hard to stretch that story out to 108 minutes.

But the case isn’t so simple, because reality has interfered with Bellwether’s plan: Mayor Lionheart has found out about that 14 predators have gone savage, but he’s decided to hush it up: He’s had them rounded up and taken to a defunct hospital for testing, so as to avoid a panic.

(In this instance, the complication will slow things up for Bellweather, but will ultimately benefit her more than she could have dared hope for. This is perfect: All she has to do is point our heroes to the mayor’s facility, and he’ll actually be arrested, rather than merely forced out, and she’ll become mayor instantly. Originally, she had wanted the poisonings to gradually create a panic, but this works even better: Now all fourteen cases that the mayor has covered up will come out at once, and the panic will be instantaneous. Nevertheless, things have not gone according to plan.)

The good news for the movie is that this complication obscures the villain’s plot, so it’s not obvious to us. Our heroes spend most of the movie investigating Lionheart’s conspiracy, not Bellwether’s. Our question is: Who has kidnapped these predators? The fact that they’re going savage doesn’t even come up until the movie is half over. Our eye is kept off the ball by the complication.

We’re always several stops behind the main plot, so we never get to slow down and ask the obvious question: Who benefits? If we had, the answer would have been obvious. As it is, neither we nor the heroes ever get around to asking that question until the answer is literally staring us and them in the face.
This is how you plot a mystery: You don’t need to create an ingenious solution, you just need to keep our eyes off the ball. Any illusionist will tell you: The trick is simple; it’s the misdirection that’s complicated.

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 4: Set Up the Hero Fake-Out

When Officer Hopps and Nick Wilde pull off their impromptu sting operation at the end of Zootopia, they’re not just fooling the villain, they’re also fooling the audience. We’ve been given everything we need to figure it out: We’ve seen that the savage-toxin gun pellets look like blueberries, we’ve seen that they have blueberries on them, we know that they have a recorder, etc, but we, or at least I, still fall for it: It genuinely seems that Mayor Bellwether has turned Nick savage and put Hopps in deadly danger.

In any mystery, there are three different possible relationships between the hero and the audience:
  • The information superior position: We have information that the hero doesn’t have. We know about some danger that they don’t know about yet.
  • The same-information position: We’re on their shoulder, finding out about everything the same time they do, and having the same emotional reaction.
  • The information-inferior position: The hero knows more than we do, and we have to play catch up to figure out what they’re doing.
Usually, mystery writers utilize all three at different times. The first creates suspense. The second fully bonds us to the hero. The third causes us to admire the hero. All three can be useful. Hitchcock would usually use all three in every movie.

Interestingly, Zootopia never uses the first (possibly to keep things from getting too scary or suspenseful for kids.) We spend almost the whole movie in position two. By the time we get to the end, we’re used to fully identifying with Hopps, and we don’t expect her to trick us.

But there’s another reason this works: because of our subconscious understanding of the Chekhov rule: We know that if there’s a gun on the mantle in the first act, it has to go off in the third act. And throughout this movie, they keep discussing the possibility that Nick will eventually go savage. We’re primed to fear/expect that. We would feel disappointed if we never got to see it. It feels like a big payoff. Good writers know how to manipulate our understanding of these rules and the subconscious expectations they create.

It doesn’t take us long to figure out that it’s a scam, which is good. We figure it out as soon as Mayor Bellwether starts confessing all: Suddenly we remember the blueberry, the recorder, etc. We also remember that the movie began with young Hopps pretending to be attacked by a predator, establishing her acting skills. With delight, we realize that Hopps has fooled us, breaking our full identification with her to trick us as surely as she’s tricked the villain.

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 3: Quietly Give Your Heroes the Objects They Need

In the end, the heroes of Zootopia triumph by setting up a complicated sting on the villains, but they set it up on the spur of the moment, when they suddenly realize they have all the tools they need on them. Specifically, they need:
  • The key piece of evidence: A gun that shoots a blue toxin-pellet at animals that make them go savage.
  • A blueberry that will take the place of the toxin-pellet.
  • A voice recorder. 
In order for this to work without the audience simply rolling our eyes, the movie needed to quietly and logically get all of these objects into their hands, one by one. How do they do that?
  • Obviously, the gun is the whole reason they’re all there. At first, they had a whole train car full of evidence, but that blew up, giving them one last piece of evidence, the gun, which still has a pellet in it. They’re on their way to deliver it to the police station, and Mayor Bellwether has come to intercept it.
  • Amazingly, they just happen to have a blueberry on them. When Officer Hopps quit the force, she was working on her family farm when she realized what the toxin was. She suddenly hopped in the family’s truck and took off immediately, accidentally bringing along what they were selling, including a carton of blueberries. Later, Nick (who has always made fun of her for being a farmer) mockingly eats the blueberries while they drive. Finally, in the finale, she gets injured and he takes out his handkerchief to bind her wound, only to discover that he was using it to hold blueberries.
  • Finally, it’s established early on that Hopps always has a voice-recorder-pen on her. This has already been a plot point three times, and none of those times feels like a set up for later. Each feels like a self-sufficient scene with its own pay-off.
When these objects are being established, at no point do we say, “Why are they mentioning this? Are they just setting us up for something later?” When Nick snacks on the blueberries, it ties into his overall mockery of Hopps for being a farmer, so it feels like a pay-off for something that happened earlier, rather than a set-up for something in the future. Likewise, the use of the tape recorder has already paid off twice, and even been used as a verbal callback, so we’re not left wondering why they would mention it in advance or why she would have it on her at the end.

In retrospect, all of these objects were set up so that they would be in place at the end, but they were all set up subtly, without calling attention to themselves. Hitchcock was called a “director of objects”: This is because objects are so essential to thrillers and mysteries. A huge part of the creator’s job is to get all the right objects in the right places at the right time, without calling attention to it.

Finally, tomorrow, we’ll look at how they set us up to be fooled by the heroes.

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 2: Set Up the Villain Fake-Out

What’s interesting about Zootopia is that Hopps and Nick never really set out to figure out who the villain is. At first the mystery is set up as “Where have all these predators disappeared to?” and then as “Why are they going savage?” The question is never really asked “Who’s behind this?”, until they suddenly realize that it’s Bellwether in the middle of an action sequence. This is fine. Not every mystery needs every element of the genre.

This eases the burden on the writers because they don’t have to create an array of suspects, all of whom would have to have logical motivation. They only need to set up means, motive and opportunity for one person, and the audience isn’t likely to notice, because we’re never invited to suspect everyone.

As I watched the movie, I didn’t figure out who the villain was until the heroes figured it out, which is ideal. As with all the best villain-reveals, I was able to instantly flip my perspective and re-evaluate everything I’d seen, seeing how everything the villain had done, none of which seemed villainous at the time, could easily take on a sinister interpretation. Let’s go back and look at each of her previous appearances.

We first meet her, she gives Mayor Lionheart the badge to give to Hopps and gets shoved aside.
  • How it reads at the time: This is an amusing side character, and we’ll probably never see her again.
  • What we see in retrospect: We see her humiliation and anger.
She helps Hopps get unfired and get assigned to the disappearance case.
  • How it reads at the time: We like Bellwether for sticking up for her fellow underdog.
  • What we see in retrospect: She wants the case to go forward to serve her sinister plan.
She helps Hopps track the car, and talks more about her mistreatment by the mayor.
  • How it reads at the time: We’re getting more of a sense of her grievance at this point, but it still just seems like an interesting character note. If anything, it makes us wonder if Lionhart is going to be the villain.
  • What we see in retrospect: She’s leading them to where the mayor has the predators caged up.
She encourages Hopps at press conference.
  • How it reads at the time: She innocently puts Hopps forward and doesn’t realize what Hopps will do.
  • What we see in retrospect: She hopes Hopps will blame all predators, and she’s very happy afterwards.
She discourages Hopps from quitting.
  • How it reads at the time: We like her. In fact we side with her over our hero.
  • What we see in retrospect: Oddly enough, our reading of this scene doesn’t change. Bellwether genuinely likes Hopps, and really wants to help her. Prey must stick together, after all.
So by the time we get to the climactic scene, we’ve seen everything we need to see. We've seen that she has all the motivation she needs to be the villain, even though it didn’t seem villainous to us at the time, and we’ve seen her engage in villainous behavior even though it seemed positive at the time.

Next time, we’ll look at another element that sets up the finale.

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 1: Work Backwards from the Climax

So I’ve wanted to talk about plotting for a while but I was waiting for a perfectly plotted movie to come along, and lo here it is. Perfect plots move heaven and earth without leaving a trace. It takes a tremendous amount of blood, sweat and tears to get every element in exactly the right spot, but if you’ve done it well, then it all seems to fall out that way naturally.

Let’s look at the climactic scene in Zootopia. If you haven’t seen the movie, then stop right now, because I’m about to spoil everything, but even if you have seen it, you could probably use a refresher:
  • Officer Hopps and conman Nick Wilde have discovered what is making predators go savage: blue balls of rage toxin shot out of a gun. They’re taking the gun back to the police as evidence when they unexpectedly run into Mayor Bellweather as they go through a natural history museum. She asks for the gun, but wonder how she knew they would be there and run for cover. She ends up with the gun and shoots Nick, who seems to turn savage and attack Hopps. Bellweather brags about her plan as Nick attacks Hopps, but then they reveal that Nick was just acting: they had replaced the toxin pellet with a blueberry, and Hopps hand recorded Bellweather on her recorder pen. Bellweather is arrested.
So let’s talk about what was necessary to make this scene work.
  • First of all, the movie needs to set up the villain fake-out, where we realized that the villain has been right there in front of us the whole time.
  • Next, Hopps and Nick had to have three items on them: The gun, a blueberry, and a sound recorder.
  • Finally, the movie needs to set up the hero fake-out. The heroes pull off a fake-out on the end not just on the villain, but also on the audience, and that has to be set up as well.
So we’ll look how these things are set up over the next few days. Before we begin, however, I thought that we’d take a look at the one thing that they don’t really set up: How Mayor Bellweather knew to find them in the Natural History Museum. It kind of makes sense: They were driving the train car full of evidence to the police station when it crashed, but then they get out and Hopps says:
We heard the toxin-cooks warn the bad guy that Hopps had taken the train, and we know that the mayor is good at using the traffic cams to track people through the city, so she might have tracked the train, seen it crash, figured out that they would have to cut through the Natural History Museum to get to the ZPD, and gone to confront them. I guess it kind of makes sense.

Hitchcock talked about “elevator moments”: moments in mysteries that didn’t really make sense, but you don’t realize that until later. This is a variation: the moment that does kind of make sense, but you can’t figure out how until later.

The point is, you can’t get away with it. As we’ll see, you have to set up a lot of stuff, and there’s just not time to set up stuff like how the mayor tracked them down to that spot.  Sometimes you just have to hope the audience goes along with it. You have to know which things the audience needs to know and which things on which they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

Storyteller’s Rulebook #191: Process Vs. Revelation

I recently had to cut ten pages out of an old script, and one thing I found myself doing seemed counterintuitive, since it meant abandoning one of the strengths of the film medium. I realized that, in order to keep things moving, I had to think more like a playwright, and replace process with revelation.

When your heroes unravel mysteries (and almost every type of story has a mystery element, even if the question is just “why doesn’t he/she like me?”), you can either show your heroes visiting a bunch of places and having a bunch of conversations and see the truth dawning on their faces, or you can allow your heroes to get ahead of the audience, confront their antagonist with a bunch of facts they gathered, then have them reveal to both their antagonist and the audience where they went, what they did, and how they figured it out.

Playwrights, for a number of reasons, must do this:
  • They can’t afford to have actors who show up every night just to do one scene
  • And besides, it’s almost impossible to show “process” on stage, so they train themselves to write these scenes from day one.
  • It’s also hard to show silent moment of revelation on stage, where the hero discovers some clue and then we see the truth dawn on his or her face.
Screenwriters, on the other hand, would seem to have none of these problems:
  • We can have lots of one-scene actors show up once to shoot their short scenes.
  • Film is great at showing process: collapsing time and space to watch a long series of actions and consequences proceed in one montage.
  • Film is great at showing close-ups on important objects and then a dawning light in the hero’s eyes.
Nevertheless, screenwriters are wise to learn this trick. This is part of every event being a character event. Yes, it can be emotionally powerful to show characters discover a piece of information, but it’s more emotionally powerful to show them confront others with that information.

So why not show both? Because If you show both the discovery of the information, and the confrontation with the information, then that’s going to feel like a repeated beat for the audience. They just want to find it out once, so they get bored if they have to see multiple characters discover the same information at different times.

Of course, in order to pull this off, you must let your character temporarily get ahead of your audience until the confrontation happens. This is a risk, because it breaks the audience’s identification with the hero, but the reward is worth it.

You’ll notice that this almost always happens with the final reveal in a drawing room murder mystery: even if we’ve been right there on the hero’s shoulder the whole time, playing along with solving the mystery, the hero collects the final clue without us there, so that we can be in suspense until the more important moment, when the hero confronts the villain (surprising us just as much as the villain, if we weren’t able to figure it out without the final clue.)

Process is great too, and I love a good montage, but sometimes you must deny yourself that ability and think like a playwright.