Storyteller’s Rulebook: Create a False Mystery

I haven’t mentioned it in years, but one of the two screenplays I got that won some money and got me signed by a big-deal manager was my biopic of Alan Turing. It had a lot of big fans in Hollywood but they said they couldn’t make it because Turing was gay, so my manager gave up on it. A few years later, social mores had changed, and another Turing script went out, which sold for a million dollars and won an Oscar. Oh, well.

When I was structuring the script, I decided to play a trick. My script covered many years and ended with my hero’s suicide, which is kind of a bummer. I decided to begin with the discovery of his body and have a government investigator suspect foul play and reconstruct the story of Turing’s life. In the end: Nope, it was just a suicide. But the false mystery provided more structure than the script would have had otherwise.

“Little Fires Everywhere” does a similar thing. The Richardson house has burned down and everybody naturally suspects daughter Izzy, who has disappeared.
  • “What’s so funny?” Lexie said.
  • “Just picturing Izzy running around striking matches everywhere.” He snorted. “The nutcase.”
  • Moody drummed a finger on the roof rack. “Why is everybody so sure she did it?”
  • “Come on.” Trip jumped down off the car. “It’s Izzy. And we’re all here. Mom’s here. Dad’s on his way. Who’s missing?”
  • “So Izzy’s not here. She’s the only one who could be responsible?”
  • “Responsible?” put in Lexie. “Izzy?”
  • “Dad was at work,” Trip said. “Lexie was at Serena’s. I was over at Sussex playing ball. You?”
  • Moody hesitated. “I biked over to the library.”
  • “There. You see?” To Trip, the answer was obvious. “The only ones here were Izzy and Mom. And Mom was asleep.”
  • “Maybe the wiring in the house shorted. Or maybe someone left the stove on.”
  • “The firemen said there were little fires everywhere,” Lexie said. “Multiple points of origin. Possible use of accelerant. Not an accident.”
  • “We all know she’s always been mental.” Trip leaned back against the car door.
  • “You’re all always picking on her,” Moody said. “Maybe that’s why she acts mental.”
  • Across the street, the fire trucks began to reel in their hoses. The three remaining Richardson children watched the firemen set down their axes and peel away their smoky yellow coats.
  • “Someone should go over and stay with Mom,” Lexie said, but no one moved.
  • After a minute, Trip said, “When Mom and Dad find Iz, they are going to lock her up in a psych ward for the rest of her life.”
  • No one thought about the recent departure of Mia and Pearl from the house on Winslow Road.
We already sense that Moody is, in some ways, smarter than his brother and sister, and he has his doubts about Izzy. Then Ng points out that nobody has connected the fire yet to the disappearance of two more people: Mia and Pearl. The implication is clear: Izzy probably didn’t do it, and the reader is invited to spend the book trying to guess the real culprit.

And in the end, we find out the culprit is… Izzy, working alone, who went around the house starting little fires everywhere, just as Lexie and Trip assumed. It was a false mystery, tricking us into reading avidly. 
But ultimately it’s fair, for the same reason my own false mystery was fair, because Turing ultimately was sort of murdered by a larger conspiracy, and lots more people were ultimately responsible for the complex chain of events that led Izzy to start the fires. It turns out to be worthwhile, in both stories, to closely examine the events leading up to this tragedy to discover the complex web of ill-will that led up to it. 
Both stories are fairly diffuse, and brought into sharper relief by beginning with a flash-forward and a false mystery. It’s a devious trick, but I recommend it with some stories.

Believe Care Invest: Little Fires Everywhere

Why it might be hard to care for the heroes of this book:
  • First of all, because we meet a ton of characters in these ten pages and it’s not at all clear who will be the main protagonist …and even when the novel’s over, it will still be hard to say. This is a true ensemble novel, even more diffuse than “Game of Thrones”, because it puts us in more heads.
  • Then there’s the question of POV. We’re hopping into a lot of heads, but there’s another POV to take into account. When we meet Lexie, we jump into her thoughts:
    • She glanced at her brothers, at her mother, still in her bathrobe on their tree lawn, and thought, They have literally nothing but the clothes on their backs
  • …then there’s a comment: 
    • Literally was one of Lexie’s favorite words, which she deployed even when the situation was anything but literal. In this case, for once, it was more or less true. 
  • Who is saying that literally is one of Lexie’s favorite words? Lexie probably wouldn’t say that about herself, and she certainly wouldn’t say that she misuses it. So whose head are we in right here? Ng’s. As with Rowling and Vernon Dursely, we are meeting these suburbanites from a jaundiced point of view and that POV is the author’s own.
  • First she has to get us to believe in this world, with she does effortlessly with a wealth of odd little details. Ng grew up in Shaker Heights in the 90s, so she has fun facts readily at hand. (“All the notes Serena had written her since the sixth grade, still folded in paper footballs”)
  • Then she has to get us to believe in the Richardsons. This is tricky because, as I said above, we’re looking down on the judgmentally. On a certain level we’re supposed to scoff, roll our eyes, and say “typical suburbanites.” But they also have to seem real in very specific ways. 
  • It’s also hard because she’s pretty much introducing this six member family all at once. That’s always super-risky. I thought, “Oh no, I’ll never get these characters straight.” But I needn’t have worried. As with Martin, Ng is a master at lightning-fast fully-realized characterization. Every chance she gets to differentiate the family members, she does so: 
    • Last year it had paid for their trip to Martha’s Vineyard, where Lexie had perfected her backstroke and Trip had bewitched all the local girls and Moody had sunburnt to a peeling crisp and Izzy, under great duress, had finally agreed to come down to the beach—fully clothed, in her Doc Martens, and glowering. 
  • Or: 
    • Out in the driveway, she saw that Trip’s Jeep was gone, as was Lexie’s Explorer, and Moody’s bike, and, of course, her husband’s sedan. 
  • Then she has to get us to believe in The Warrens. Once again, we do so not by jumping into their heads, but by looking at them with jaundiced eyes, in this case the eyes of the Richardsons: 
    • They knew there was no Mr. Warren, and that Mia was thirty-six, according to the Michigan driver’s license she had provided. They noticed that she wore no ring on her left hand, though she wore plenty of other rings: a big amethyst on her first finger, one made from a silver spoon handle on her pinkie, and one on her thumb that to Mrs. Richardson looked suspiciously like a mood ring. 
  • The wealth of detail makes it easy to believe in the reality of all eight characters (and more to come.) 
So how does Ng get us to care?
  • Again, we’ll start with the Richardsons: We sense right away that these may be clueless, overprivileged white people, but hey, their house just burned down. As Lexie observes, everybody but her has only the clothes on their backs. We don’t know yet if they deserve this to some extent, and we suspect they might, but even so, it’s an outsized humiliation. No fair court of law would sentence you to have your house burnt down.
  • As for the Warrens, we meet Mia and Pearl though the judgmental eyes of the Richardsons and we sense that these judgments are unfair, so we’re inclined to feel for them. We then get a chance to bond with Mia in a way that we haven’t really bonded with anyone, when we jump into her head to share her fright at this freaky world.
    • Large motor scooters, each piloted by a man in an orange work suit, zipped down each driveway to collect the garbage in the privacy of the backyard, ferrying it to the larger truck idling out in the street, and for months Mia would remember their first Friday on Winslow Road, the fright she’d had when the scooter, like a revved-up flame-colored golf cart, shot past the kitchen window with engine roaring
But what about Invest?
  • Ng does an amazing job in these ten pages of introducing this world, these characters, and a compelling flashforward towards a climax that implies a big mystery, but she doesn’t have time to introduce a problem to be solved, so we don’t really invest in anybody yet. In a book with a large ensemble, we search for the character that wants something, but nobody wants much in these 10 pages. In the next ten pages we’ll get our first character who really wants something, Moody, who will come to want Pearl. But we don’t really invest in him either.
  • To a certain extent, this is not a book about the solving of a large problem. There will eventually be a unifying plot, but it will take almost a hundred pages for it to coalesce.
  • Ng’s Shaker Heights will ultimately have certain things in common with another nearby municipality: Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” The flashforward to the fire will give this book a lot more structure than that one had (or at least the illusion of structure), but they’re doing something similar: Putting us in a dozen Buckeye heads and inviting us to feel the weight of the modern condition.
  • In a Barnes and Noble podcast, Ng says of her book, “Everyone has thoughts about what’s going on, but nobody in the book has all the pieces, and I guess even when you’ve got all the pieces it’s not always easy to figure out what’s right.” That’s the goal of all truly-omniscient narrators, whether it’s George R. R. Martin or Leo Tolstoy or Ng. Ultimately, the large problem is life itself, and the only hero who can attempt to solve that problem is the reader, because only we have all the facts.

The Annotation Project: Little Fires Everywhere

Hi, everybody! It’s been a long time since we’ve done a new Annotation hasn’t it? Well, let’s not beat around the bush: I want a more diverse pool of examples for my book! So let’s explore some great authors, screenwriters and pilot-writers I haven’t covered, shall we? Let’s start with annotations for the first ten pages of “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng. You can download these as a Word document here