Day 20 A Secret to Writing Good Mystery Stories (and learning, and creating change, and…)
First of all, allow me to take a moment to congratulate myself for making it to Day 20 in my self-imposed, 30 day, blog-post challenge. There, a brief pat on the back using one of the stretches my PT person taught me Monday morning. Ah, much better.
Now, about writing good mystery stories. I’ve found many lists of suggestions and what some call “rules”, but I came across one this week that really resonates with me. It’s a comment by Ray Chandler, creator of Phillip Marlow, and books like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, Murder My Sweet, and a long list of short stories, and he even wrote and co-wrote screenplays. You’ll find a great collection of his work HERE on archive.org.
When I think of Chandler, I think of Bogart and Bacall. I think of sentences like, “”He had a heart as big as one of Mae West’s hips”, or “I went back to the steps and moved down them as cautiously as a cat on a wet floor,” examples of the style that became known as “Chanderesque”. You’ll find more of those great lines in pieces he wrote for the old pulp magazine, The Black Mask, right HERE on archive.org. Why not check out the rest of The Black Mask collection HERE, too. Just prepare to lose track of time.
Along with writers for The Black Mask, like Dashielle Hammett and James Mallahan Cain (also on archive.org), Chandler help define a new direction for the mystery genre. He was asked about how he wrote those stories, he said that one of the guiding ideas of The Black Mask was that “the scene outranked the plot”, and that “the ideal mystery was one you would read if the end was missing.” That’s the part that resonates with my goal for writing stories. A good story, sucks the reader in and creates an “experience” for the reader that holds them. They aren’t just reading to get to the end, but they are reading because they just want (have) to keep reading, they have become a part of the story, their mind has become an active character.
That, for me, is the real power of story. And, while I am blogging mostly about writing stories now, I have to add that this “power of story” is just as valuable in other places. In learning, for example.
Over the years, we have demonstrated how making a few minor adjustments to a lesson or curriculum can turn it into something far more effective using story. For example, for the past few years I have taught an “Intro to Technology” course in a Pre-Nursing program. The goal has been to introduce basic technology skills to a group of people who have very little, if any, technology experience, other than maybe a cell phone or Play Station. The course had a history of being painful, with a lot of “why would I need to know this?” in the evaluations. So, I thought about the story these people were creating. I kept all of the same materials and the same assignments. I simply re-wrote them a bit to have them relate to something new I introduced as the “Virtual Patient”. On the first day of class, I handed each student a piece of paper with a very brief description of a person who might be a typical resident of a health care facility. I explained that, through the course, everything the students did would have an impact on their Virtual Patient. For example, a previously boring assignment for learning Microsoft Word was to create a one page document. I modified it to ask the students to create a one page sign describing the steps required to put on and take off PPE, (Personal Protective Equipment), the masks, gloves, and other things needed when working with a patient with some type of transferable problem. I graded the assignment exactly the same way as it had been graded before, except for one thing. If a student did not follow the instructions in the assignment and ended up with a sign that did not meet the specific requirements, they faced the real-world result that would have been faced if this sign was a real task they were given in the real world. The contagious disease spread. You want motivation? Have five other students in the class talking to you because you didn’t pay attention to the instructions and all five of their patients are now sick because of it. For the next assignment, all five of those students made it a point to help that other student with their assignment. That’s called coaching, and that, in my book, is a good thing.
All I did was take a “curriculum” and turn it into a “story”. Everything in the class made sense because it was clear how it related to their Virtual Patient. Student satisfaction went up. The quality of the work went up. The number of uncompleted assignments became zero. Most importantly, learning and retention went up. The power of story.
We have done the same in other undergrad and graduate level curriculum, as well as in corporate training. We have used “the power of story” to rebuild failing programs, lead groups through major changes, and help create brand identity for others. And, most of the time, it has been done with those very simple changes, like the Virtual Patient. It is just a new way of thinking about things. Like not writing a story with the main focus being on the ending.
If anyone has examples of how you’ve used Story, or seen Story used to create this type of experience, I’d love to hear about them! And if you’d like to just talk more about the possibilities, either for writing or anything else, I’d love to hear about that too.