Plan Your Big Mystery

Back in 2001, I tuned in on the first episode of Alias by accident. At the time, I didn’t really watch any television on a regular basis. But for some reason, I had the TV on that Sunday night and was introduced to student/spy Sidney Bristow and the mystery around the Renaissance scientist/prophet named Riambaldi. I was hooked.

By 2004, I was a devoted JJ Abrams fan, and so tuned in for the first episode of Lost just because he was involved. I was immediately sucked in by the characters and the mystery of the Island.

I came to Battlestar Galactica late, but quickly became engrossed in the compelling characters and the questions behind the Cylons, “Head Six,” and eventually the Final Five.

All three of these shows had solid characterizations to support the framework behind their Big Mysteries. How and why their characters succeeded is a different post. What these shows also had in common was the writers introduced Big Mysteries without having a clue they would be resolved.

Consequently, the shows progressed for some time before the writers settled down to determine the answers to their questions, introducing conflicting details and inconsistencies in the process. The head writers for Lost confessed that they had no idea what the island was during the whole first season. That’s a lot of random questions without any connecting tissue.

By the last season, BSG was forced to do some revisionist work to make the eventual solution come into line with what was established. (Sorry, “Cylon,” but that’s not your baby.)

Alias let the Big Mystery piddle along and lose momentum until the final resolution was rushed and underwhelming.

All three of these shows had strong followings and equally strong negative reactions to finales, partly because of the answers didn’t seem to fit the questions, or at least the perceived questions.

On the one hand, this was a product of the medium. Showrunners never know how long a show will last, and usually are more concerned with show longevity than how it will end. In Alias’ case, they got canceled and had to rush to get everything resolved by the finale. Lost and BSG at least had a few years with a set end date.

For those of us writing books, it’s a different scenario. We don’t sell a book based on chapter 1, or even chapters 1-10. We sell the entire book, so even if the ending isn’t "discovered" until after the first draft, we can still revise to make the mystery and the solution feel organic. However, when planning a multi-book series, these shows are good examples to study and learn from.

I once read that Robert Jordan knew the last scene of his Wheel of Time before he started the first book. This is a wise strategy to take.

Whether writing a single book or a multi-volume series, please know the compelling solution to your Big Mystery. And preferably, the scene in which it will be revealed.

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May, 24 2016

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I'm both stunned and slightly embarrassed by all the attention this week, but welcome new visitors! Make yourself at home.

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About the Author

While reading The Fellowship of the Ring at the age of twelve, Stuart A. Etter was told by his teacher that he should be reading shorter books. Undaunted, he finished the trilogy and promptly moved on to other novels ranging from fantasy/sci-fi to historical fiction to horror to thrillers.

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