Being Drawn Forward)
In the most recent chapter of The Long Walk to Alquoran I finally started to unveil the reason why Tammath had been journeying to the Hallowed Throne for fifty years of his life. It was revealed that his childhood village was destroyed by marauders, and he had made this journey so that the god-King could use his magic to make things right.
Ever since the first chapter it has been clear that Tammath had an important reason for this massive journey he has been on, but I did not disclose what it was. Establishing this mystery early on was essential, because I knew the story was going to be slow and gradual, so there needed to be some sort of carrot-on-a-stick to motivate the reader to keep moving forward.
What is interesting, though, is that the mystery of this story only exists in the mind of the reader. In the story’s world Tammath already knows perfectly well what his reason is, and he isn’t particularly trying to hide it from anyone, I just chose to not have it come up in any conversation that the audience was privy to.
This is similar to Graham Hess’s story in the M. Night Shyamalan film Signs. Graham used to be a priest, but at some point he lost his faith. Then, while under the pressure of an alien invasion, he once again finds his ability to believe.
But what we don’t know as the audience is why Graham lost his faith in the first place. Of course, Graham knows why, and his close friends and family know, but the movie refuses to show us any scene where it is explained directly. Every now and then it drops little teases of what has happened, such as when he starts to remember the last conversation he had with his wife before she died, but those memories always get interrupted.
At the film’s climax, though, everything is revealed. The moment that broke Graham’s faith was his dying wife’s random, nonsensical babbling just before she died. But here at the movie’s end, her seemingly senseless words now become the seeds of his faith restored. And so, the revelation has both a special meaning to the beginning and end of Graham’s story, and by waiting to deliver both of those sides together each becomes more impactful.
Similarly, I hope the revelation of why Tammath began this journey will have a symbiotic relationship with the story’s final moments. As we find out what Tammath wants the god-King to do for him, and what that means for Tammath moving forward, it should be more impactful because of what we have just learned about how his story began.
The Burning Question)
But, of course, not every story that has a mystery artificially conceals it from the reader. Even in tales that are not considered a “mystery” story there can be an important question that pulls reader and protagonist forward together.
This is the case in the film Capote, the real-world story about award-winning author Truman Capote, and his celebrated work In Cold Blood. His novel is actually a documentary, recounting the events of a chilling murder in rural Kansas. The suspects in the crime are waiting on death row, and Capote pulls a few strings to interview them.
But the two suspects are understandably reluctant to unveil this chapter of their lives. They had already admitted to the crime but had not had to disclose all the grisly details of what went down that fateful night. Capote has to know, though. His story will be incomplete without these details. Who initiated the murders? How did things even come to that? The question isn’t who dunnit, it’s why dunnit?
And the audience, of course, also wants to know the answer to these questions. Therefore, we are walking in tandem with Capote, investigating the situation alongside of him.
But in the end, does it really matter? Capote and the audience do eventually get all their answers, but their unveiling doesn’t transform anyone or anything. It’s just cold, unpleasant facts. And this a very unique perspective of this film. Usually, the solving of a mystery is a triumphant affair, but sometimes you just wish you had left well-enough alone.
A Land of Both Shadow and Substance)
But sometimes the mystery is imperative to unpack, even if it comes as a devastating blow. And sometimes in spite of the central mystery being so very important, neither the audience nor the protagonist even know that it exists! In this case the mystery is not what draws us through, it is a surprise twist that is unveiled at the end.
This is the case in I Shot an Arrow Into the Air, which was an episode from the original Twilight Zone series. Here we meet the crew of a spaceship that has crash-landed on an unknown desert planet after leaving earth. Only four of the men are still alive and one of them, Hudak, is already on death’s door. All of the men agree to work together to try and survive whatever strange land they have crashed upon…except for crewman Corey.
The world’s environment is hostile, and Corey knows they have finite resources, thus he has no interest in wasting what little they have to keep Hudak alive. That isn’t all, though, he kills the off his other two crewmen just as soon as he gets them isolated.
One of the men, just before dying, draws a picture of three lines into the dirt, one intersecting the other two, then passes away. Corey doesn’t give it much thought, but then starts searching for water in the direction that man had come from. Presently he makes his way over a distant ridge and sees what it was his crewmate had been trying to communicate: telephone lines.
There before Corey is a road through the desert, telephone lines running parallel, and a sign for the nearby city of Reno. Both the protagonists and the audience had just accepted the theory that the spacecraft had crashed on some strange alien world, when in reality it had simply fallen back to earth.
But since the story did not raise the question of “where are they really,” the audience was caught off guard by the sudden twist and are more impacted by the surprise. Corey’s crimes were bad enough, but now they seem doubly worse as we realize that they were all for nothing.
A staggering number of stories are built around a central question. Some are known right from the beginning, and some don’t come up until a twist ending. Some are pondered over by both the audience and the protagonist, and some are withheld from the audience and unveiled by degrees. Many are immensely satisfying when finally understood, but some make you wish you hadn’t ever sought for the answers.
In the case of The Long Walk to Alquoran, I began with a question where the answer was known to the protagonist, but not to the audience. Now that question is being answered at the end, but it is being immediately followed by the question of how Tammath intends to have things “made right.”
My hope is that the answer to both of these mysteries will work together to make an impactful ending for the reader. Perhaps not as impactful as the twist ending of a Twilight Zone episode, but still enough to make one think.