Lately, I have been addicted to crime TV shows – Dateline, 48 Hours, and On the Case with Paula Zahn. There’s something infinitely thrilling about climbing inside a high-stakes story, beginning in the heart of the action, and then tracing backwards to find out what happened and uncover buried motives and sinister sub-plots. I enjoy being enthralled and my secret hope is always to be surprised at the end. I mean, sure, I want the bad guy caught and the evidence stacked up against him (or her), but I think I prefer the cases with enough twists and turns to keep me in suspense.
It’s only recently – as I stayed up well past an acceptable bedtime for the third night in a row – that I realized that every story can derive a lesson from Dateline. Every story should be, at least in part, a mystery. As a writer, it’s my job to craft an enthralling experience for my readers, to pull them in and make them engage with my characters and plot, so much so that they can’t put down what I’ve written.
And the only real way to do that is by inviting discovery each step of the way. There is nothing worse than getting to the end of a story and thinking That was pointless. I knew how that was gonna end by the time I got two pages into it.
I love when my readers are surprised (even upset) at the end of one of my novels. I still have my first-ever piece of fan mail to a book I wrote years ago. In it, the reader said she loved the book and felt strongly connected to its characters, but she confessed to being frustrated with the unhappily-ever-after ending. Then, she asked me questions about the characters that inspired me to write a sequel. There is nothing better than unpredictability that rings true.
Because life is unexpected. People behave in unforeseen ways. Everything is a mystery and it all unfolds, in a twisting, turning, non-linear, and hopefully engaging way. So I’ll keep watching Dateline and getting inspired, and perhaps a little scared, by the real world. Then, I’ll put pen to paper and try to create a mystery of my own.