Saturday, February 10, 2018

WRITING MYSTERIES, PUZZLES ...AND TELEVISION?







 Writing mysteries is, among, other things, a process of putting small pieces together to create a whole design. Yes, a mosaic, or a kaleidoscope or a giant jigsaw puzzle.

The general outlines of the plot may be in place, but that’s only the beginning. There needs to be moments that underline that main story. Or enrich it. Or deepen it. Add a new level of complexity.  Reflect a theme. Aha. That puzzle piece slides in here and then, well, then we are somewhere new

It’s like doing a crossword puzzle. I do one over breakfast a few times a week. I’m not very good at it, but we get the NY Times delivered, and I work the easier ones at the beginning of the week.  I can become absurdly obsessed, and of course it also works well as a way to avoid doing anything more productive.  I stare and stare at some interlocking boxes with frustrating blanks, and a clue that doesn’t make sense to me. And then, the letters on the page suddenly take shape into likely words and when I fill in the empty boxes, there are now a few more clues that make sense. Box, box, box. Slip the missing letters into place and then everything  snaps satisfyingly together.

How does television come in?  I have been watching the new series This Is Us, and I have been filled with admiration for the writing from the first, brilliant episode. (I don’t use ‘brilliant” and television the same sentence very often). I will try to explain without spoilers.

It is a series about a family over time, and the scenes are chronologically scrambled. By the end of each episode, not only do we see how the plot points connect, often we see underlying themes connect as well. And sometimes we see how the apparently random story-telling is a reflection of how our human memories work. Whew! I think I’ve said enough without giving it all away.

In the first episode, the individual scenes were compelling but it was impossible to see the connections. Yet. At the end, the camera pulls back from a close-in scene, an intense conversation, to show the background of the location, the other people around, and ...everything changes. Everything snaps into place. Snap! Just like that, the pieces all fit. Make sense.  Fall into place. The overall story comes into perfect clarity.

I was hooked from that moment. I watch each episode and try to guess where they are going. Often they turn my guesses upside down. At the same time, I try to see how they do it, keep so many threads on the loom at once and end up with them woven into a pattern.

The jigsaw puzzle pieces that give us the face, the place, the last bit of sky. The letters that finally interweave to form a crucial word, that gives us the surrounding words, that completes the pattern.  That moment when those bright bits of story slip into the exact right place and make something new.