Gordian Plot

The Mysterious Situation Is Explained

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A young married couple move from the flatlands of the San Fernando Valley to the Hollywood Hills and find their new home much to their liking. Especially pleasant are the new neighbors, all of whom seem friendly to an almost suspicious degree. The young couple give a party for their old friends from the flatlands. It's a miserable failure. Then they give a party for their new friends, with great success. The patent difference in the sodality of these two sets of friends puzzles the young couple until they acquire a pair of binoculars. With them, they find they can see into their neighbors' homes. Recently the couple had been additionally mystified by unexpected help received from the family in the house on a nearby hill. They could not understand how the neighbor knew of their predicament. Now the reason is clear. Everyone in the hills uses binoculars to see what is going on inside their neighbors' households; and when men and women are aware of each other's difficulties, they sympathize. Only ignorance of one's neighbors makes one callous and uncaring. On the flatlands, people could not see into their neighbors' homes.

The "mysterious-situation" tale is more or less unique within the field of popular fiction in that there is little or no progress, no change effected on the characters or their situation; there is only the revelation. The fact that there is comparatively little dramatic movement makes this type of story both easy and difficult to write. On the one hand, little trouble need be taken to whip up reader interest in a hero's troubles, derelictions, ambitions, passions— the suspense is obtained through the mystery of the mysterious situation. In this respect, the story has the intellectual puzzle quality of the who-dun-it. Genuine emotions —or what is so often fashioned to pass for them in popular fiction—have little place in the mysterious-situation stories; they can actually constitute a liability. The reader will be perfectly content to be mystified for 2000 or 3000 words and then slightly titillated by the writer's explanation of the affair.

But, just as with the "inexplicable-vice" puzzle, the reader must remain in genuine doubt until the very close. He can guess and guess again about the solution—even perhaps guess correctly—as long as at no point he feels certain he has the answer. If, at the story's close, the reader can honestly say he knew it was going to come out in such and such a manner, he will be displeased.

The narrator of a certain story is an investment counselor. A potential client calls him up for help. The investment man drives to the client's apartment house and is surprised, somewhat let down, to see that the building is obviously tenanted by low-income families. He suspects the client will ask him to invest two or three hundred dollars of savings—hardly worth the cab fare for the investment man. His suspicions are confirmed when he is shown into the client's apartment . It is patently a poor man's home, the wife a poor man' s drudgery-broken mate. The counselor, nonetheless, decides not to be cruel, to see the fiasco through. The client takes him into the bedroom and shows him securities worth over a hundred thousand dollars.

The counselor is astounded. Why is this wealthy man living in poverty? He questions the man about his habits and history, and finds that he holds a menial clerical job in the day and works at a restaurant three nights a week, just to earn the bare necessities for himself and his wife. Later, the counselor learns from the wife who knows nothing of the securities that the client's father was an irresponsible psychopath who cared for nothing but jazz music, maltreated his wife, and led a generally uncertain and nomadic existence. There's the problem. Why is the client living as he is? The question is unfair, of course. Sufficient clues simply have not been given for a reader to explain the mystery. The possible explanations are infinite. But that is unimportant. This is not a classic who-dun-it. There is no need for the writer to be on the up-and-up with his reader. The only requirements are that the reader be interested in the mystery (which implies his not being able to explain it) and that he be finally satisfied with the writer 's explanation. The answer to this particular puzzle will probably not seem satisfying here, because, in summarizing, the story was stripped of all its tone and tricks. At any rate, the client was a "character," in the slang sense, and like his father pathologically obsessed with playing jazz piano. If his puritanical wife were to know that he was wealthy, he would lose his excuse for holding down that night job in the restaurant. It is there that he plays his low-down, honkytonk jive. That' s it. Of course, the counselor isn ' t handed the explanation. He discovers it dramatically by visiting the restaurant one evening. All told, it is an unlikely tale— and coming from any but an old hand at the slick game would undoubtedly be open to all sorts of criticisms by editors. Old hand or not, though, the requirements had to be satisfied.

That the mystery is sufficiently compelling is beyond question. The other requirement, that the writer 's answer to the mystery satisfies, has been fulfilled in this story by an interesting combination of tricks which it might be well to discuss.

Foremost is the device of narrating the story in the first person. If the writer has an improbable or even impossible tale to tell, first-person narration is his best bet. One can argue that first-person telling adds an aura of authenticity to an otherwise unbelievable tale, but there is no need for explanation on an esthetic level. First-person success with this type of story is a simple matter or usage, of what has been called " tacit writer-reader communication. " It is of the highest importance that a reader be informed at the beginning of a piece just what kind of a story he is getting into. When the reader runs through the first few sentences of a tale he will unconsciously recognize a "style." Should he see the familiar "I," it is usually a sign to him that the writer is attempting an off-beat story. Also, the use of the "I" restricts the viewpoint of the piece: the reader cannot in fairness ask for more information than the narrator claims to have, information that he would have obtained in the natural course of events. The case is quite different when an omniscient author assumes the task of telling the story. For the "I" character within the fictional framework, it 's a matter of, "This is what I saw happen. I'm telling you every last damn thing I know about it. If it's weird to you, it's just as weird to me."

Another trick or compensating strong point in the jazzplayer story is the fact that the characters (their personalities and occupations) are relatively original as far as slick material goes. There is no sentimentalizing. The talk and the sets are treated naturalistically. And naturalism, of course, is a rare wild bird in the tame slick world. The essential weakness of the story cried out for just such camouflage, and got it.

Much more common and consequently much safer is the flatlands-hill kind of piece. Consider this one. It is somewhat similar.

An old man, a patient in a hospital ward, is being treated for a kidney ailment. The other patients soon notice that the old man goes off to the closet each morning at precisely ten o'clock and stays there for exactly five minutes. This mystifies both his fellow patients and the reader. When the old man is to leave for further treatment at another hospital, one of the patients asks the old man's granddaughter if she can explain his strange habit. Yes, it seems that the old man has always prayed to God every day at exactly ten o'clock; and, the girl adds, the old man always gets what he asks God for. And that explains why every patient in the ward except the old man is on the mend. The snapper is that the old man, in his unselfish. ness, has asked God to cure the others, but forgotten about himself.

Because, as stressed before, there is no real movement or change in this type of story, outside the solving of the mystery itself, the writer does well to throw in a premium at the close. Most often this extra reward is the expression of some laudable sentiment or generous observation about human nature. The mystery is solved by showing that most people are unexpectedly good at heart, as in the flatland story; that the most ordinary individual can be rather saintly underneath, as in the old-man piece.

Almost never—and this point cannot be overemphasized— will the writer of popular fiction go wrong by accenting the good qualities either in individual characters or in human kind. The converse is also true, with the qualifying word italicized: always will the writer go wrong by unnecessarily pointing up the bad attributes of his people. Category:information

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