Jon Michael Galindo

~ writing, programming, art ~

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1 September 2015

Storylines: Mystery

Last time, I described beauty’s storyline as “neither character-driven nor plot-driven.” While virtually all storylines depend on both character and plot, beauty does not lay unique claim to this independent spirit. “Mystery” shares its rare attribute. I do not, of course, refer to intrepid detectives and their arts of deduction; I would rather call that a genre than a storyline.

Mystery evokes a sense of loss very much the same as beauty. However, while beauty calls back to that which was always doomed to pass away, mystery shocks with the revelation of inexplicable devastation. Essentially, some great, possibly majestic embodiment of an ideal has fallen, reduced to ruins of history. Mystery follows the path of this ancient discovery, of wonder and fear: How could something so important, so vast, so powerful and so well known not only vanish from the earth but leave so little trace behind? There is in this storyline everything of dark sanctuaries and ancient languages, of unfamiliar glyphs and worlds like yet so unlike our own. Although, most prominently, these stories illuminate our own fear of collective mortality. It is one thing to comprehend one’s own mortality, but quite another to comprehend that the world one has known, with its languages, customs, capitals, and problems, may one day be not only extinct but forgotten. Mystery asks: Why? How?

This storyline is deceptively difficult to write, for which cause bad examples abound. The setup of such a story entails simplicity itself. Consider Atlantis in Disney’s “Atlantis: the Lost Empire”, or recall the Ancients featured in the perennial “Stargate” series, or, sadly, the Jedi order in the original Star Wars trilogy. These entities share the same features, and their very existence fascinates. However, there is only one way to deal with a relic of mystery: Explain its fall through a limited, remaining vestige, then eradicate it forever. This is rarely done well.

Atlantis instead resurfaces, returning to its former glory and setting up the story for truly awful sequels. The Ancients repeatedly make appearances in the Stargate series, never quite able to disappear. The Jedi order returns in prequels and in a sequel yet-to-be as of this writing. The stories born from permanent resurrection of mystery’s objects need not be inherently bad, but they dispose of mystery entirely: Further sequels will lack that amalgam of wonder and fear that undergirded the original stories. They must stand on the virtues of other storylines.

Of course, mystery has also been mastered marvelously. Consider Babbitt’s “Tuck Everlasting”, wherein the mystery lies in the fountain of youth’s marginalization. Babbitt plants this spring of immortality not behind walls of gold but in a lonely woods. Initially, the reader wonders beyond belief how so marvelous a thing might endure such neglect, but by the end understands: the spring ought not remain in this world at all; it’s passing is overdue. Consider Lewis’s World of Charn featured in “The Magician’s Nephew”. The sheer scope of this world’s wonders and heritage exceed imagination, as does its desolation. However, through Jadis’ resurrection, the reader comes to understand: The world has run its course; its last shadow ought to perish. I think also of Susan Cooper’s series and of masterfully written mysteries past counting in Tolkien’s work.

The object of a mystery must return momentarily, bringing with it all the wonder of its fallen power, but it returns only to justify to the reader its own, inevitable demise. This is the essence of mystery. Perhaps its universality lies in its hope. Mystery, when properly handled, reveals that those powers now dead died justly, and it may be that lives well-lived need not join them in ignonimous defeat: The burden of continuity rests on the shoulders of men, not the caprice of destiny.

Bearing this in mind, one of the most challenging, breathtaking storylines of all falls within the reach of any tenacious writer.

© Jon Michael Galindo 2015