Friday, February 21, 2014

Story Game - Caring About The MacGuffin

For those of you new to the story game: this is a series of games based on using random choices to generate ideas.  The purpose is to spur creativity, speed up decisions, and maybe force you out of your comfort zones to try something different once in a while.

I created the original Situation Game to have  a lot of fun and stockpile dozens of romantic suspense ideas. 

This game -- the Mystery or Whodunnit Game -- came together under different circumstances.  And I realize that I need to step back and talk about that.

My problem: I did not like how the mystery plot side of the next Starling and Marquette story was going. (That is, the "Man Who" series.)  I realized that I was trying to build the plot out of the front story, rather than build it for itself.

The Front Story in a Mystery

Most mysteries have a front story and a crime story.  The front story is often called the subplot (or "B Story").  This is the story of what is going on with the series characters -- usually unconnected to the case of the week.  For instance, in the TV show Castle, we have the ongoing romance between the lead characters, and the "bromance" between the sidekicks.  And the ongoing melodrama of Castle's mother and daughter, who have their own lives that impact his.  There has been, at times, a large plot arc in which Beckett was investigating the secrets behind her mother's murder, which sometimes became the crime plot for an episode, but often was just the front story.

I call this the "front story" because it's the story that's going on in the foreground.  Right in front of you.  The investigation is a part of the front story, even though it overlaps with the crime story.  I include it as front story because it happens in front of the audience, and it's another part of the characters' lives.  The investigation is one of the things your characters do.

And in some series, the investigation is all there is to the front story -- we don't always have any info about the characters' personal lives.  We still may read or watch that series to spend time with the character.  It's still a front story.

With a cozy th this blending of front story and investigation is stronger; because we're talking about an amateur sleuth.  There's no leaving your personal life at home while you're at work solving the case with an amateur.  Solving the case IS personal.

My problem is that the front story interacts with, and is impacted by, the hidden mystery story.  And the more they interact, the more depth your story has -- because each adds something to the other.

And that's golden, because for me the front story is the most important part of the story.  It's why I read or watch, and it's why I write.  So the more layers added, the better.

But interweaving multiple story lines (including one which is hidden and must mystify the charactes and audience) is tough and takes a long time.   Especially when you do as I was doing, and try to build the hidden back story out of the front story.  That just wasn't working for me.  I found myself stretching and straining the mystery plot to suit what was going on in the front story.

I realized that I had two problems: the mystery plot is just a MacGuffin, but I am very persnickety about MacGuffins.

MacGuffins - The Audience DO Care

Hitchcock definted the MacGuffin as "The thing the spies are after but the audience don't care."

I would change that definition a little.  The audience does care about the MacGuffin, because it drives the story, and the characters care about it, so it had better not be something stupid.  However, the audience is flexible about what it is. It could be something else and still work. And that's the key:

The MacGuffin is something that both drives the story, AND is interchangeable with other MacGuffins.

Hitchcock's example is in his movie Notorious. The script was in development before the end of WWII, and the FBI was concerned that the spies in the story were smuggling uranium.  Everything related to The Bomb was top secret at that time, including the value of uranium.  Hitch told them that he would have no problem changing the script.  It could be industrial diamonds instead.  Notorious is a love story; that's the only part that mattered.

As it happened, the war ended and uranium was no longer a state secret, so they left it as the MacGuffin for Notorious, and Hitchcock got on with finding ways to film Hollywood's longest kiss without breaking the Production Code rules.

Hitch was like that: he would take on a project just so he could do something like see how long of a kiss he could get away with.  Or he wanted to have a chase scene in a theater.  Oooo. What if somebody was killed by a theatrical safety curtain falling on him -- Irony!  Or wouldn't it be cool to shoot a scene in which the badguy falls from the top of the Statue of Liberty!

I have to admit, that's how I approach a story, much of the time.    And that's the thing that led me to realize what I need to do next with the Story Game.

Magic MacGuffins

The point of the story games -- all versions of it -- is not to replace creativity, but rather to get to the most creative parts of your writing quicker.  It's about randomizing the parts that are exchangeable.  In other words, the MacGuffins.

So I think the first thing to do if you want to create your own personalized game, is to start figuring out what your MacGuffins are.  Now, your MacGuffins may not be an object, as it is in most spy stories.  It may be the whole crime plot.  Or it may even be some aspect of the front story.  It's anything that you may have trouble deciding what it is (because one choice is as good as another), but once you make that decision, you can move forward and play with it creatively.

For me, it's the backstory.  In a mystery, that's who killed whom and why.  And how they decided to hide it.  The backstory can be exchanged for a different backstory, at least early on, but it has such a strong impact on the front story, I find it's almost like geography.  It's something that my characters have to deal with, so it impacts the front story.  It gives me something to hang the front story on.  It gives me opportunities for what the actors call "business."

One example might be in the first Starling and Marquette story, The Man Who Did Too Much.  After an exciting action sequence in which Karla and her house are attacked by a couple of thugs, and George rescues here, these two lead characters -- who have not been working together -- return to her house to apply first aid, make a snack, and form a pact.  It's a long character scene, but it's all driven by what is going on in the investigation.

For me to write that scene, I don't necessarily have to know every detail of the crime, but I do have to know what clues they are looking at.  Or where they are coming from or who they have spoken with.  I need a spring board to work with.

Hence... the game.

Flexible Springboards

With the previous game, The Situation Game, I had a rule that you roll out all these random elements and try to come up with a story idea with them as rolled, but that you can, at any time, overrule any item. 

In this game, I'm finding that an even more flexible approach works.  Since the plot of a mystery is driven by theories, you really need several possible main plots, most of which will turn out to be false.

But I'll tell you about that next week when I get to the big crime behind the crime wheel, which I'm now going to call The Big Wheel of Crimes and Theories. 

See you in the funny papers.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I've been enjoying this series, Camille, and using it to outline my next book (freshness is important at this point!)

I have recently struggled with the whole MacGuffin part of mysteries. The balance is crucial and I think I'm just starting to get the hang of it (at book 14? 15?) My editor asked me to spend *much* more time on my front story. I (fairly reluctantly) did for the last couple of books, now am hearing that a submitted outline needs more emphasis on the MacGuffin. Bleh. The nice thing is that she had specific suggestions for the mystery (especially the second murder), so I should have a more harmonious balance when I start the draft.

The Daring Novelist said...

You have more than one editor too. Do you ever find that they push you in different directions?

And yes, keeping it fresh while taking it further but not going too far.... it's always a balancing act.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Camille--They *do* push me in different directions. I have to keep notes on the preferences of each.