Put a Funhouse Mirror in the Middle of Your Mystery

by James Scott Bell

Once you wrap your head around the concept of the mirror moment, you’ll find them popping up all over the place.

Quick review. At the midpoint of a novel or movie, you’ll usually find a moment within a scene when the Lead is forced to look himself. There are two kinds of looks: The “who am I?” look and the “I’m probably going to die” look.

The first is when there’s a character arc to the story, the Lead transforming over the course of the narrative. He is a different person at the end. Like Rick in Casablanca, who goes from sticking his neck out for nobody to a man willing to sacrifice his life for a greater good. The mirror moment is when he drunkenly insults the woman he loves, Ilsa, who has tried to explain to him why she left him in Paris. When she leaves, he has a moment (shown visually) of him thinking what a lousy bastard he is.

The second kind of mirror moment is when the Lead is fundamentally the same person at the end, but has been forced to grow stronger. Katniss Everdeen and Richard Kimble are examples of this type. They both have a moment in the middle where they are thinking I cannot possibly survive.

Now, in a series mystery you may have the type of Lead, the Sleuth, who doesn’t change fundamentally at the end of each book. Holmes, Poirot, Marple. Also, physical death may not be on the line.

In that case, you can make the mirror a “funhouse” kind, where everything looks confusing and distorted. Thus, you can always have your Lead considering the frustrating mix of clues that are just not adding up. Could this be the mystery that finally goes unsolved for our hero? (This is professional death for the sleuth).

I recently saw a funhouse mirror in Kiss Me, Deadly by Mickey Spillane. Mike Hammer is not your sensitive, New Age guy. So in the middle of the book Hammer is going over the case with his gal Friday (and love), Velda. She’s been gathering information, and lays it all out. It’s a funhouse mirror:

If ever there was a mess, this was it. Everything out of place and out of focus. The ends didn’t even try to meet. Meet? Hell, they were snarled up so completely nothing made any sense.

A funny side note. Once you’re aware of the mirror moment, you’ll find actual mirrors showing up. I was amused to find this on the very next page of Kiss Me, Deadly:

I went into a bar and had a beer while the facts settled down in my mind. While I sat there I tried to keep from looking at myself in the mirror behind the back bar but it didn’t work. My face wasn’t pretty at all. Not at all. So I moved to a booth in the back that had no mirrors.

So when you write a mystery, or a thriller with a mystery in it, you can always have your Lead, in the middle of things, thinking how nothing makes sense. More, how this is the biggest challenge of his life to date. Your readers will be right there with you, wanting to know how it will work out. Which it will, at the end, in satisfying fashion. Which is your best marketing tool, for as the Mick himself said, “The first chapter sells your book. The last chapter sells your next book.”

Comments and questions welcome.

27 thoughts on “Put a Funhouse Mirror in the Middle of Your Mystery

  1. Thank you. Handy, timely advice as I will begin revision of the rough draft of a mystery starting a week from today so I will definitely be checking to make sure the mid-point shapes up!

  2. Jim, thanks for a fresh way to approach the character arc for a series lead.

    “Could this be the mystery that finally goes unsolved for our hero?”

    Until I read this post, I didn’t realize that’s what is happening in my WIP. In past books, she has often been at risk of her own physical death but, in the current story, the primary goal is to save the life of another character who’s being hunted. If she fails, it’s professional death but it also means the death of an innocent person.

  3. I think the current wip is more of a tangled skein of yarn, but this post is helpful. I found this at the midway point:
    After Titch left, Gordon locked up and returned to his vehicle, let Dispatch know he was continuing his rounds, his mind bouncing between money-laundering schemes, Cynthia, the mysterious Fiona Wencl, and the elusive Rowan Benedict. And a cat-loving officer.

  4. Mirrors remind me of using one to describe a character: “Jolene stood at the mirror, combing her auburn locks and wrinkling her tiny nose…” A cliche, now, and often replaced by other shiny objects: car bumpers, rear view mirrors, shop windows, etc, but still awkward.

    • Often a physical mirror is used in the moment I’ve described, but not simply as a way to physically describe a character.

      The “mirror-description” cliche comes up a lot in writers’ groups…but I wonder if readers see it that way.

  5. Great column, Jim. I always look forward to your advice.

    Spillane is indeed a writer worth emulating. I think he’s a master of the first person POV, which can be tough to pull off.

    One thing that’s puzzled me, though, is how Hammer frequently refers to himself as ugly. Since it’s clear Hammer was based on his author, it’s odd that he thinks of himself that way. If you remember the Miller Lite ads, Spillane was hardly repulsive — and he projected a likeable persona.

    • One critic compared Spillane’s style to the best of Beat Poetry. I think that’s apt.

      I think in those days a tough-looking face was in contrast to the classically handsome grills of an Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power. Hammer’s face has been through more than a few fights, too. So when Hammer uses “ugly” he just means he’s not pretty, IMO.

  6. A funhouse mirror moment is perfect for a series mystery, Jim. Such a handy tool. At the risk of being unnecessarily punny first thing in the morning, it really does reflect the dilemma of baffling clues and thus the risk of professional death confronting the sleuth. That example from the Spillane novel shows this to a tee.

    In a cozy, death could also be social, as the amateur sleuth faces a similar baffling funhouse mirror such as second corpse or discovered information at odds with her “theory” of the crime. Or, even a first murder in a story where the mystery appeared to be about something else. The risk of the small town society the she lives in being permanently sundered by a crime gone unpunished and order not being restored is true social death stakes..

    Thanks for this. Have a great Sunday.

  7. Thanks for the reminder about the mirror moment, Jim. Your book Write Your Novel from the Middle had a huge impact on me. I don’t always manage to get the mirror moment right at the halfway point, but there’s always a moment when the character has to turn the spotlight on his/her own soul.

    Here’s my question: In my WIP, the main character has a moment when she overcomes her dislike of another character and decides to work with him in order to protect a beloved relative. Later, she has a second mirror moment when she discovers she’s misjudged the man she’s working with. Any thoughts about two mirror moments?

    • Good question, Kay. The key to a mirror moment is what it says TO the character, who he is or the direness of his situation That can, in turn, lead to a “decision” on what action to pursue. The later moment you describe sounds more like an insight about another character. These can appear throughout a mystery. Hope that helps.

  8. Excellent refresher, Jim. Thank you. The interesting part is if we “shift” at the Midpoint, the story heading in a new direction, the Mirror Moment organically manifests — and lands in the right spot. The power of story structure amazes me at times.

  9. Great post, Jim! I can point to the mirror moment(s) in my recently-released debut novel; and in the next one, hopefully releasing later this year. Wouldn’t recognize those MMs without the excellent teaching in this group.

    And speaking of…after reading the comments, I have a question.

    I can point to a significant MM in my own life, which pushed me in a different (better) direction. It happened late one summer night out in my yard with my face planted in the grass. I had to take a good, hard look at myself. Remembering that night and where it led me helps me “record” my characters’ MMs.

    How about anyone else?

  10. Thanks, Jim. This expands the possibilities for the mirror moment, and makes me wonder if there are other ways to expand it. Or if combinations might exist.

    Carpe speculo!

  11. A friend calls this the “oh, shit!” moment. That encompasses the emotional element of a lot of these mirror moments.

    One of the fun things about writing paranormal suspense is that the character can face a figurative mirror moment. In one of my novels, the main character had to face his shadow self which he considered his darkest self. He had his butt kicked until he realized he had to accept that part of himself.

    • In the middle of The Fugitive, the house where Kimble is renting the basement is swarmed by SWAT. Kimble is sure he’s toast…except it turns out they are there to arrest the drug trafficking son of the landlord. When Kimble sees them leaving, he has a real “o s” moment.

  12. I have used the man in the mirror moment in several books but never realized it until I saw you articulate it as such when I first locked into TKZ. Now, I use this as a powerful teaching tool (always crediting you of course). The funhouse mirror is a great riff.

    I just looked up my latest (and most blatant) mirror moment in “She’s Not There.” Can you indulge me with a brief excerpt, to make a point? From chapter 18, almost halfway thru the book: 🙂

    Was there anything more pathetic than staring at yourself in a bar mirror? But maybe that’s what he needed right now, a good long hard look at himself. Confront the man in the mirror, stare deeply into his soul. Find a bright shining moment of moral clarity.

    Buchanan picked up his glass. What was that Michael Jackson song? “The Man In The Mirror”? How did it go? Something about making a change?

    And thus Buchanan switches his hat from black to, well, gray, and decides to help the woman he is chasing rather than kill her.

    Love the man in the mirror! Such a clarifying device for hero and writer.

  13. Always great advice, thank you much for your generosity. Now, can I work this device into a short story? Time will tell.

    • Not really applicable to a short story. My theory on short stories is that they are about “one shattering moment”, that can happen in one of five places. I wrote a book about that. How to Write Short Stories And Use Them to Further Your Writing Career.

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