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.

Dreams For Your Mirror Moment

by James Scott Bell

Half my life’s in books, written pages.
Live and learn from fools and from sages.
You know it’s true, oh
All the things come back to you…
Dream on!
– Aerosmith, “Dream On”

We’ve had several discussions about dreams here at TKZ. I believe the consensus rule of thumb (or, in deference to Brother Gilstrap, guideline of thumb) is never open with a dream. As Les Edgerton states in his excellent book Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One (Writer’s Digest Books):

Never, ever, ever begin a narrative with action and then reveal the character’s merely dreaming it all. Not unless you’d like your manuscript hurled across the room, accompanied by a series of curses. Followed by the insertion of a form rejection letter into your SASE and delivered by the minions of our illustrious postal service.

Ah, remember the days of SASEs and paper manuscripts?

The only exception is when you alert the reader in the first sentence that it’s a dream, as in Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier). Even so, I would counsel against the dream-sequence opening.

As for a dream later in the book, I recommend doing it only once and only for the specific purpose of revealing the character’s emotions at an intense time. Dean Koontz does this in Chapter 15 of The City:

Eventually I returned to the sofa, too exhausted to stand an entire night watch. I dropped into a deep well of sleep and floated there until, after a while, the dream began in a pitch-black place with the sound of rushing water all around, as if I must be aboard a boat on a river in the rain … (etc.)

The exception to this advice is when dreaming is an integral part of the plot. See, for example, Spellbound (1945, dir. Alfred Hitchcock).

Recently, I discovered another way to use a dream. It’s a perfect device for a mirror moment. Those of you who’ve read the book know there are two types of mirror moments that can occur in the center of the novel.

One moment is when the character has to look at himself, as in a “mirror” (sometimes literally) and reflect on who he is, inside. Will he change for the better? The rest of the novel is about whether a fundamental transformation takes place (as it does in, e.g., Casablanca).

The other type of moment is when the character looks at her situation and realizes she’s probably going to die. The odds are just too great. For example, Katniss in The Hunger Games. In the exact middle she assesses her situation and says to herself, This is an okay place to die. The story question for such a moment becomes will the character gain the strength and smarts to fight and win against the odds?

Here’s today’s tip: Either of those moments can be given to us through a dream.

I was re-reading John D. MacDonald’s final Travis McGee book, The Lonely Silver Rain. In this one McGee is dispatched to find a stolen boat. When he does, he discovers a grisly scene—three horribly murdered bodies. A bit later someone tries to kill McGee. Then there’s another attempt on his life. Why? McGee has no idea, except that it must have something to do with what happened on that boat. He undertakes a laborious investigation to find the answer. But he keeps running into a wall. Thus, in the middle of the book:

The cold had awakened me from a dream. I had been in a poker game at an oval table, with the center green-shaded light hung so low I could not make out the faces of the men at the table. They all wore dark clothing. The game was five-card draw, jacks or better to open. They were red Bicycle cards. Every time I picked up my five cards, I found the faces absolutely blank. Just white paper. I wanted to complain about this, but for some reason I was reluctant. I threw each hand in, blank faces up, hoping they would notice. All the rest of the cards were normal. I could see that each time a winner exposed his hand. There was a lot of betting, all in silence. A lot of money. And then I picked up one hand and found they were real cards. I did not sort them. I never sort poker hands or bridge hands. The act gives too much away to an observant opponent. I had three kings of clubs and two jacks of diamonds. In the dream I did not think this odd. They were waiting for me to bet when the cold woke me up. In the dream I had been shivering with the tension of having a good hand. The shivering was real. 

Why did he dream this? McGee knows there are people out there to kill him, but cannot figure out who (he can’t see the faces of the other players). He has talked to many potential witnesses, to no avail (blank cards). The knowledge he does have may be misleading (like having three kings of clubs and two jacks of diamonds in a poker hand). The shivering in the dream is uncertainty, brought into the real world.

It seems to me a perfect way to show us “the odds are too great” type of mirror moment. A dream can easily be used to show the first kind, the “is this who I really am?” type.

To make it work, the dream should have those bizarre details we get in dreams—like blank playing cards which suddenly become cards of the same type. Of course, the symbols should relate somehow to what’s going on in the story.

A good dream sequence works emotionally on the reader. In some cases it may cause the reader to pause and ponder, trying to figure it out. Either outcome is a good one, as it gets the reader more deeply invested in the story—which is what every writer dreams of, yes?