Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Idea Stories

Every story has a story idea that poses a question or problem in the beginning, which is answered or solved in the end. You read the story to pursue that answer or solution.

Most stories hook you with a question or problem that is bait to arouse curiosity and emotional interest. So, you read simply to find out what happens.

But in some stories the question or problem is an enigma. An enigma isn't bait, it's a challenge, an intellectual challenge. Most such stories are classed as mysteries. The nature of a mystery dictates the nature of our interest and involvement in the story, making it intellectual rather than emotional.

Our attention is thus focused on the idea/enigma, and the story is an idea story about that idea/enigma — not about the characters in it. Idea stories are usually, at least in part, brain teasers that appeal to readers like other kinds of brain teasers and sophisticated computer games do.

For example:
  • In a murder mystery, somebody is murdered, and the story is devoted to discovering whodunit (spelled with two n's in British English), how, and why.
  • In a caper story, a problem is posed in the form of an "impossible mission," a crime to be pulled off and gotten away with, such as a bank or museum to rob, a gangster to con, or somebody to kidnap or rescue. The very notion that it "can't be done" is the challenge. The story is devoted to how the main characters go about solving this problem. They devise a brilliant plan, but, of course, things go wrong and they must improvise.

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