THE ENIGMA OF DESIRE: “the heart of storytelling is mystery”




I’m at the World Fantasy Convention in San Jose. Dude came with me. He went off to have a meeting with someone at the Google headquarters in Mountain View – “I used to live in Mountain View,” I said, with maybe just a touch of nostalgia, which is odd, because that was not an easy year.

“You did?”

“When I first moved to California and lived with my ex.”

“There’s not a lot in Mountain View.”

“No,” I said. “There is not.” I remember taking our dog, a little red miniature dachshund named Bowie, for a lot of walks along the stretch of El Camino near our apartment complex. It got a bit repetitive and grim.


I thoroughly enjoyed the “Who, What, or Why Done It” panel held in the Crystal Room at 10:00 am (I’m reading from the program as I type this): In both the ghost story and in modern urban fantasy there is the potential for a central mystery that must be solved and the denouement. Is this element critical for a successful work or is merely the icing on the cake?

The panel members were J Kathleen Cheney, Laura Anne Gilman, Thomas S Roche, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. The moderator – Daniel Paul Olson – was running slightly late: “We’re unmoderated!” one member sang out.


no, they are not judging figure skating

Olson later admitted he’d been reading Keith Donaghue’s novel “The Stolen Child” which so “gripped him” that he became late for his own panel. If that isn’t the ultimate recommendation for a book, I don’t know what is.

So. The panel went like this:


Note how I put that in caps to get your attention. The panel didn’t actually use the word “sex” so much as “desire” – “the enigma of desire” — but I went for the cheap thrill. Couldn’t resist. Sorry.

(Also, this dialogue actually happened toward the end of the panel, prompting the moderator to wrap things up with, “And is there a better note to end on than orgasm at 11 o’clock in the morning?” Valid question.)

Desire is the ultimate mystery: why are we attracted to this person and not that person?

(Chelsea piped, “And why isn’t that person attracted to us?”).

I’ll admit I perked up at this, because questions of attraction and seduction form the core of the novel I’m working on right now (along with a recent comment I heard a therapist make about “the different things we tend to think are love”).

Desire itself was recognized as a powerful and troubling force – “the panther that we want to make our pet” as Laura put it. “We are attracted to the panther because the panther can destroy us.”

But Roche bemoaned all the “erotic horror” stories in which the ultimate message is “sex destroys you”, which is simplistic and not interesting– “Please don’t write that story where Girl goes to bar and picks up sexy stranger and goes home with him and he’s a vampire and he kills her.”

The real question surrounding desire is not what it does to us but the power it has to get inside us and drive us to do problematic things.

“It’s all about pushing boundaries,” as Laura put it. “The panther as pet – how long can you play with that panther, how far can you push that boundary? That’s the enigma, the mystery.”

nice kitty

Roche agreed, bringing up the idea of orgasm as “the little death” – the end of a profound experience that can’t be duplicated.

The Appeal of the Ghost Story

A ghost, observed Gilman, represents “the unavoidable. It’s the weight – “ she gestured as if carrying something on her shoulders – “of what must be dealt with, of what you can’t get away from.”

I was also struck by Cheney’s comments that ghost stories represent “a second chance at justice – to go back into the past and set something right.”

Hook the Reader.

To be successful, a mystery requires an emotional hook and an intellectual hook, a reason to know and a need to know (and care). And if the writer can slip both those hooks into the story without the reader even noticing, so much the better. (Gilman)

The panel agreed that you have to care about your characters, you have to be genuinely interested in them, or else the reader won’t be either. Another reason for genuine involvement: the more you get to know your character, the more his or her flaws become apparent, the more the characters “become what they were supposed to be in your head” said Chelsea.

This is different from being too in love with or enchanted by your characters, in which case you run the danger of creating “a Mary Sue”.

Olson asked the audience, “Does everybody know what a Mary Sue is?”

“Or a Marty Stu for guys,” Laura said.

Only a few people in the audience raised their hands.

“It’s a term that comes from fan fiction. A Mary Sue is an overly idealized version of the author,” Roche explained. “It’s the character with three degrees from Harvard who’s called to the Vatican or whatever because of their amazing crime-solving ability and incredible dress sense—“

“—and they have high cheekbones –“ Laura said.

“ – and good hair –“ Cheney said.

“ – right,” Roche agreed. “And they’re onyx-eyed—“

“Or violet,” Laura said. “Violet eyes.”

I might have winced a bit; I once gave a character violet eyes.

I wonder about that. Have you ever seen a person with violet eyes? And what would your reaction ever be if you did? You would think they were weird. Because they’re purple. We are talking about purple eyes.

Roche brought up the fact that we don’t always have to start out liking the characters; we’re often fascinated by people who perturb us. “Think about someone who really annoys you and how much time you spent thinking about that person,” he pointed out. “Or when you’re reading a book and you find yourself starting to like the character against your own will.” *

A couple of names jumped right to my head, and I thought it an excellent point.

Several minutes were spent discussing the importance of the first impression a character makes on a reader, which is entirely within the author’s control and sets the tone for the relationship the reader will have with the character for the book. “It’s not advisable to introduce a character while he’s beating up his mother. It’s hard to make a good guy out of someone who’s beating up his mother.”

Whodoneit vs Whydoneit

Gilman talked about the shift in modern mysteries to “whydoneits” – “readers are very smart, they can usually figure out who did it early on – the interesting question becomes why they did it, because that becomes more about the things that are haunting us. So what’s haunting us?”

Although another great question that can drive a mystery story is: How screwed are we and how are we going to get out of it?

The Writing Process

The moderator asked, “How do you carry that sense of enigma through the writing of the story?”

“I don’t know,” Chelsea said bluntly. “But I know when I’m doing it.”

Laura said, “If you know how the book ends, why write it?” She said that when she reaches the end of the first draft, she always leaves the last chapter unwritten. Then she goes through the story again as she revises and realizes the ending then. “Often it’s only when you get to the last page that you figure out what the story’s even about.”

Someone – I think Laura – brought up Agatha Christie’s writing process. Christie would write most of a novel never knowing who the murderer was. “Then she’d get about three quarters of the way through the story and realize, ‘Oh. That person did it.’ Then she’d go back to the beginning and start dropping hints.”

“You write the book,” Chelsea said, in answer to Laura’s earlier question, “to make the people in your head shut up. To get the story out of your head.”

This led to some discussion of storytelling as self-exploration, self-exorcism, about how you don’t really know what you’re going to write until you’ve written it.

Roche brought up Dashell Hammett’s description of how to write: “Throw up into your typewriter every morning, clean up at noon.”

“We’re all slightly borderline,” Laura observed. Her own process is to outline, but her outlines, she said, end up being “like Google directions, perfectly accurate until they’re perfectly wrong…How do we carry the enigma? We carry it on our backs.”

Mystery Carries Us On

The heart of any good storytelling, pointed out Gilman, is mystery: “the story I don’t know – what is that story?” She said, “Without that mystery, you just have a collection of beautiful writing…I love beautiful writing but I demand good story…or I’ll be extremely annoyed with the writer.”

(Duly noted. I do not want Laura Anne Gilman to be annoyed with me.)

The moderator quoted Tim O’Brien – “Mystery is what carries us on” – and observed that solving the mystery only leads to “the mystery that lies beneath it”, that it can raise questions that are even more haunting than the original ones.

There was some talk about how, in the end, we’ll forgive the writer almost anything if he or she gives us really good, fascinating characters. Chelsea bought up Sherlock Holmes as an example – “I can’t stand Sherlock Holmes. I wouldn’t want to have lunch with him…But I’m fascinated with him…And Watson? I’d have lunch with Watson.” Conan Doyle structured the story in a way that “allows” us to “be fascinated with a guy who’s two notches off psychotic” and “once we ‘get’ the character, we’ll go anywhere with him.”

There was also some talk of the power a story can lose if the mystery is fully explained. At the same time, the reader wants some sense of closure. So do we want ambiguity, or do we want something else? (My favorite-ever t-shirt saying is: GIVE ME AMBIGUITY OR GIVE ME SOMETHING ELSE and I just got the chance to work that phrase into a paragraph. I am so totally delighted right now).

Chelsea said, “It depends on the story.” Can’t argue with that.

Horror vs Terror

The most horrifying things, Laura said, are the things that we never fully “see”. She criticized modern horror’s “explicitness – splatterpunk, and all that. It’s hard to be scared of something that’s so explicit.” I’m not sure I fully agree with this – I see her point, but do I want to sit through one of those SAW sequels and see a guy on a machine that rips his limbs apart? No freaking way. So isn’t that a kind of horror?

Maybe it’s not horror; it’s terror. Roche said that someone – I didn’t catch the name – made the distinction that “Horror is the fear of the unknown. Terror is the fear of the known.”

* my first lesson with this was Prince Diarmuid in Guy Gavriel Kay’s FIONAVAR trilogy – I intensely disliked him in the beginning because of how he ruthlessly seduced a young virgin. But by the time he met his fate in the third book, I cried.

Oct 30, 2009

4 comments · Add Yours

Sounds like a great panel. Back when Robert-18 Bisang was going to publish my first novel, “This is My Blood,” Chelsea edited it. I wonder if she remembers.

Anyway…wish I was there…don’t suppose they mentioned unicorns?


I ran into Chelsea in the elevator (before I read your comment, otherwise I would have mentioned you). She seemed a little bit insecure about her performance on the panel, which I found kind of endearing, given what a star she is.

In the Dealers Room, I did see a book with a unicorn on the cover and of course I thought of you.


Who cares ? No real insight, the author’s a name dropper, there’s nothing compelling about any of the characters. It’s the perfect example of horrible writing shame on you.


Oh, troll, get a life. :)


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