Lessons in Mystery and Intrigue from BBC’s Bleak House (2005)

bleak house

In one of my creative writing classes we’ve been studying Charles Dickens’ Bleak House this semester.

Because of all my writing lately, (and because my wife and I are moving house this week and also about to have a baby) I’ve been rather behind on reading it along with the rest of the class. I know, I know, shame of me. But one thing I decided to do is marathon the entire 2005 BBC series.

(They’ve done two other adaptations of it in the last sixty years, hence the need to specify which BBC series.)

And oh my goodness did I gobble it up. I can appreciate Dickensian language and expression and humour as much as the next guy, but, as I mentioned in my last blog, we live an age where our audience has not only been raised on books, but on film and television, and for the most part, successful film and television is built on pacing. And when I say pacing I mean fast pacing.

And Bleak House delivered just that. It was eight hours long and by far, the fastest period piece I think I’ve ever seen. Even though certain plot lines began resolving themselves two or three episodes from the end, I still found myself halfway through the last episode kicking myself. There’s NO way this can all wrap up by the end of the episode. No way.

Well, they did it.

As I still haven’t finished the novel, I don’t know how quickly Dickens manages to wrap it all up. But one thing I do know is how well the BBC managed to juggle this epic story. And how well the Branderson (Brandon Sanderson) manages to do fast pacing in an epic.

But I want to focus today on the way that Bleak House managed to unravel a complicated plot and how that all worked out towards the success of the story and how satisfying it can be for the reader.

Firstly, like any good mystery, it began, quite early on at least, with a suspicious death. (The book has a comparatively slower lead up to this death.) Some private investigation occurred, leading up to a large reveal in around episode 8 or so, somewhere before the actual murder occurred. Now, I figured out the reveal in episode 4, which in some ways heightened the tension.

But how should it heighten the tension to give away the mystery to the viewer, you ask?

Well, recently on Writing Excuses, this matter was clarified somewhat. You see mystery is defined as things unknown to audience (and usually the main protagonist/sleuth) whereas intrigue is something known to the audience yet unknown to the protagonist/sleuth.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained suspense as showing the audience a bomb, telling them it will go off in fifteen minutes, then placing under a table in a room full of people whom no nothing of it’s existence.

This is much how intrigue works. In fact it’s literally referred to as a time bomb plot.

So for me, Bleak House quickly stopped being about the mystery behind this suspicious death and what that meant for the protagonist and several other main characters and instead, (until the actual murder) the intrigue held by the stakes for the characters surrounding it.

Again, I don’t know how Dickens handled that part or how quickly I could have guessed it in the book, because half of the clues that led me to my early conclusion were beyond subtle in the book. I had no idea they meant what they implied on the screen. But if you’re aiming for the surprising but inevitable twist, you may just want such subtlety in your writing.

Secondly, I also realised another not so large connection later in the story a few episodes before it was revealed, which was rather satisfying to me as it led to more obvious happiness when this sub-plot resolved happily.

Thirdly, and here’s where I began to be fumbled, I guessed at what I thought was the biggest reveal of them all. I’m not going to go into any details because I try to avoid spoilers wherever possible and I want to use a twist just like this in my own writing. But sufficeth to say, I saw a way open up where one of the good main characters turned out to be the villain of the whole affair and had been coaxing everything to a secret and ultimate victory for himself.

As you may have guessed, this obviously never happened.

But my being wrong didn’t stop there. Another main character who had started off so nice and charming and had begun to slowly descend into the darkness, instead of hitting bottom and having a turning point, had a false resolution, in which everything seemed at least to finally be righted for a few moments and then suddenly was destroyed, resulting in his imminent death.

Just before that, something that I thought was just important constant backstory to the tale, and would never be resolved, was resolved!

Furthermore, I was completely suckered in by the murder investigation and believed the red herring to be the true culprit until the true culprit was arrested! I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love actually being surprised in a story, and Bleak House has a good share of them.

Now, in light of that particular scene, I want to mention a few things about using cliffhangers in the right way.

As the Branderson once said on cliffhangers, having the protagonist walk up to a door, open it and gasp, is not nearly as effective a pacing tool as having the protagonist open the door and gasp, It was the mailman! This is so because giving the audience a new idea or circumstance on which to fixate raises specific questions of why or how for them, whereas the unanswered gasp leaves a what question, which is often both far more vague and easily tiresome to the reader.

In this case, instead of creating a more equal suspicion on both women and fading to credits on Arrest this lady! we are led to focus specifically on one lady and then shown the other lady being arrested, firmly planting how questions in our minds to be answered in the next episode.

This building of suspense and then twist, raising how questions, is what continues to drive the plot towards climax and resolution and keeps the viewer actively engaged in the show and dying to watch the next episode. And we as writers ought to plan our reveals/cliffhangers accordingly.

My one sort of negative thing to mention was that the final surprise at the very end of the last episode was a bit of a let down. It was the romantic plot. We all knew whom our protagonist needed to end up with, we just had no idea how it was going to happen. Then suddenly, a couple of minutes from the end, with no clues as to why or how, we just get a, oh, here, I’ve been selfish, you go be with the one you love. Biggest anti-climax of the whole series, I can tell you. It seemed like it had been artlessly tacked on the end so that it all resolved in a satisfying way for the audience.

Even if it had just a bit of foreshadowing, of other effort on one of the characters parts, it would have felt so much less like deus ex machina and so much more like a satisfying and deserved ending.

That aside, I’m still giving the series on the whole four and a half out of five Tulkinghorns, and recommend it to everybody as a lesson in intrigue, mystery and pacing.

So let me know, what’s your favourite mystery?

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