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The Female Carries The Mystery


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Steven Pressfield, the author of THE LEGEND OF BAGGER VANCE and GATES OF FIRE, learned something new this summer.



I’ve got a new book coming from W.W. Norton in November. It’s a novel called 36 Righteous Men. If you followed last year the series on this blog called “Report from the Trenches,” you know the details of the huge crash this book took, midstream in its writing, and of my six months of nonstop hell trying to regroup, restructure, and reanimate it.

Barbara Stanwyck as the fatal female in “Double Indemnity”

The concept that saved the day came from Shawn Coyne’s editorial notes:


The female carries the mystery.

This is a ... deep subject and one that, even now, I have only the sketchiest and most tenuous handle on. Bear with me please. I’m gonna try, in the next few posts, to plunge into this topic and see if we can extract a kernel or two of wisdom.

What does it mean, “The female carries the mystery?”

It’s not hard to see in a movie like Chinatown, where the character of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) is literally the woman of mystery, or in Double Indemnity, where Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) fulfills the same narrative purpose.

In both films—and just about every other film noir or detective story you or I can think of—the female lead has a secret she is hiding from the male lead (and from the world in general, including, at least partially, herself.)

The story is about finding out that secret.

Only when that secret is revealed does the movie deliver its knockout dramatic and thematic punch.




She’s my sister! She’s my daughter!



I’m rotten, Walter. Rotten to the heart.


But the idea that the female carries the mystery can be applied, I believe, even to novels and movies that literally have no female characters.

In Moby Dick, the female is the ocean.

The unplumbed, unknowable depths of the sea, into which the whale plunges, taking Ahab with him.

The eternal, unfathomable sea is the female.

In Seven Samurai, the flooded rice fields are the female. They are the well of fertility, the source of life. They are in fact what all the heroism and slaughter were about. They were the stakes of the story. They were the mystery.




Remember the final scene of Kurosawa’s all-time classic, when the villagers, to the beat of the communal tom-toms, replant their now-preserved fields while the surviving samurai can only watch and move on? That’s the mystery revealed.

Even in a story without human female characters, like Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” the female still carries the mystery.

In my book, 36 Righteous Men, the central female character is a defrocked rabbi named Rachel Davidson.

In the first version of the novel—the one that crashed—I had Rachel indeed bearing the mystery (in other words, she knew all the details of the occult understory) but I had her trying deliberately and passionately to reveal this mystery.

Huge mistake.

Only when Shawn pointed out the error was I able to regroup and reconceive the story, at least as far as Rachel was concerned.

The change I made was to make her carry the mystery and hang onto it for dear life.

In other words, I turned every scene with Rachel on its head. Instead of having her seek to reveal, I had her seek to conceal.

It worked.

It made the other primary characters—two NYPD homicide detectives, a man and woman—dig deeper and harder. It made them do real detective work. It tripled the power of Rachel, and it supercharged the villain, whom Rachel was now covering for instead of trying to reveal.

I’ve been working on a new book for the past year—a totally different story, in another century and another genre.

But the principle "The female carries the mystery" remains foremost in my working mind. I have stayed hyperconscious (and conscientious) at every stage—conception, construction, and the scene-by-scene writing—of who the “female” is, what mystery she carries, and how I can maintain that mystery and enhance it through Act One, Act Two, and Act Three to build to its maximum emotional impact in the climax.




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. Wha-BAM!


There I was, trying to make my female lead a Mentor because I love subverting tropes ( what with the male MC getting absolutely nowhere trying to pair up!)


But it makes sense now, in my "stranger in a strange land" science fiction story, that she's a Yoda or a Gandalf, an enigmatic mentor capable of great technological juju that launches our Fearful Featherweight into titanic combat.

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Why does the female carry the mystery? I read this quote from C.S. Lewis and one line in particular stood out. I wonder if there's a connection.



C.S. Lewis on Priestesses:

"The innovators are really implying that sex is something superficial, irrelevant to the spiritual life. To say that men and women are equally eligible for a certain profession is to say that for the purposes of that profession their sex is irrelevant. We are, within that context, treating both as neuters. As the State grows more like a hive or an ant-hill it needs an increasing number of workers who can be treated as neuters. This may be inevitable for our secular life. But in our Christian life we must return to reality. There we are not homogeneous units, but different and complementary organs of a mystical body. Lady Nunburnholme has claimed that the equality of men and women is a Christian principle. I do not remember the text in scripture nor the Fathers, nor Hooker, nor the Prayer Book which asserts it; but that is not here my point. The point is that unless 'equal' means 'interchangeable', equality makes nothing for the priesthood of women. And the kind of equality which implies that the equals are interchangeable (like counters or identical machines) is, among humans, a legal fiction. It may be a useful legal fiction. But in church we turn our back on fictions. One of the ends for which sex was created was to symbolize to us the hidden things of God. One of the functions of human marriage is to express the nature of the union between Christ and the Church. We have no authority to take the living and semitive figures which God has painted on the canvas of our nature and shift them about as if they were mere geometrical figures."



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25 minutes ago, carolinamtne said:

I believe Paul wrote something to the effect of neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. And I think that's in the scriptures.

This is a tangent but I believe Paul is referring to equality in Christ there and not disregarding the genders that God created.

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I'm a bit leery of the "the female carries the mystery." It's too Joseph Campbell to me, and my story is based on his monomyth concept. (I skipped the stuff I didn't like. :$) I just don't like how he created it as an explanation to change Mary, the mother of Jesus, to some goddess concept. And it also has something to do with the woman as temptress/Eve. I think this is a spreading of that. A humanist interpretation.


I'm not keen on contributing to the concept that woman is here to allure man. We're not. We're here to help men.

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I might concede that women (in general) are more difficult to understand, but I don't think that women in real life seek to conceal truths rather than reveal them. That's a trope that's been overused, that makes women out to be deceptive and manipulative--common enough in fiction, but harmful in the stereotypes it encourages. I would think (and I hope) that Godly women in Christian fiction would be portrayed as truth-tellers rather than truth-concealers.

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 Maybe we're taking this a little too far and forgetting that it's a way of meeting expectations in a particular genre, the noir thriller.


The genre of my WIP is a "stranger in a strange land" science fiction adventure. The Time Machine, "The Matrix" and the series "Farscape" are examples of this. The genre requires a "native guide" as a mentor for the protagonist and this individual often has a different agenda.


The twist I'm after is the romantic subplot. They " meet cute" but bicker constantly. The payoff in this subplot is potentially huge. Plus it keys into one of my daughter's biggest complaints about science fiction.


Therein lies the mystery of my story.


"There be three things which are too wonderful for me. yea, four which I know not: the way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid." Proverbs 30:18 & 19, AKJV


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On ‎8‎/‎12‎/‎2019 at 1:11 PM, yowordworm said:

might concede that women (in general) are more difficult to understand, but I don't think that women in real life seek to conceal truths rather than reveal them. That's a trope that's been overused, that makes women out to be deceptive and manipulative--common enough in fiction, but harmful in the stereotypes it encourages. I would think (and I hope) that Godly women in Christian fiction would be portrayed as truth-tellers rather than truth-concealers.


I've never seen that particular trope, @yowordworm 


In fact, just the opposite.  Women dominate the field of writing in general, with the largest audience (80%) of all.  Strong female characters who tell the truth, and the men who are the deceivers.  What books are you reading?

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18 hours ago, suspensewriter said:

What books are you reading?

Evidently, the same ones (or same kind) as Pressfield. But seriously, I suppose the ones I can think of off hand are older, more classic works written by men: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins and The Turn of the Screw by Henry James come to mind.  Even in Shakepeare's plays, women are constantly pretending to be someone they're not, and the truth must be revealed before the story resolves.


I've also read a ridiculous number of books recently (written by women,not men) in which a mother has hidden or lied about a child, sibling, or father. Granted, in many of these novels, the woman hid the truth out of fear of what the man would do. But the resolution of the novel (in both mystery and romance) comes from the woman finally revealing (whether by force or not) the truth. 


But I'm not alone in seeing this trope, otherwise Pressfield's article wouldn't have discussed it. 


All that being said, I can think of plenty of deceptions in fiction that are preciptated by men (Superheroes are notoriously deceptive about their identities.). The real question is, why is hiding the truth (the mystery) something that Pressfield sees as inherently feminine?

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