On Thrillers and Story Predictability
(Warning: This post will contain spoilers for Ruth Ware’s In A Dark, Dark Wood. You’ve been warned).
In A Dark, Dark Wood is a thriller mystery by Ruth Ware. After being invited to bachelorette (or “hen”) weekend in the woods for a friend she hasn’t spoken to for years, Nora Shaw wakes up in a hospital bed battered with a head wound wondering “What have I done?” The story recounts the mystery of those few days and the inciting incidents where it all went wrong. There buried truths come to life and patience is tested.
Before I dig into my topic, I have to admit that this book was very readable with a very thrilling plot. It made me want to get to the end, guessing at the possible motivations of all the people gathered together. For a thriller, I think that this is tantamount to a successful narrative. (For any book really).
But I feel that the impact of a thriller/mystery is truly felt after you finish a story. When the pieces come together and you ruminate on how effectively they were weaved together. The problem with In A Dark, Dark Wood is that on reflection, the story failed to be compelling in a way that sticks with you.
There are many reasons that I feel that way which can be boiled down to two story elements. (For those who don’t want to be spoiled, I would check out now.)
1) The Unreliable Narrator Trope
An “unreliable narrator” is just as it sounds. A narrator that doesn’t tell the whole truth of the situation. Where you can tell they are withholding something whether it’s intentional or no. Or that their perspective is colored by a particular bias. Most of the time its presented to the reader gradually and often in the first person.
This trope has been used to great effect in thrillers like The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, or standard classics like The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye (or my personal fave, The Moonstone!). It’s not that the narrator is trying to mislead the reader intentionally but they’re describing the world as they see it and the author is subtly warning the reader to be wary of the narrator’s perspective. The truth of the mystery lies in the discrepancies.
But I think this book doesn’t have a compelling case for the “unreliable narrator” in the form of Nora Shaw. The story tries to convince the reader that Nora may be an unreliable witness to the events because of her mixed feelings towards Clare and her emotional hang-up on her ex-boyfriend, James who Clare will be marrying. She can’t remember what happened in those final moments before going to the hospital and story tries to posit that she was involved in James’ death. But the narrative gives us no concrete reason to doubt her perspective. Her only crime–her only flaw, it seems–is that she hasn’t quite gotten over her relationship. The story greedily holds onto the reason why but it’s not as big as we’re made to believe and its introduced too late into the story for the reader to really grasp its implications.
2) Story Predictability
I hold that a mystery isn’t bad if you can guess its ending. Guessing the ending is hopefully a mark of good storytelling and if you, as a reader, find yourself guessing the twist you should pat yourself on the back whilst tipping your well-earned detective hat. When a mystery is done right, it effectively sprinkles clues so that a close enough reading gives you insight. A twist shouldn’t spring out of nowhere or be a gotcha for the punch.
But there is a thin line where a story’s predictability comes from its careful execution and how one-dimensional the story elements are. In A Dark, Dark Wood had me more rolling my eyes at the end than awed by its cleverness.
For one, the “villains” are predictable. Clare is one-dimensional. On the outside, she’s perfect and well-to-do and manipulative of those she surrounds herself with. It’s no surprise, based on the clues, that she planned out the murder that happens in the narrative. But I could’ve guessed that as soon as she was introduced. That there was something shady to her. Flo is also one-dimensional. She completely dedicated to Clare so her playing a pivotal role in the plot wasn’t a surprise. It may be because I’m so used to these tropes but I couldn’t help being disappointed.
These are a few of the reasons that I just couldn’t connect with the mystery of this story. I found myself pacing my floor after finishing, dissecting why I couldn’t bring myself to like it despite the bare bones of a great thriller being there.
Thank you all for taking the time to read my ramblings.