The 5Ws and whodunnits: a Chinatown character exercise

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A whodunnit is a genre of film where, as the name suggests, we want to find out who did it. But knowing who is not just enough, we also want to know the why, where, when, what and how.

In journalism these points are generally known as the 5Ws (even though ‘how’ makes it 5W1H) and are seen as the fundamental information a news story needs to convey. This information should appear in a story as early as possible.

5Ws and whodunnits

The whos, whats, wheres, whens, whys and hows

“I keep six honest serving-men, (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When, And How and Where and Who.” – Rudyard Kipling

Naturally in a whodunnit we don’t want to know the answers too early or it spoils the fun, with the honourable exception of Colombo which made a point of showing all this at the start. Even then it became a mystery of how the rumpled detective would uncover the information.

What makes the television show Colombo with its one big crime to solve different to a mystery film such as Chinatown is that while both involve an investigation, in movies the general principle is that there are multiple mysteries. Act I typically has a smaller, more pedestrian mystery that leads into the bigger one, with Act III sometimes having its own mystery resolved, often one that stemmed from the Act I mystery but was not directly investigated at first.

As an exercise I did some work on looking at the mysteries within the classic 1974 film Chinatown written by Robert Towne and looked at the 5Ws for each of them. Spoilers follow, naturally.

Mysteries in Chinatown

In each of these not only have I labelled each mystery and the initial ‘answer’ to each of the 6Ws, I’ve iterated as to why the answer is what it is. Most end with a character motivation, or that it’s part of the setting.

The mysteries are listed in no particular order, and the act marks are where it’s first raised but not necessarily where it’s solved.

Mystery 1/Act I mystery – Is Mulwray having an affair? (The false mystery)

Is Mulwray (Evelyn’s husband) having an affair (False mystery)?

Answer/Why 1

Why 2

Why 3

Why 4

Who?

Mulwray, head of the Department of Water and Power

He’s a rich guy

Gittes, the private investigator, assumes pretty girls are mistressess

[It’s in his character to assume powerful men have affairs, he’s seen it before]

What?

Attractive young girl

She’s pretty

Gittes assumes pretty girls are mistressess

[It’s in his character]

Where?

In a house Mulwray owns in Echo Park, LA

Away from the Mulwrays’ posh home

Gittes has seen this before

[It’s in his character]

When?

During work hours

So his wife doesn’t know

Gittes has seen this before

[Backstory]

Why?

Who cares

Jake doesn’t care about the whys in these case

 He’s in it for the money, he’s a professional  

How?

He visits the love nest

Away from the wife

Gittes knew where to look as he has seen this before

 

Mystery 2/Act II – Who is stealing LA’s water?

Who is stealing the water?

Answer/Why 1

Why 2

Why 3

Why 4

Why 5

Who?

Noah Cross, a rich industrialist

He owns land that needs water

It’s desert and worthless without water

He bought it on the cheap knowing he could get water

[It’s his character to get what he wants regardless of the ethics]

What?

Water is being diverted during a drought

Noah is a powerful man and can do this

He is extremely wealthy

[It’s his character]

 

Where?

To land Noah Cross, a rich industrialist, has bought

He wants it watered

To increase its value

It’s desert and worthless without water

LA is a desert [It’s the setting]

When?

At night

So no one will see

As it’s theft

Water is precious in desert LA

Noah is rich but not so rich he can do whatever he wants [Conflict with used to getting what he wants]

Why?

To store water in land to make it more valuable

The land is dry

Noah wants to do it secretly

So that only he will benefit

He’s a greedy man [It’s his character]

How?

Diverting water through channels

They were built there

[It’s the setting]

   

Mystery 3/Act IIb – Who set Gittes up?

Who set Gittes up?

Answer/Why 1

Why 2

Why 3

Why 4

Why 5

Who?

Noah Cross

Mulwray was blocking his plans to build a dam

The water would go to desert land and not benefit the citizens of LA

Mulwray believes water belongs to the people and can’t be corrupted

[It’s in his character]

What?

Hired an actress to hire Jack Gittes to investigate ‘her’ husband

Gittes would believe her as the real Mrs Mulwray (Evelyn) wouldn’t do it

Mrs Mulwray loved her husband

[It’s in her character to love this father figure]

 

Where?

At Gittes office

It’s a city built in the desert

Water is a precious commodity here

[It’s the setting]

 

When?

While Mulwray was seeing Evelyn and was head of the Department of Water and Power

Cross knew what it would look like

Mulwray could not reveal the truth of who the girl is, she is tainted

She is a product of incest

He won’t hurt her [It’s in his character to be good]

Why?

Cross wanted to blackmail Mulwray

So the dam will get built

The worthless land he bought will be worth millions

He wants a legacy

[It’s in his character to desire his name living on after him]

How?

By having Gittes take photos of Mulwray with a girl and a ‘love nest’

Gittes is a well known PI so his evidence is credible

He will do what it takes to get the evidence

[It’s in his character]

 

Mystery 4/Act I and Act II – Who is Mulwray’s mistress?

Who is Mulwray’s mistress?

Answer/Why 1

Why 2

Why 3

Why 4

Who?

Katherine Cross

His wife’s daughter/sister

Incest in the past when Noah’s wife died

Noah can do what he want [It’s in his character]

What?

Mulwray’s step-daughter (and sister-in-law)

He wants to protect and look after her

He’s a good guy

[It’s in his character to be good]

Where?

In a house Mulwray owns in Echo Park, LA

He wants to keep her away from Evelyn

He doesn’t feel Evelyn should have contact

Because the daughter is a product of incest

When?

Since he married Evelyn

She’s her daughter

He feels responsible

[It’s in his character to do the right thing]

Why?

He wants to raise her well and keep Evelyn out of it

He wants Katherine to have a normal life

He doesn’t want her to know her past

It’s disturbing to know you’re a product of incest and he wants to protect her from it [It’s in his character]

How?

He visits when he can and takes her places

He wants her to have a normal enough life

He puts value on people living well

[It’s in his character]

#### Mystery 5/Act II – Who killed Mulwray?

Who killed Mulwray?

Answer/Why 1

Why 2

Why 3

Why 4

Why 5

Why 6

Who?

Noah Cross (Evelyn’s father)

They were meeting to discuss the future

Mulwray has power to stop Cross’ plans

Mulwray is head of DWP

Mulwray sold his and Cross’ private water company to LA

Mulwray believes that water belongs to the people

[It’s in his character – he believes in ‘the people’]

What?

Drowned Mulwray

Heat of the moment

He became angry at Mulwray’s refusal

Without water the land is worthless so his investment would be a waste

Noah gets furious if he doesn’t get his way

[It’s in his character to react angrily to refusals to his will]

Where?

In his own pond of saltwater

They were meeting at Mulwray’s house

Cross wanted somewhere private to discuss his plans

His plans are dodgy and involve defrauding LA voters

Cross is prepared to make dodgy deals to get his way

[It’s in his character]

When?

After Mulwray said he’d reveal his plans to buy land on the cheap and divert water there

There’s a referendum soon on whether to build the dam

Mulwray publicly opposes it as head of the DWP

As head of the DWP and builder of another dam his voice carries weight

[It’s in his character to do the right thing]

 

Why?

To allow a damn to be built

It will provide water to a dry valley

Cross has been buying land on the cheap in the dry valley

He wants money and a legacy

[It’s in his character]

 

How?

Cross pushed him in

Heat of the moment, Cross did not plan to kill Mulwary

Cross has a short temper

[It’s in his character]

   

Analysis of the analysis

When I started this exercise I didn’t plan to end each iteration on an answer. But with each mystery I broke down it seemed to naturally flow from the character or setting.

What is also satisfying is the number of iterations Chinatown offered for each mystery and its consistent character motivations. There wasn’t a straightforward answer to any of them, each took multiple iterations, and this fits in with master of mystery Raymond Chandler’s ‘Ten Commandments for the Detective Novel’; that we are honest with the reader (or viewer) and have given them the information through the 6Ws needed to make the inevitable once revealled.

Partly this may be because I am over analysing and making it seem more complicated than it is. But I’ve sat on this analysis for a while and having returned there is something satisfying with this approach.

The false mystery found

As stated earlier, Act I generally has the false mystery, one that segues into the larger mystery. It is also not what the film is known for.

Compare this with the Chinatown-inspired Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Private investigator Eddie Valiant’s Act I ‘puzzle’ is similar in that it’s notionally about him finding out about an affair but in reality this is staged setup for something bigger.

Neither protagonist is asked to investigate the film’s larger mystery — who killed an important man and the land-grab conspiracy behind it — that emerges in Act II but chooses to do so. Along the way they also stumble inadvertently into revealing answers to deeply personal puzzles they didn’t even want to know — that Evelyn is mother to her own sister, that Roger Rabbit‘s Judge Doom is a Toon.

Applying the 6Ws to characters and plot

I’m not pretending that this tool can be used to plot mysteries. But it can be used to sense check what you have written: first that you answer all the 5Ws that a sharp viewer will want to know (apart from JJ Abrams and his incomprehensible passion for Mystery Boxes); second that your answers have some depth beyond “it just is”.

As mentioned, there is a danger of over analysis – if you’re smart enough you can spin out anything. But with honest evaluation it may help as a tool to look for depth of mystery and consistency of character across the story.

It may be that this applies beyond mysteries, thrillers, whodunnits and the like but it seems an obvious start. In theory any protagonist and antagonist’s motives can be analysed this way too, and may be a way to check that a villain’s goals really are beyond ‘because he is evil’.

That’s for another analysis.