The essence of a mystery is the absence of information. If we just knew one crucial piece of information a series of events would make sense to us. As a result: We crave this information. We want things to make sense. We want to fill in the gaps in our knowledge.
And yet some mysteries are better than others.
In order for a mystery to work well in a novel, we need these two crucial elements:
- The essential contours of the mystery
- Why we should care
If those two elements aren’t present? The reader isn’t going to invest in figuring out what happens.
We need to know the contours of the mystery
Too often, in an effort to be mysterious, writers leave out a ton of information, hoping the reader will wonder what’s happening.
These writers aren’t being mysterious. They’re just being vague.
Think of a good mystery like a puzzle with a few key pieces missing in the middle. You can see the outlines, you know roughly what you’re looking at, you just need to find those three pieces for everything to fit together.
A mystery is not having to find a bunch of pieces hidden under furniture in a giant living room while blindfolded. A reader isn’t going to care enough to go hunting for things they can’t even see.
Readers need to know where they are, they need to understand what’s happening, and they need to know roughly what’s missing.
Any piece of information you’re withholding should be very, very carefully constructed and very intentional so the reader can understand the contours of what’s missing but otherwise feel well-anchored in the story.
We need to know why we should care
Good mysteries in a novel are highly bound up with the stakes and motivations. The missing piece of information is crucial to something the character wants, like survival or riches or for their crush to like them back.
That’s because good mysteries come down to whether a character is going to get what they want.
As I articulated in an earlier post, here’s the formula for a good mystery:
character’s desire and the consequences/stakes + obstacles/intrigue + delay = mystery
The more the missing information is bound up with what a character wants and the more they have to work for it, the more the reader will want to turn the pages until the answer is revealed.
Don’t create frivolous mysteries
When the information the author is withholding doesn’t really matter to the story or, worse, when it interferes with our ability to understand the story in the first place, I like to call it the “neener neener neener” effect. It’s not mysterious, it’s just annoying because the author is abusing their power.
Once more with feeling: the reader has to understand the pillars of the story first.
Setting. Character. Desires. Stakes. Conflict. Plot.
Then you can go about creating a mystery about whether the main character is going to get what they want.
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Art: Parliament in London – Sun covered by clouds by Claude Monet
JOHN T. SHEA says
Or one could create a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, to paraphrase a famous line from a 1939 radio broadcast by your most famous former client, who so often spoke in the building in your headline painting.
Björn Johnsson says
Re: Are you creating a mystery or just being vague?
Words from a master! Thanks a million, Nathan!
Marilynn Byerly says
It can be tricky for new writers to figure out the difference between need-to-know and mystery-to-figure-out-later. That’s why a critique partner or group can be so useful. Put that question on your critique questions to ask.
JOHN T. SHEA says
And one person’s mystery can be another’s confusion. Even the longest and most detailed novel is a very narrow slice of life as a whole. Each writer must select what to tell and may not satisfy every reader’s need to know. Hence unintentional mysteries and over-elaboration. Then add the questions of when and how to tell, abeyance, suspense, and telling versus showing. One person’s premature info-dump can be another’s refreshing break and change of pace. I see no always-right answers but some answers are better than others.
gordon a long says
Totally agree. Add to that the situation where poor grammar or sentence structure makes it difficult to understand what’s going on. Like who said that important line can make a great deal of difference to the story, or a misplaced phrase can make it uncertain who is being described.
Francois Tremblay says
I would bring up the novel Grass as a counter-example. There is a huge mystery and we don’t even know it even exists for a good while.