Crafting good mysteries is an important part of the novel writing process, no matter the genre. Mysteries pull the reader through the novel, they build anticipation and suspense, and they often result in the most satisfying payoffs for the reader.
I’ve written previously about the danger of being too vague as you’re crafting a mystery. The reader should understand the precise contours of the mystery, rather than being forced to piece together what is happening entirely.
But the flip side can also be problematic. I often see writers step on their surprises and just give everything away up front without mining the mystery for suspense. This is sort of like being a standup comedian who gives away the punchlines before you tell the joke.
Nathan saw the robber and thought today was the day his precious lucky charm would finally be stolen. Little did he know that he would escape by the skin of his teeth in a most precarious fashion. [Scene where Nathan escapes the robber in a most precarious fashion]
The way to build anticipation isn’t by pre-selling the whole scene to the reader and telling them something exciting is about to happen. It’s better instead to craft a strong setup where the dynamics and stakes are very clear (Nathan is nervous because a robber wants his lucky charm at long last) and then let the scene unfold. Build anticipation for whether the protagonist will succeed or fail.
The reader will feel invested to see whether Nathan will escape. If we already know he escapes in the end, it’s just mechanics with no anticipation no matter how precarious the situation he finds himself in.
Remember my formula for a good mystery:
character’s desire and the consequences/stakes + obstacles/intrigue + delay = mystery
If you remove the delay and the intrigue, you don’t have yourself a good mystery.
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Art: Felix Henri Giacomotti – Forbidden Literature