One of the most important skills every writer has to master, no matter their genre, is crafting a great mystery. It’s also one of the most misunderstood elements of novel writing.
Mysteries are the lures that keep us turning the pages and keep us glued to the book. They send us into a frenzy because we’re dying to know what happens.
Is the detective going to find the murderer? Is the couple going to get together? What happened on that fateful night last December? Will the protagonist’s hatred of saxophones be his undoing?
The best stories also have smaller secondary and tertiary mysteries that keep the readers turning the pages.
But how do you craft a great mystery? How do you get readers invested in them?
How to craft a great mystery
When it comes to crafting a mystery, authors often get distracted by the bodies and the murders and the stereotypical mysterious elements, and they miss what really drives a great mystery. They also may try to be very coy and think that by leaving out certain details, the reader will be inspired to wonder about say, who the characters are entirely.
But good mysteries are not created simply by arbitrarily withholding information from the reader. If you fail to include basic details, you’re not creating a mystery, you’re just being vague. The reader will be more confused and/or annoyed than intrigued.
Mysteries are about people. And, more specifically: every mystery starts with a character who wants something.
The detective wants the femme fatale to fall in love with him or he wants to catch the killer or he wants to find the truth about what happened or he wants to escape with his life. We keep reading to find out if the characters are going to get the things they desire.
This is the heart of every mystery: Is the character going to get what they want?
The greater the character’s desire to get what they want, the greater the stakes and the consequences of getting it or not getting it, the greater the obstacles and intrigue and the amount of effort the characters expends, and the longer things linger: the greater the mystery. Basically, we’re reading to find out if something a character badly wants is going to happen.
Let’s break that down into word math:
character’s desire and the consequences/stakes + obstacles/intrigue + delay = mystery
Here’s what that means…
Desires and consequences
The first step in crafting a mystery is showing what your character wants and what the stakes are. (Read more about stakes and how to raise them in this post).
If you show your character caring about something, it plants the appropriate question in the reader’s mind (are they going to get what they want?) along with a sense of the rewards and consequences (dear God, what will happen to them if they don’t get what they want?).
Is the cop going to find the murderer? Is the girl going to get the guy? Is the depressed penguin going to find its purpose?
The reason we care about the outcome of these questions is because there is an important character who cares deeply about the outcome. The more they care, the more we care about what happens and the more nervous we will be on their behalf if it looks like the outcome is in doubt.
And, of course, characters want to stay alive above all, so mysteries that have great danger are some of the best because they have the most significant stakes.
That’s why it’s helpful to build your mysteries around whether characters will succeed or fail. It ratchets up the stakes when the character is highly invested in the outcome.
Obstacles and intrigue
The next step is placing roadblocks in front of your very active characters that prevent them from immediately getting the thing they want. What good is a mystery if it’s easy to solve? What good is it to wonder about whether a girl is going to get a guy if he says yes immediately?
If you want your reader’s spine to tingle with fear, you may also introduce some intrigue in the form of tantalizing hints, creepy details, and an atmosphere of danger or uncertainty. If you want them to feel titillated about a possible romance, you can introduce some misunderstandings, false starts, and alluring distractions.
A great way to deepen a mystery is to show your character putting skin in the game and expending a great deal of effort in order to find out the answer. The more your protagonist suffers to try to find the answer, the more we’ll have a sense that they care, and the more we’ll care on their behalf. Don’t let up on the tension.
The more difficult and insurmountable the mystery seems, the more your reader will be curious about the ultimate answer. And always keep your protagonist going after the mystery. If they seem to stop caring, the reader will too.
This is the part where some writers go astray. A great mystery is built by prolonging the suspense. The longer we have to wait to find out who the killer is or find out whether two characters will get together, the greater our anticipation of that reward.
But sometimes writers try to create this delay by simply holding out on the reader and failing to share information that the characters would otherwise have known. This is the writing equivalent of playing keep-away with your reader while yelling “Neener neener neener” at them.
If a character knows exactly what happened and the author is simply withholding the information from the reader, it starts to feel like a contrived way of creating a delay. You can get away with some small delays, but when it goes on for too long and failing to reveal the answer to the mystery doesn’t make narrative sense, the reader will know that the author is just holding out on them.
The flip side of this problem is when writers step on their surprises and give everything away without allowing a mystery to marinate.
Instead, great mysteries feature a character trying to get what they want, and we know what they know, but the truth is obscured or confusing or surprising or not what was anticipated. The object of desire lies just beyond their grasp, and it takes them a bit of time to get there.
As a character tries to figure out how to get what they want, the delay before they get there is what prolongs and deepens the mystery. They should have to work hard in order to solve it.
Always deepen the mystery
The better you are able to articulate your characters’ fears and desires, the greater the mystery the reader will experience. If the stakes are high, the reader won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough to find out what happens.
Mysteries aren’t just for suspense and thrillers. Every novel, no matter the genre, should have some solid mysteries to keep the reader turning the pages. They’re a crucial part of making your novel unputdownable.
But it all starts with understanding what ultimately makes readers care about mysteries. If your characters care deeply about resolving a mystery, we will too.
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Art: Detail of Der beim Diebstahl ertappte Hausdiener by Charles Wauters