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 in the story entirely.
But the flip side can also be problematic. I often see writers step on their surprises and give too much away without mining the mystery for suspense. It’s sort of like being a standup comedian who gives away the punchline before you tell the joke.
Here are three key ways you might be stepping on a good surprise.
“Selling” a scene
Sometimes writers treat the opening to their scene almost like it’s marketing material. They try to hook the reader to keep going by promising a tasty payoff.
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. [We then see a scene where Nathan escapes the robber in a most precarious fashion]
But it’s not that fun reading a scene where we’re just waiting for a preordained outcome.
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.
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.
Cutting away to show what the villain is up to
Sometimes writers think they need to cut away from the protagonist to show precisely what the villain’s up to. They include POV chapters from the villain’s vantage point showing them wandering around with a sharp knife or cackling that the protagonist will never see their devious scheme coming.
I understand the impulse. Particularly when the protagonist is not currently experiencing any danger, this nominally creates suspense and anticipation.
One problem with this approach is that it’s not terribly interesting to watch a protagonist painstakingly get up to speed on facts we already know. We know the villain is out there with a knife, and it can inspire impatience for the protagonist to get on with it and beat the bad guy already.
But more importantly, it’s usually just not very mysterious to see precisely what the villain is doing. Instead of wondering which direction the danger might come from, or when and how the villain might show up… well, we already know. We’re just waiting for the inevitable.
It’s usually better to keep the reader in tune with what the protagonist knows and let the villain be bathed a bit more in mystery.
There aren’t hard and fast “rules” here, just make sure you’re gaining more by showing the villain’s POV than you’re losing by stepping on the mystery.
Smushing in very obvious Things That Will Become Important Later
Most everyone knows the writing concept of “Chekhov’s Gun,” where if there’s a gun introduced in the first act the audience is going to expect that it goes off by the end of the story.
Sometimes writers will grind the narrative to a halt and show the protagonist engaging with an important clue, character, or plot element That Will Become Important Later in the story and help unlock the mystery. It doesn’t really make any sense for the protagonist to spend the time on it, but it provides setup for what’s to come.
This is like painting Chekhov’s Gun neon orange. The reader is going to suspect the only reason we’re spending time on an otherwise incomprehensible story element is that the author is planting a clue.
Clues need to be woven in organically and make intrinsic sense to the scene at hand. If you make story sacrifices for Things That Will Become Important Later, the reader will see it a mile away.
Overall, err on the side of letting the reader know what the protagonist knows, and don’t make story sacrifices for the sausage-making of crafting a mystery. If you’re going to break these “rules,” do so very consciously.
Have you seen a storytelling element that got in the way of your experience of a mystery? What happened?
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JULY 7, 2021
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Art: Felix Henri Giacomotti – Forbidden Literature