A lot of great stories have a mystery in them. The mystery may not be the primary focus; it might be the secondary, or the mystery might be so minor it lasts only a few chapters. But whatever the case, it should draw readers into your story and keep them turning the pages. That only happens, though, if it’s done right.
As an editor, I see a lot of unpublished work. One of the most common problems I see when an author includes a mystery is that the whole mystery seems to happen on the page. The author plants “clues” of course, but then focuses too much on them, making sure the reader “gets it,” or she has her character wonder for paragraphs upon paragraphs, with speculation that is often vague, uninteresting, or leads to conclusions that are far too predictable.
In cases like this, the reader becomes a spectator.
But just as emotion is more powerful when the reader experiences it himself, mysteries are more powerful when the reader is a participator.
The narrator (which in some cases is the viewpoint character) is the readers’ guide. The narrator draws focus to certain aspects of the story, and leaves others in the background. The narrator offers an emotional tone that helps the reader interpret a scene. The narrator suggests themes and ideas and judgments on the story and characters.
In manuscripts where the mystery all happens on the page, the narrator is trying too hard to guide the reader. But the best mysteries leave enough room for the audience to interpret and hypothesize. If every aspect of your mystery is on the page and the reader is being guided through it with a heavy hand, she won’t be intellectually invested.
If you want to write a powerful mystery, you have to let the reader participate, not spectate. To do that, you need to exercise full control and skill in several areas:
Subtext – Subtext is what’s not on the page, but what is implied. When you have conscious control over subtext, your story (and mystery) immediately becomes more powerful. Because subtext is what isn’t on the page, it instantly invites the reader to become a participator. They are automatically invested in the story and contemplative about it–because they are trying to interpret the subtext. How to write (or “not write”) subtext would take far too long to explain here, but I have an article that will give you all the tools to make it happen: How to Write What’s Not Written (Subtext)
Subtlety – One of the problems with the mysteries that happen on the page is that they aren’t subtle enough. Usually the author is so worried about the reader “getting it,” that the mystery and its “clues” are too heavy-handed. They should be suggested, inviting and drawing the reader in, not egocentric, forcing the reader to focus on them. Even children know that being forced to do something is annoying. If you try to force your reader to notice the elements of your mystery, they are more likely to be annoyed than anything. The real power comes when readers pick up on elements themselves, and realizations and connections happen in them not on the page. For actual techniques on how to plant “clues” subtly, find that section in this article: The Mechanics of Rendering Mysteries
Suggesting Connections – I touched on this already, but it’s sort of its own thing. There is a difference between planting subtle clues and suggesting connections. Maybe you want your reader to connect two different aspects of your story (or mystery) in a significant way. Maybe you want them to realize that Susan wasn’t actually getting her car washed like she said, but attending that secret meeting we heard about earlier in the story. The realization doesn’t happen on the page, so you have to learn how to suggest (not force) a connection. You can get ideas on how to do that by studying the two articles mentioned above.
Context Shifts – Basically a context shift happens when new information enters the story that changes the way we viewed things before. A great example of this comes from the movie Interstellar. The protagonist sets out on a journey in space, hoping to save the human population, but at the midpoint, new information enters that changes the context. In reality, this trip wasn’t about saving the human race. The protagonist learns that he unwittingly left everyone on Earth to their deaths.
To create context shifts, you introduce information that offers a new perspective. You may or may not connect the dots (depending on the mystery and situation), but once again, context shifts are powerful because it allows the realization to happen in the reader instead of just on the page.
What book have you read lately where you were a participator?
And, if your stories contain a mystery element, do you have a favorite method you use to include the reader? Let us know in the comments!
September C. Fawkes is a freelance editor, writing instructor, and award-winning writing tip blogger. She has edited for both award-winning and best-selling authors as well as beginning writers. Previously, she worked as an assistant to a New York Times bestselling author.
She is best known for her blog, which won the Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Award and Query Letter’s Top Writing Blog Award, and has over 500 writing tips. She also offers a live online writing course, “The Triarchy Method,” where she personally guides 10 students through developing their best books by focusing on the “bones” of story.
To learn more about her course, read her tips, or inquire about her editing services, visit SeptemberCFawkes.com. Grab her AMAZING free guide on Crafting Powerful Protagonists while there. You can also find her on Facebook, X, Instagram, and Tumblr.