Being a Better Writer: Mysteries

I think it was inevitable that this post was going to happen sooner or later.

I’ve not written too much about genre thus far on BaBW. It just … hasn’t happened. I’ve written about other, closely critical elements of story, such as pacingstingers, hard and soft openings, or what drives a story forward, but to date I’ve not actually talked much about genre-specific writing. Not so directly, anyway,

Maybe that needs to change. Perhaps starting with today’s post. Which would be a fitting one to begin with, considering that of my earliest five major works, three of them were direct mysteries while the other two contained trace elements of it. So, when it comes to writing mysteries, I have more than a passing bit of experience with what goes into them.

So, with that in mind: what is a mystery?

When asked this question to a classroom or the general public, generally you receive a variety of answers. The most common one is usually following the idea of the classic “whodunit,” in the vein of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. The idea of a pair or group of individuals attempting to solve the means and details behind a criminal enterprise, usually a murder or some sort. Thousands of books, plays, films, and other mediums have been produced that follow this exact same formula: a crime has been committed, the police are baffled (or perhaps even unaware that said crime exists), and it falls to the protagonist to bring things to light.

Of course, this isn’t the only thing that will be suggested, because the crime thriller is by no means the only form of mystery out there. Some may suggest, for example, a book in which part of the journey of the hero is solving a riddle or a puzzle, or perhaps working out the villain’s machinations—all of which are concealed from the reader (and the protagonist) much like the details of a “crime” in the classic “whodunit.”

The audience could still go further, as well. They could bring up any number of stories where information is concealed from the reader—perhaps never even given—and argue that they are, in a way, mystery. Or they could raise high a book that leaves much of its world, methods, or elements unexplained … and therefore “mysterious.” And there’d probably be the one person in the back (there’s almost always one of these) who would try to argue that “genre” itself was a pointless endeavor, and that trying to categorize anything was simply a fruitless exercise—right up until the professor, tired of such pontification, chucked a book at their head.

Point is, you’re going to get a lot of answers if you ask a crowd what a mystery is. And the thing is, with the exception of that last one, none of them are actually wrong. Each one of those examples they’ve raised? There is an element of mystery there. What sets each of them apart is who and what each one is aimed at.

Let’s step back for a minute then, and do some definition. If each of those commentators was in some way correct, then what is—or perhaps we should say what consititutes—a mystery?

I’m going to do something a bit different here. Rather than jump on a Google definition (you can all look that up on your own anyway), I’m going to present what I’ve seen as the definition of a mystery in my past four years writing and selling books.

Simply put, mystery is the pursuit of the unknown element.

That element can be any number of things. It can be a criminal (who did this?). It can be a crime (how did someone do this?). It can be an object (how does this work, or perhaps why?). It can be a person (what are their motivations?). It can even be a world (how does this world work?) or a system (how does this magic/science operate?).

Note the appearance of the classic who, what, why, and how questions in the paragraph above? They’re there by design. A mystery is not merely the lack of explanation. That would be mysterious, but not a myster(see the difference there?). A mystery is a lack of explanation combined with a given desire to obtain what’s withheld or missing.

To further clarify the difference between these two moments, let us look to example. Say we have a fantasy story about two lovers whose families are at odds with one another. Now, this pair obviously wants to spend time together, and so they decide to meet in the forbidden forest that lies near each of their homes. This forest is full of strange beasts, plants, and magic, all unknown to the two lovers, but they meet there anyway, and the forest becomes the setting for their illicit relationship. They talk, enjoy one another’s company in fear of being discovered, story goes on, they are discovered, they fight for love, etc … and the forest, through this, with it’s strangeness, is used as a set piece. The focus is on the lovers.

Now, is the forest mysterious? Of course. But in the context given above, is it a mystery?

No, no it is not. It’s much like the Fire Swamp from The Princess Bride. Alluring, interesting, and filled with all manner of strange things … but no one, reader included, is asked at any point to consider the why or the how behind it. The swamp (or in our example, the forbidden forest) is simply a set piece. Strange, alien, but not a mystery.

Now, what if we decided to change that? Let’s rewind a bit and mix up things a little. Same setup: Two lovers with families at odds, plan illicit meetings in the forbidden forest … and here things begin to split apart. What if, in one of their earlier meetings, they comment on how strange the forest is, and begin to wonder why? Their relationship begins to share the spotlight with their curious musings on why or how the forest can be the way it is, and what is so strange about it. And then, they began to look for answers as to how, why, or what.

And now we have a mystery folded into the story of these two lovers. They want to know who, what, why, or how about the forest. They are in the pursuit of the unexplained. They want to find what is making the place so strange … and along the way, they may learn about themselves, the forest, or any number of other elements in pursuit of that knowledge.

Do you see the difference? One story presents something that is interesting and unexplained … but does not ask of the reader nor the characters who, what, why, or how it came to be that way. Which makes the forest mysterious, but not a mystery.

The other, however, asks the readers and the characters those questions, and so one party or the other (reader or protagonists) go in search of answers. They go in search of answers. And that makes a mystery.

This is why mystery is a genre that can both stand on its own two feet as a standalone adventure, but also serve so well mixing with other genres, either as a primary source of plot, a sub-plot, or even a small moment of flavor. The pursuit of the unknown element can mean any number of things, and apply to an incredibly wide variety of plots, goals, characters, stories, and situations.Mystery, then, is one of the more flexible of story elements. It can carry the weight of an entire narrative on its own, or it can be spliced into just about any situation imaginable. It can appear in a romance, an action-adventure, a solemn history, comedy, or even tragedy. It can be shaped to fit chapters or scenes, or be stretched out to fill the whole of a world. It can be delightfully obtuse and puzzling, or it can be simple and straightforward. Mystery likes to appear wherever it can.

And when it does, it almost always elicits a reaction from the audience. After all, many find thrill in the pursuit of something, or in the presentation of the unknown. Sticking these two together, then, is like combining peanut butter and chocolate: you’re left with a delectable treat that combines the best of both worlds.

Or, on a somewhat alarming note, can but not always does. And it is in that mode of thought that we must shift gears. We’ve discussed what a mystery is, but not what some would argue is the most important aspect of these blog posts. We know what it is, but now how do we use it in our stories? And how are we going to use it effectively?

As you might imagine, there’s a lot to be considered. And so, we’re going to need to ask ourselves a lot of questions.

First, as weird as this may sound, do we want our mysteries to be for the protagonist or the readers?

Like I said, this sounds weird, but think about it for a moment. Have you ever read a book before which poses a question that you, the reader, will continue to think about while the characters do not? Because I have. These can be mysteries of the world, such as dropping a tidbit about a nation, country, or magic that no one in the book  questions, but at the same time no one answers either, causing the reader to pay close attention to try and find the answer to the question they’ve just been presented with.

Is this a mystery? Yes, it is. It’s simply one that the reader is pursuing, not the characters. To the characters, it’s either not a mystery or not a concern, and so they don’t follow it. But to the reader, it’s an unanswered question that they may want an answer to.

Note that this is different from a simple twist or a gradual reveal. For a reader to pursue, they’ll need clues to latch onto (just as a character will), and so we’ll need to dole those out. The trick being that the characters in the book will either already hold the knowledge the reader is hunting for, or not care that they don’t know.

A number of books out there have been given a mystery sub-plot in this fashion, giving the reader something curious to pursue that they can split their attention with during the rest of the story. For example, in Beyond the Borderlands one of the characters at at one point balks to join forces with the protagonist, but then reverses their decision after the protagonist gives him a small speech. The protagonist isn’t quite sure what part of the speech did it … and nor does she really care. The result is what matters to her. The the reader however, it can be a bit of a puzzle, since the slight about-face in behavior seems somewhat strange. Clues are buried through the narrative, however, so that a reader can start to piece things together by carefully paying attention to some of the character’s actions and a few of the things he says. In the end, all of these clues come together at the reveal that the change in the character’s behavior came because the protagonist had revealed who she was working for—an individual with close family ties to the character that he both knew and highly respected, and the character had alluded and reacted to that specific detail several times.

See? Mystery that the protagonist wasn’t concerned with, but many readers were. And there were clues in the narrative that game them the means to solve that mystery, or at least get close, before the narrative revealed whether they were right or wrong.

Now, I want to draw mention to the fact that even if we don’t give our readers mysteries to solve in that fashion (instead giving them to the characters), many of what I explained above is still going to be important. The focus of where those clues and whatnot are given will simply shift. Also, nothing says you can’t have both types of mystery in the same story, or that the two can’t pass back and forth.

But there’s something else you must consider when looking to write a mystery, something that you will need to decide before you begin writing it: Are you going to write a mystery that reveals? Or conceals?

This might seem like an odd question, but in truth many mysteries that are written today, for both film and literature, are, more often than not, mysteries that conceal from their audience the clues that make said mystery solvable. The hide them from their readers or their viewers in order to keep them from jumping ahead and figuring out the answers before the characters do.

Why? Because writing a mystery is hard, yes, but it’s even harder when you’re giving the audience a fair shot at solving it before the characters (bearing in mind that the audience always has the advantage here, because they’re given the clues in much more rapid succession—cutting out life and time in-between—and in relative safety, which makes them easier to connect). Because then you actually have to make sure that your clues make sense, that they point towards an ultimate solution, etc. And that’s tricky to do.

Which is why so many mysteries these days don’t bother.

For example, take the television show Psych. It’s a great show, with wonderful humor and mystery. But if you watch all of it from start to finish (which I recommend, by the way; it’s on Netflix), you’ll start to notice a shift as the show approaches its last few seasons.

In the early seasons of the show, the audience is show every clue that the main character, Shawn Spencer, is shown, in both overt ways (the camera zooming in on it with the character’s focus to say “Hey, clue!”) and in subtle ways (the clue being visible, but no overt character or directorial input to make the audience say “hey, clue!”). This made it possible for an attentive viewer to put all the pieces together and solve them at the same time (or sometimes earlier) than the main character. Cool, right?

But as the show went on, this practice faded. As it entered its later seasons, more and more the clues were withheld from the audience, never even being shown on camera but hidden behind scenery or another character so that the main character could spot them … but we as the audience could not. There was therefore no way for us to solve the mystery, as we were not given the clues that made it possible.

Why do this? Because its easier to write, and with eight seasons to the show’s name, I can’t fault the writers for wanting to shift to an easier format to take some of the weight off. When you conceal clues from the audience, you don’t have to worry about them solving it—they can’t! Unless they make a wild guess, in which case they’re not really solving it, but getting lucky.

Here’s the thing, though. You don’t need to write a dastardly clever series of clues to have a good mystery. There are gripping books out there that still engage their audience yet conceal the clues from their eyes, though you won’t find mine among them since it is not my style. But, if you’re going to write a mystery this way … you’d best know beforehand. You cannot change partway through. Some books do, going from revealed to conceanled and withholding the final clue or clues so that the reader cannot solve the mystery … but be warned that this will anger a lot of your audience, because such an action is usually highly visible to the reader.

Additionally, if you’re going to write a revealed mystery, then you’re going to need to think out how, when, where, and what when it comes to the clues you’re going to divvy out. You don’t want a reader to be able to solve the mystery too quickly, after all, but at the same time you cannot make it too obtuse or the average reader won’t have a prayer of solving it.

Is this a balancing act? Yes it is, and I can say nothing else upon it save that it’s mostly one you’ll learn through trial and error. Every reader is different, each will notice different things, and you’ll never be able to perfectly satisfy everytone (part of why a concealed mystery is an easier option, as this worry doesn’t occur).

A small subnote: There is also the subject of open and closed mysteries. An open mystery is one where the reader knows the solution, but the protagonists do not, and the thrill comes from seeing how the protagonist figures everything out. A closed mystery, however, is the more conventional “audience in the dark option.” These can also play into the above.

Now, another thing you’ll need to work out before you start writing. Get your mystery together (whatever it may be: who’s on the phone, who killed someone, who was killed, how a bank was robbed, what’s in the forbidden forest, etc). Get all the clues, things that point to the answer, and gather it all up. Now lay it out from start to finish (either on paper or in your mind, but paper may work better) and look at it. Now ask yourself one very cutting question:

Does this make sense?

This is a critical part of a mystery. Does everything, revealed, come together in a cohesive whole? Do the motivations make sense? The twist? The truth? Does it all line up in way that makes you nod, or better yet slap your forehead and shout “Of course!”? Or does it fall apart?

There’s a caveat with this I’m going to mention, quickly, that sometimes a mystery only needs to make sense from a certain point of view. For example, you can have a mystery wherein the solution is actually nowhere near logical for the clues … but mitigated somewhat by the fact that whoever set up the mystery in the first place is either unstable, misinformed, or perhaps using the mystery as a smokescreen for other events. So while once solved, everything doesn’t quite fit together nicely, as a piece of a larger narrative it can still fit in place.

In any case, once everything clicks together to your satisfaction (be sure to examine it from multiple angles and probe for weak points!), then you can go ahead and start disseminating these clues out to your audience by writing the mystery.

Now, there are a couple of ways you can do this. One of the reasons I suggested writing this all out was so that you can check off these clues as you build them into the narrative, thereby making sure you don’t forget anything. Now, as you write, don’t be afraid of a bit of expansion or contraction, to borrow construction terms. Some things may shift or move a little based on how the story proceeds, and that’s okay. Generally I’ve found when a story does that, it does so for a reason and makes for a better story in the end. I’ve flipped and moved the order of clues around before to compensate for a living narrative; you shouldn’t be afraid to do likewise with your own work. Let the characters carry things a little.

And, well … that’s it. That’s what I have for you today.

Now, don’t panic. Some of you may have specific questions … but many of them have already been answered above if you think about it, and many that haven’t are instead answered by other topics such as pacing, character development, or other writing topics. Whether you’re writing a romantic mystery sub-plot or the classic Film Noir hard-boiled detective, what I’ve discussed above is going to apply … and much of what is left is going to be covered by more than just “mystery” but other conventions of good writing.

So, let’s recap. Mystery is the pursuit of the unknown element (we want mystery, not mysterious; don’t forget the difference!), a tasking of who, what, where, why, or how in order to explain something that is not made clear or left in the dark. It can be used in many genres and types of stories, as well as stand on its own, alone. It can be asked of the reader independent of the protagonists, can be asked of the protagonist but not the reader, or can be asked of both. It can also conceal parts of itself from the reader, if needs be, in order to make the mystery simpler to handle for the author, or can conceal things from the protagonist by not the reader (in a closed mystery setting).

However, outside of all these, in some way, in some form, one of the most important rules is that it must make sense. Once the curtains have been pulled away, once everything about the mystery is laid bare, it must make some kind of logical sense, either alone, or as part of  a larger whole. Then you take those parts, and you sprinkle them through the story, keeping track of them as you go, to lead your characters and/or readers to the reveal.

And … that’s really what there is to it. That’s the writing of a mystery. All the other parts? They fall into place with good writing habits or with experience, with pacing or with prose. Just keep in mind what a mystery is and what you want to accomplish, and go write.

Thrill somebody with the unknown.

Good luck.

2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Mysteries

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