Satisfying Mysteries

I’m continuing to plan out my upcoming project, Razor Mountain. While the end product is going to be a novel, I will be releasing it in serial form – one post at a time.

One of the things I find most interesting about writing fiction (and something I plan to post about at some point) is “story seeds.” By that, I mean the formative elements of a story: the various little ideas, characters, scenes, and plot points that suddenly come together in a way that makes me think, “Oh, there’s a story in this.”

One of the formative elements of Razor Mountain wasn’t about the plot points or characters at all – it was structural. It was the simple idea of writing a story that is driven by mysteries.

Big Mystery, Little Mystery

I want to be clear that I’m not necessarily talking about the Mystery genre. The Mystery genre, like most genres, is full of conventions and tropes that I don’t necessarily want to be bound by. In Mystery fiction, the entire plot is driven by a big mystery, like a murder or crime. But the truth is that almost all fiction is at least partly driven by mystery. One of the joys of reading is finding out what happens next.

Mysteries, large and small, are a great way to keep the reader reading. Few things are quite as satisfying as having a lingering question answered. There are many ways this can be used. The reader might be given knowledge that the characters don’t have, forced to watch and worry as they make bad decisions thanks to this missing knowledge. Alternately, the reader themselves may be left in the dark, while the characters withhold their information. But most frequently, the character and the reader are both missing that critical knowledge, trying to find the answers together.

Mysteries don’t have to be drawn out. Often, it can be just as effective to pose a question at the start of a chapter, and answer it by the end. This is a way to create a miniature plot arc, and a bit of satisfaction for the reader, without resolving the larger elements of the plot.

Some stories might pose a question near the end of a chapter instead, only to resolve it shortly into the next chapter. This is a common way to “manufacture” continuous cliff-hangers, create suspense, and keep the reader turning pages.

Not All Mysteries are Good Mysteries

It’s important to note that just throwing a mystery into a story doesn’t necessarily improve it. In fact, it was bad examples of this, not good ones, that made me want to write something where mysteries drove the plot.

I’ll admit that it wasn’t initially fiction that inspired me at all. It was a tradition of disappointing TV shows. The X-Files was a formative experience of my youth, and the first show I remember that provided an endless sequence of mysteries, but rarely offered any coherent explanations for those mysteries. More recently, I watched years of LOST, only to be disappointed, along with so many others, when it became clear that it was building up dozens of mysteries that would never be properly resolved.

Those shows, and others in the same mold, often gain huge audiences, only to irritate and disappoint many of their viewers as time goes on. And sometimes there are reasons for this. There are writers’ strikes. There are budget problems. Actors leave. Shows are cancelled or move between services and networks. Even under the best of circumstances, well-laid plan can go awry and mess up plots in the process. Other times, these problems can be can be avoided by simple forethought and careful planning.

How to Piss Off the Audience

It’s simple. Ask questions and fail to answer them. Or provide contradictory answers.

The fact is this: it’s easy to create a mystery. Something happens, with no clear explanation. This is dangerous. It’s easy to ask questions, and those questions create tension. They pull the reader (or viewer) along. For the most part, a mystery with no resolution feels just as good, right up until the reader realizes that it’s not going to have a satisfying conclusion.

It’s harder to create a good mystery. A good mystery doesn’t just pose a question. It may generate a series of interesting clues. It may make the reader speculate among several clear (or more obfuscated) possibilities. Most importantly, it has a satisfying explanation that answers the questions and ties up loose ends. It doesn’t contradict other parts of the story.

A Formula, With Caveats

It’s always dangerous to try to distill broad structural issues in fiction down to simple rules, but I’m going to do it anyway. When it comes to writing fiction, there’s always a mix of skill and intuition involved. This is just a starting point to work from.

Before you start, make a commitment. A mystery is a contract with your reader. You pose questions, and promise to answer every one of them in a cohesive way. Don’t leave the reader hanging. If you’re plotting a novel and you don’t thoroughly outline before you write, you may not know right away how you’re going to solve a mystery. In this case, you need to carefully track the questions you’re posing. Make sure that by the time you reach the final draft, they’re all either resolved, or removed from the plot.

For my purposes, writing serially, I think it’s much safer to only introduce mysteries if I already know how they will resolve. Releasing in episodes means slowly painting yourself into a corner. By knowing the answers up-front, you avoid making decisions in chapter 3 that preclude the really clever resolution you think of in chapter 10. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t choose to change the resolution when you think of something better. You just have to make sure that the new resolution fits together with the other elements of the plot. Having a resolution in-hand for each mystery makes it possible to evaluate that.

The first step in building a mystery: create a straightforward question and answer. For example, a character suffers a setback. Who caused it? Don’t be afraid to stop right there. A small mystery that is only driving the plot for a few pages or a chapter doesn’t have to be complicated.

Next, you can introduce obscuring complications. Maybe it’s obvious who’s responsible for your protagonist’s problem. Ask yourself what you could change to make it less obvious. Does the protagonist have some particular knowledge that gives them an edge? What if you adjust the plot to take that away? What if that bit of information seems true, but there’s actually something different going on?

To improve complications, think about clues and red-herrings. Consider alternatives. You know which character is responsible for the murder. But what if it was a different character? How would that change the facts of the matter? Look for similarities between this “alternate-reality” version of the plot, and the “real” plot. Those clues that suggest different options are clues you can play up to make it harder for the reader to guess which world the characters actually live in.

Finally, don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. It’s easy to get bogged down in details, but once you’ve added clues and red-herrings, the overall plot still has to make sense. The characters have to follow their motivations. The twists and turns of plot can’t come off as absurd or ridiculous. Beware characters coming off as “plot-puppets”.

Razor Mountain

When I started working on Razor Mountain, I was entertaining some silly ideas. Things like trying to create a specific number of mysteries in the first half of the book, then winding them down and resolving them in the second half of the book, or intertwining mysteries and answers across odd/even chapters. Maybe it’s a side-effect of my day job as a programmer. I love the idea of perfect symmetry and exact formulas. But those tend to break down pretty quickly in the face of a real project.

I do think it makes sense to raise more questions in portions of the story with rising action, and answer more of those questions to highlight a resolution. I will be trying to intersperse smaller, chapter-sized mysteries to drive individual episodes, with larger (act- and novel-spanning) mysteries. A mini-mystery is a great tool for making an episode feel satisfying while furthering the larger plot. As I work on the outline for Razor Mountain, I’ll be explicitly calling out mysteries and resolutions.

Homework

If you haven’t considered how mysteries play out in stories outside the mystery genre, I’d encourage you to spend a little time thinking about it. Try to find all the little mysteries and resolutions in one of your favorite stories or books. You might be surprised how many there are, and how they influence the plot.

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