Storytelling Class — Mysteries

Every once in a while, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This time, our topic was mysteries.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

Freya has been reading Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side collections, and started on the first book of the Wheel of Time series.

I have been reading collections of short stories, including some of the anthologies that I got from the Martian Kickstarter. I also checked out the first three volumes of Locke and Key from the library, and I’m working through those.

What Did We Write?

Freya continues to work on her chapter book, Amber and Floria. She recently felt the downsides of exploratory writing as she had to rewrite her first two chapters to match the way the later parts evolved.

I’ve been working on Razor Mountain, and spending a little time here and there working on short stories.

Mysteries

Our topic for this class was crafting satisfying mysteries.

The first thing to note is that there are “big mysteries” that drive the whole plot of a story, as in murder mysteries and police procedurals. There are also “little mysteries” that can serve a few different purposes in a story, but all boil down to reasons for the reader to keep reading.

Little mysteries don’t have to be long and drawn out like big mysteries. They can be posed and resolved in the same chapter, or even a single conversation.

Many mysteries are just questions the reader asks the story, like:

  • What happened?
  • What happens next?
  • Why is this thing like that?
  • Who is this person and why did they do that?

Mysteries can also be just for a character, while the reader can see all the answers. Then the question for the reader becomes “how will the character find the answer I already know?” A lot of tension can be added to a story by letting the reader get information that a character doesn’t have. The character, using the limited information at their disposal, may make reasonable choices that the reader knows are bad. Few things are more harrowing for a reader than watching a character make bad choices that they think are good choices.

Driving a Story With Mysteries

Mysteries are a great way to define a section of a story, or an arc. Each mystery naturally has a beginning (when the mystery is first posed), a middle (when the characters work through the clues and overcome obstacles) and an ending (when the answer to the mystery is revealed).

To drive a story with mysteries though, you’ll need multiple mysteries being created and resolved over the course of the plot. This can be done in two basic ways, which I’ll call overlapping mysteries and feeding mysteries.

Overlapping mysteries are not necessarily directly related to each other. A character might have a personal mystery that affects themselves, and a larger mystery they’re working on that ties into the big plot. For example, a police detective who is trying to solve a murder, but spends his off-hours trying to find his long-lost child, hidden from him by his late ex-wife.

Feeding mysteries are arranged so that the solution to one mystery provides clues or ties into another mystery. A common type of plot twist is when two mysteries that appear to just be overlapping may turn out to actually be feeding into one another. In our example, maybe the detective discovers that he did have a child, and the picture he found looks suspiciously similar to the killer he’s tracking.

Feeding a personal mystery into the bigger plot mystery is a great way to set up personal stakes for a character, and then make those stakes affect the outcome of the story.

Making a Mystery

I won’t claim there is a single formula for creating mysteries, but I’ll provide a few steps you can run through to get started.

  1. Come up with a question. This is your mystery.
  2. Answer the question. This is the payoff.
  3. Add an obscuring complication.
  4. Find a way for the character(s) to overcome that complication.
  5. Repeat and nest as necessary.

When you’re first coming up with your question and answer, don’t worry if the answer seems obvious. The key is to start by having something to ask and knowing the answer.

Once you have a question and answer, you can add an obscuring complication. This can be anything that makes it harder for the characters to discover the answer. This is how you can adjust the difficulty of the mystery.

Will the mystery be more difficult for the characters if some piece of critical information is missing? They could solve it easily if only the murder weapon wasn’t missing! Perhaps a character flaw would make it harder for them to solve. Too bad the character is an antisocial lone wolf, because the person they never get along with would be able to see exactly what’s going on. You can add multiple obstacles if you want the character to go through several steps to solve the mystery.

Then, for each obstacle, you must determine the way that the character(s) will ultimately overcome it and move the plot forward.

Once you have a complete arc—question, obstacle, overcoming, and solution—you can begin to overlap or feed one mystery into another.

A Mystery Is Only as Good as Its Payoff

A final warning: one of the most dangerous things you can do as a writer is to create lots of mysteries without knowing the answers or how to resolve them.

Episodic TV shows fall into this trap all the time, because creating big mysteries gets viewers excited. However, as the show carries on, they either fail to provide solutions to the mysteries or create such tangled, nonsensical plot webs to justify their solutions that the whole thing falls apart.

Nobody will remember or appreciate how well you built up that tantalizing mystery if the payoff turns out to be garbage.

Razor Mountain Development Journal — Chapter 12

You can find my spoiler-free journals for each chapter, my spoiler-heavy pre-production journals, and the book itself over at the Razor Mountain landing page.

Thank God For New Characters

This was a big, exciting chapter for a lot of reasons, and a fun one to write. This marks the end of Act I for Christopher, so a major shift in the story is appropriate.

Christopher’s long isolation is at an end. I get to introduce him to a new character, and then a whole host of new characters. A protagonist who is all alone presents some special challenges, as I’ve discussed in previous development journals, so it’s a relief to be out of that stage. It comes as both a relief and a shock to Christopher to suddenly be around people again, and hopefully readers will feel a little bit of a jolt as well.

This chapter serves as a transition. Rather than jumping into big blocks of dialogue, we start with a few terse sentences. Amaranth’s inability to speak (and her unwillingness to answer all of Christopher’s questions) means that we really only get a few terse sentences of back-and-forth between the two characters.

I really like Amaranth as a character. She comes across as very mysterious initially, but we’ll eventually see that she’s a person with simple motives. Writing her poses a few challenges—it can be hard to clearly describe gestures in fiction. I tend to fall back on a simple description paired directly with the character’s interpretation of what they’re being told. This hopefully helps the reader build an image in their head while making the meaning clear (or unclear, if that’s the goal).

I also had to decide how to depict her written responses in the text. I debated italics and eventually went with bold, just because it stands out more. I think I would ultimately like those “written” lines to be in a font that simulates handwriting, but that is more hassle than I want to deal with right now, especially when I’m posting the story across multiple services, and they each have their own tools and limitations.

Old Mystery, New Mystery

Along with the transition to Act II, we get the resolution of some major mysteries. However, the plot has to keep moving, and these resolutions only lead to new questions. Yes, there are more mysterious structures out here, and yes, there are people in them. But who are they? Why are they here? And why does at least one of them seem intent on shooting Christopher?

This is a balancing act. In this kind of “mystery box” story, the reader needs some mysteries to resolve or at least move forward. Otherwise, it just feels like it’s piling confusion on top of confusion until the reader gets fed up. On the other hand, the story’s momentum is built on those mysteries and getting to their resolutions, so the mysteries need to ramp up in scale and importance until the end, when the biggest payoffs and resolutions can finally happen.

Revision

This chapter and the previous chapter both started as two chapters in the outline (so these were originally conceived as four separate short chapters). I’m happy with how these turned out when reduced and combined.

There are two chapters left in Act I in my outline. These are both God-Speaker chapters, and once again I think it makes sense to combine them. This neatly keeps up the format of two Christopher chapters for every God-Speaker chapter. And while Chapter 12 was a pretty big moment in Christopher’s story, I’d argue that Chapter 13 will be an even bigger moment in God-Speaker’s. It’s the perfect way to wrap up the act.

The start of Act II will also signal a change in the format of the chapters. Christopher’s timeline will continue apace, but God-Speaker’s story is about to jump through time at a much faster pace. This big inflection point is a subtle signal that will hopefully make that more palatable for the reader.

Research

I didn’t have to do a lot of research for this chapter. In fact, the only things I looked up involved elevators. Specifically, what’s at the bottom of an elevator shaft? As it turns out, hydraulics, springs, or a shock absorber, and not much else. It only ended up mattering for a few sentences in this chapter, but I now know a little more about the different types of elevators out there than I did before.

Next Time: Finishing Act I!

That’s all for this chapter. Next time we’ll talk Chapter 13, and the end of Act I for God-Speaker.