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.
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.
- Come up with a question. This is your mystery.
- Answer the question. This is the payoff.
- Add an obscuring complication.
- Find a way for the character(s) to overcome that complication.
- 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.