Okay, fellow writers, we’ve been pushed around long enough. We’re told to be accurate, clear and crisp. Tell the story. Don’t confuse the audience.
We try so hard not to confuse people that we end up ruining the story. We’re eager to be good little writers, and so we tell the reader stuff that they would rather not know. Or rather, things that would be better withheld.
The subject today is mysteries. Mysteries within the plot line.
The intentional question.
What readers don’t know often keeps them reading. They read partly to find out things like:
whether the head of the hospital is sincere or part of a conspiracy
what terrible event in the past is haunting the major character
whether the helper character is who he claims to be
what the meaning is of children appearing as damning apparitions
why the major character has migraines and visions
These are all examples taken from the movie Shutter Island starring Leonardo DiCaprio. None of these pressing questions are answered until the end of the film. This is an extreme example of how little you can get by with telling people (at first), and how intriguing it is not to know.
Now, Shutter Island is a pure thriller, and thus the audience is primed for a lot of mystery–as they may not be for your romance novel or fantasy story. But we can still take the lesson home, that readers want to guess. They enjoy it. Readers are intrigued by not knowing. Unanswered questions invite the reader to turn the page. And the next one, and the next. Handled with care, plot mysteries add interest and tension. Handled poorly, not explaining things can be damn annoying.
Properly handled plot mysteries must appear to be intentional mysteries. You are promising that when the wife looks away while answering the question of “how was your day,” that we will later find out whether her day was routine or in need of deep cover.
Bury the bodies first.
This is why I advise planning the mysteries ahead of time. Ask, How can I intrigue the reader by raising plot questions? Plan (in general) where in your storyline to raise questions and when to reveal them. If you love to plan, make a list of mysteries and note whether the answer comes in Act I, II or III.
This is a great way to front load your subconscious in developing your story. When you create mysteries within your plot, you suggest to yourself aspects of the story that can add texture, depth, motive and reversals.
Tell too much, or tell it too soon, and your story becomes more obvious, more linear and less realistic. (Less realistic because: life is full of everyday mysteries. None of us has the full picture when navigating our days. Sometimes it’s the result of hiding and deception, and other times because we just don’t bloody know.)
Mysteries big and small.
These intriguing plot questions don’t need to be big mystery bombs that go off at the end with shock waves. Or even medium sized curiosities that provide small pleasures and feelings of completion.
They can be surprisingly small and still make us want to turn the page. Like saying “his regular Wednesday meet-up.” Hmm. Is it lunch with his brother? Sexual recreation at the Travel Lodge? AA meetings? Give us a couple chapters before answering. It might mean dropping a phrase like “the damn diamonds,” a term like the “inquisitor,” or even a simple, loaded term that in context explains its importance. As when, for example, someone asks at gunpoint for the “plans.” Many of these simple unanswered questions can be dropped into the manuscript on the fly.
Mystery becomes second nature once we as writers figure out that we not only have permission to do it, we will reap big rewards for it. We will be tapping into the power of curiosity.
So I say, let’s confound people! Let’s infuse our stories with questions that beg for answers, and then not tell. Make ’em wait.
They’ll thank you for it.