Build mysteries around whether characters will succeed or fail

From Nathan Bransford:

One of the most common missed opportunities I see when I’m editing novels involves mysteries.

Do you want to know what it is? Am I being mysterious?

Often, when trying to be mysterious, authors just end up being vague. It’s really hard to invest in a mystery when we don’t have enough information to understand what’s happening entirely.

Instead, it’s often better to let the reader into the mystery in order to build anticipation. Orient the reader around whether a character will succeed or fail.

. . . .

You’ll often see novels start off with something that nominally feels high stakes, like a character running through a dark forest as fast as they can… only the author doesn’t tell us why they’re running. The author wants us to wonder: why is this character running as fast as they can through the forest? Mysterious, right?

But it’s downright confusing to not be given more information that that, particularly in first person narratives when we’re tied to a character’s inner thoughts. We should generally know what the protagonist knows, and it feels vaguely hostile when the author is just holding out on us.

Then, in the climactic moment, we find out everything all at once in a chaotic jumble. The character slays what was chasing them and then we find out: Oh. Actually it was an evil moon demon and had the protagonist not succeeded they would have gotten ripped to shreds.

. . . .

Vague mysteries are missed opportunities to build suspense and anticipation.

What’s the better mystery: Why is this character running through the forest, or is this character going to avoid getting ripped to pieces by a nasty moon demon?

Had we known from the start that there’s a demon after the character, we would also learn the contours of what’s at stake. We would start imagining what might happen if they fail and get ripped to shreds. We would start investing in the outcome, and thus would feel more satisfied when the protagonist barely escapes.

When we only find out what was really happening after the fact, it invariably feels like a letdown. The reader’s reaction is more like: “Yeah… had I known the situation was life or death, I might have been worried. Instead I was just confused.”

The moment we learn what a character wants (to escape) and what’s at stake (if they fail they’ll get ripped to shreds), it’s almost like a clock starts ticking, and every bit of delay and extra effort the protagonist expends deepens the reader’s investment in what’s going to happen. It builds suspense for the eventual showdown.

In order for formula that to work: the reader needs to know what’s happening.

Beware rug-pulling

It’s even worse when the vague mystery is an excuse for a cheap attempt at pulling the rug out from under the reader.

In the “just kidding it was a game of tag” example, it erodes trust in the narrative voice for the mystery to be just a matter of the author leading the reader astray. After that moment, the reader will have a very hard time taking anything in the novel at face value, which is an exhausting way to read.

Authorial trust once lost is difficult to regain.

Be careful with movie and TV show mystery tropes

This is also another area where screenplay-izing your novel and relying on tropes in film and TV can lead you astray. I’m sure we can all think of countless hit TV shows and movies that start with a character running and we don’t know why. In visual mediums there’s more leeway to just show a character running and let the viewer see what shows up and let that be the surprise.

Novels are different. We’re more connected to characters’ inner consciousness, so it’s more confusing to not be let into the story to see their motivations. And in a novel, it’s hard to process as much information in a flash as we can with film and TV, so it feels overwhelming to find out everything all at once when the demon arrives.

. . . .

Motivation is everything in a novel, and this extends to mysteries too. If you can connect your mystery to the things your protagonist wants, the reader will be far more invested in the outcome and feel those stirrings of suspense.

Link to the rest at Nathan Bransford