Everything you don’t know is a mystery. Too, mystery adds tension and encourages involvement. Most writers know that so there’s little mystery there. What’s perhaps too often a missed, though, is that it can be a knife-edge walk between being coy and over-explaining.
I don’t write whodunits or thrillers per se, but instead fantasy that includes mystery. I’m sharing that because this isn’t a how-to post for writing a classic detective novel. Instead, it’s about the dangers in how facts are presented. Combat coyness with an honest presentation. Dampen over-explaining with restraint.
It isn’t exactly that simple, but that’s a good place to start.
Keep in mind, readers want the journey. That’s why they pick up a story. In a way, all we have to do is not mess it up. Messing it up means not angering them by coming across as teasing with the facts or boring them with too much information.
How do I accomplish this?
To begin, I hope I’m accomplishing this. I also recognize that it requires a lot of work. I’m far from someone who gets it right the first time. For that reason, a lot of the key is recognizing when I’m doing it wrong. That takes me right back to where I began this post. Don’t play coy with the facts by withholding those that leave a hole by virtue of omission. Too, resist the desire to explain what isn’t one hundred percent clear.
There’s another tack I take that’s tied to my openings, which are the most difficult place to do any of this well (and where they’re more thought of as story questions… same thing, really).
The pressure is greater to tease facts in an effort to create false mystery at the start. As a reader, that’s a signal that I’m facing an entire book of manipulation and melodrama. On the other side of the edge is the fear the reader will be lost if you don’t explain everything. I’ve read fantastic opening paragraphs that were followed by info dumps. Following dynamic with boredom is a story killer.
My other tack has two parts to it. The first is to begin in what I call “The Leading Edge of In Medias Res” (into the middle of things). Many writers focus on the middle aspect of that Latin phrase, I choose to focus on the into. In other words, the leading edge. The second part of that tack is to then tell the story as I would if it appeared anywhere in the story. In fact, this is exactly what I try to do everywhere.
I’m not the best at explaining any of this so I’ll do so with the opening from Protecting the Pneuma Key. Please keep in mind that this is the first draft, though I touched it up a little for this post. I’m hoping to begin my first full edit of Pneuma Key this coming weekend…
Fleeing out the cottage’s back door, Zephtasha Barcaine plunged into a night encouraging her towards fate. Swirling snow rode the howling wind’s torment. The rylls would give chase. The five of them would swarm her back and bring her down if she didn’t keep moving.
The best path to release was over the crag’s crown to the cleft. She slipped on volcanic rock painted in hidden night sky. The snow trapped in its hollows was the lone contrast, clusters of stars on stone. No stars gazed down, nor did Ryzer’s blue moon glow. A monochrome boil conjured from her essence blocked all light.
Behind, the back door slammed a second time. The chase had begun.
A brief scream escaped her lungs.
She cut over the crag’s uneven summit, wove around ebony high points and knife-edges. A razored projection sliced her arm. She slammed a shoulder against a small prominence and plunged down the cleft she sought.
The cold shredded her thin blouse and calf-length skirt.
The chatter of the rylls filled the gaps between gusts. Azure was fast. She didn’t have long before he’d catch her.
Lungs afire, her tears crystalized on her cheeks. She slammed a knee into the basalt in the narrow cleft and cried out. It didn’t matter. They knew where she’d go to escape.
Her smooth soled shoes slid and spilled her out the end of the fissure. Sprawled, her hands gripped the edge. She was there. A life gone wrong had led to the precipice and the greatest tragedy was she welcomed the end.
“No more!” She slammed her fisted hands against the stone. “I’ve had enough. I can’t do this anymore.”
Okay, some points:
I originally wrote this beginning at the cliff edge, but it was a who cares moment that prompted me to over-explain. I considered backing up to events in the cottage, but that, I realized, would provide too much time for explaining, which would encourage needless withholding. Instead, I started with the door and the mystery told itself. My only contribution to setting the tone was word choice like my mention of sharp edges and the eerie setting in general. Any misconception about what’s happening here is natural. The phrases, a night encouraging her towards fate and the five of them would swarm her back aren’t lies and are only deceiving because the reader doesn’t yet understand what’s going on.
Spoiler: both those events come to pass.
It’s true, story questions are mystery. Put more simply, what the reader doesn’t know—and more importantly, know they don’t know—are mysteries. Mystery implies the desire to know. After all, if you don’t care then there isn’t any mystery.
For instance, if I think I hear a mountain lion outside and assume it’s someone’s television, there’s no mystery. If I head outside with a flashlight, then there’s a mystery (in Montana there’s probably a dead Christina, too).
I hope this helps someone out there. I know it helps me to think about these aspects. My blog posts are a bit of thinking out loud. I often learn a lot explaining to myself.