Too Much Mystery: The Fine Line Between Intriguing and Annoying

I’m happy to have a guest blogger this month–welcome Michael Young!

Too Much Mystery: The Fine Line Between Intriguing and Annoying

by Michael Young

No matter what genre of story you are writing, you probably want to throw a little mystery in there. It’s one of those things that keeps readers turning pages.

There is, however, a fine line between leaving a mysterious trail of breadcrumbs for the reader to follow and leaving them hopelessly confused.  If you make your story too mysterious, then you risk losing the reader altogether.

The reason this is has to do with the relationship of promise and payoff.  When you introduce something mysterious, say an unmarked package that lands on the protagonist’s doorstep, you are promising the reader something as the author. In effect, you are saying “there’s a good story behind this. Come along with me and I’ll make it worth your while.”

If you make such a promise, your readers will expect that by investing their time into the mystery, they will eventually be rewarded by being able to unravel it. The suspense and wonder should build to a moment of revelation that relives all the suspense that they have been feeling and lets the reader feel better.

If, however, you don’t deliver on the promise, or you deliver only half-heartedly, your reader will feel cheated. All that time invested in reading forward and feeling the suspense mount was for nothing.  What if you let the reader wonder what was in that mysterious box for the entire novel and then reveal that it was just a package that had been left on the wrong doorstep or something mundane?  Your reader is going to feel cheated.

A perfect example of a story that often let consumers down for being on the wrong side of the line was the TV show “Lost”.  Mystery was the name of the game, and each new season piled on question after head-scratching question. From a monster made of black smoke to a four-toed statue, you could never tell what the show’s writers were going to throw at you next.

Promises, promises, promises.  The problem with making so many promises was that it becomes increasingly more difficult for the writers to deliver on all of them. As a viewer, I often felt that the writer’s simply forgot some mysterious point they brought up earlier in favor of piling on new enigmas. Or they would eventually answer your questions, but wait so long to do so that the moment of revelation was spoiled by the sheer time and energy it took to get there.

Don’t let your writing get LOST in translation.

I had a personal experience with this in my first published novel “The Canticle Kingdom”. The story revolves around a kingdom inside of a music box that was made by a couple of German brothers in the 1940s.  In order to attempt to create an air of mystery, I did not let on that the thing that brothers were building was a music box, and kept referring to it as their “project” or “masterpiece.”  The box changes hands many times in the course of the story, and I kept the box’s identity vague until much later in the book.

This technique backfired on me. Many people found this plot line confusing, which lessened their enjoyment of the other plotlines. Looking back, I realized that the story was already mysterious enough without resorting to this gimmick.

Do you have any good examples of stories that are on each side of the line? How can you make sure you avoid crossing the mystery line yourself?  

Michael is the author of the novels THE CANTICLE KINGDOM and THE LAST ARCHANGEL. He has had work featured in various online and print magazines such as Mindflights, The New Era, Allegory, and Ensign.

About Rachelle Christensen

I’m a mom of four cute kids—two girls and two boys. I have an amazing husband, three cats, and five chickens. My first novel was awarded Outstanding Book of the Year from the League of Utah Writers and was also a 2010 Whitney Finalist. My second suspense novel, CALLER ID, was released March 2012. I was born and raised in the rural farmlands of southern Idaho and I like to work over my tiny piece of field AKA garden each year. I love reading, running, singing and playing the piano. After graduating from Utah State University, my husband and I moved our family to Utah County. Visit my blog at www.rachellewrites.blogspot.com to learn more about upcoming books.
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7 Responses to Too Much Mystery: The Fine Line Between Intriguing and Annoying

  1. Wm says:

    I think the best thing you can do to test whether you’re being to vague is to have a diverse group of alpha/beta readers read your story and react to it.

  2. Jonathan Langford says:

    As a matter of principle, I’ve decided that I disapprove of hiding things from the reader that the point of view character knows. Suspense that comes from the character not knowing something is honest mystery. Suspense that comes from hiding something that the character knows is a gimmick — a substitute for the real thing.

    And yet I also know of cases where you can get some pretty effective fiction by doing precisely that. A classic case is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie. (In the interests of not revealing spoilers I won’t say here what the twist was, but if you’re curious, any relevant online article about the book will tell you.) In that case, technically Christie got away with it by employing an unreliable narrator and building the reason for that unreliability into the story itself.

    That’s the problem with “matters of principle” in writing: anytime you start making decisions about writing (yours or anyone else’s) on the basis of a principle, rather than what works for the particular story and audience, you wind up artificially limiting the techniques of fiction. That’s a principle, if you like.

  3. I agree. It’s a very fine line to walk to find the perfect balance. I do rely on several alpha/beta readers to help me see how each facet of the plot is working and the building of suspense–they get me every time if I try something approaching a gimmick. :)

  4. Great points about fulfilling reader expectations! Thanks, Michael. I enjoyed the comments as well. I would never dare send a book in without my test readers!

    It’s very true that after a big build-up, the reader expects payoff. I once read a mystery that I really enjoyed. But when the villain was revealed, that scene was so unexciting that I hoped it would turn out to be a diversion–that when I kept reading, I’d find out that this hadn’t been the REAL villain, and there would be a twist. Nope. The end of the book was spent wrapping up the love interest. For me, it fizzled.

  5. C. M. Malm says:

    I experienced one of these “What, what?”s last week as I finished reading Connie Willis’s award-winning Blackout/All Clear duology. At the end of the novel, there’s a really obscure “revelation” (more of a vague hint than an actual explanation) that one of the characters is actually related to another. It came completely out of the blue. If there were any clues about this–or even any clues that it might matter (which it doesn’t, really, as far as the tying up of the plot goes)–then I completely missed them. And I wouldn’t have minded so much if this interesting little piece of information had actually been made plain at the ending of the story…a sort of “oh, that’s cool” addition to the denouement. But it wasn’t; the author decided to be coy. Definitely annoying.

  6. D. Michael Martindale says:

    No fine line. Jonathan said it exactly right. The whole point of a point-of view character is to see things through his point of view. Duh!

    Yet I’ve had lively arguments with a couple of accomplished authors who didn’t believe this. They cheated–they withheld from the read things that the point-of-view character knew, with the misguided justification that the mystery was fun for the reader and increased suspense.

    Well, it wasn’t fun for this reader! It felt gimmicky and cheating. It just irritated me. And when the secret was finally revealed, it was a bit of an anticlimax, so the whole mystery thing wasn’t worth the feeling of being cheated on.

    A page from the handbook of Alfred Hitchcock is in order here. Suspense is stronger and of a superior nature when we know where the danger is coming from, rather than the cheap trick of just keeping us in the dark. It’s the difference between real suspense building up over time and the brief instant of being startled when the monster jumps out from nowhere. (Something “South Park” lampooned in one episode.)

    It sounds like I would have hated ““The Canticle Kingdom.” I would have despised feeling so manipulated. My rule: if the point of view character knows it, the reader knows it. If that reveals more than the author wants the reader to know, then restructuring the story is in order. Cheating never works.

  7. Just playing devil’s advocate here…isn’t that the point if an untrustworthy narrator, that in viewing the story from their perpective, we are entertained by the skew/dishonesty/poorly judged or acknowledged way they see events as events unfold? What about a story where the charachter doesn ‘t want to acknowledge or think of certain events but is later forced to?
    But I agree. Don’t hide the ball. A lesson I kearned in Lance Larsen’s creative writing class…those words, in his voice, often come to mind when I am writing a story.

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