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.