25 Things Writers Should Know About Creating Mystery

1. Your Story Must Be An Incomplete Equation

A complete equation is 4 + 5 = 9. It’s simple. Clean. And it’s already resolved. Stories are not simple. They are not clean. And we most certainly don’t want to read stories that have already been resolved. We read stories that evolve and evade as we read them. Their uncertainty feels present — though we know the story will finish by its end, a good story lets us — or demands that we — forget that. A good story traps us in the moment and compels us by its incompleteness. The equation then becomes X + 5 = 9, and we are driven to solve for X. It is the X that haunts us. It is the emptiness of that variable we hope to fill.

2. Every Story Is A Mystery Story

This isn’t a list about murder mysteries. This is a list about every story out there. All stories need unanswered questions. All stories demand mysteries to engage our desperate need to know. We flip the little obsessive dipswitches in the circuit boards of our reader’s mind by presenting enigmas and perplexities. Why is our lead character so damaged? What’s in the strange mirrored box? How will they escape the den of ninja grizzlies? Storytelling is in many ways the act of positing questions and then exploring the permutations of that question before finally giving in and providing an answer.

3. Your Story Is The Opposite Of The News

A news story is upfront. Tells the facts. “Woman wins the Moon Lottery.” “Man sodomized by a zoo tapir.” “New Jersey smells like musty tampons, says mayor.” (Musty Tampons was my nickname in an old Steve Winwood cover band.) A journalist is tasked to answer the cardinal questions (the five W’s and the one H): who, what, where, when, why, and how. But your job as a storyteller is to make the audience ask these questions and then bark a sinister laugh as you choose not to answer them all. Oh, you answer some of them. But one or two remain open, empty. Unanswered variables. Incomplete equations.

4. Leaving Out The Egg

Put differently, have you heard the one about Betty Crocker and the Egg? Well, run quick and edu-ma-cate yourselves. The point is, the audience wants to do work. Needs to do work. They want to bring part of themselves to the table. They want to help you fill in the blanks because that is human nature. Maybe it’s ego and selfishness, or maybe it’s a kind of selflessness. Doesn’t matter where it comes from, it only matters that when you leave pieces out of the story, the audience will try to bring those things in. And once you do that you drop the cage on ‘em and now you’ve got dinner an engaged member of the audience.

5. The Characters Are Your Coal Mine Canary

Not every mystery is a worthy one. Not every question deserves to be answered. How do you know? Well. You never really know, but a good test is finding out what mysteries engage your characters — if it’s a mystery the characters care about, and the audience cares about the characters, by proxy they will care about the mystery at hand, as well. This is why arbitrary mysteries — mysteries that exist for their own sake and no other — fail. Mysteries are anchored to character motivation. They affect the stakes on the table. But not the steaks on the table. Because those are mine. I bought those. LAY OFF MY MEAT, BEEF-THIEF.

6. The Power Of “What The Fuck?!” Compels Us

A good ol’ big-ass mystery is a meteor that punches a hole in that once-complete equation we were talking about. Many stories thrive on One Big Question (think: What Is The Matrix, or, Why Are These Transformers So Racist?), and that’s okay, because sometimes that’s a hole the audience wants to fall into. But know that such a mystery is not enough. You still need a cogent plot, strong characters, and a unifying theme to serve as a throughline. An epic HOLY CRAP WTF mystery can feel hollow and without substance should those other elements not exist. Mystery by itself is not enough.

7. A Warm Quilt Of Small Mysteries

Instead of one big mystery, consider instead (or in addition) a series of smaller mysteries: little mini-arcs that rise on the question mark and fall toward the answer. A character needs her keys but cannot find them (where are they, and what will she do if she cannot find them?). Someone has been vandalizing the shops around town (who, and why?). The mayor claims New Jersey smells like musty tampons (why does it smell and what does the mayor hope to gain and how does he know what musty tampons smell like?).

8. Sometimes Not A Question But An Incorrect Answer

A tiny point, but one worth mentioning: sometimes creating mystery is not an act of asking a question but the deed of providing a clearly incorrect answer. Let the audience seek the truth by showing them a lie.

9. Sue Spence And The Mystery Squad

To create suspense and invoke tension, offer the audience a mystery. An unanswered question, a lingering puzzle, a nagging cipher — the longer it goes unanswered, the greater that bezoar of tension grows.

10. It Kills The Vampire Or It Gets The Hose Again

A mystery must have stakes — we must know why it exists, and what it means for it to go unanswered. Tying in conditions of consequence to unsolved mysteries is critical — if the character doesn’t find her keys, she can’t get to the hospital, if she can’t get to the hospital, she won’t learn the identity of the man who saved her from that busload of pterodactyls, if she can’t uncover his identity, she won’t learn why she’s being hunted by that busload of pterodactyls. The audience must feel that the mystery has weight and meaning and pterodactyls. Okay, maybe not so much with the pterodactyls.

11. Colonel Exposition Did It, In The Foyer, With A Heavy Lead Pipe

Exposition is the mystery-killer. Exposition is an explanation. Sometimes it’s necessary, and this isn’t a screed against exposition so much as it is a plea for you to understand that exposition shines a light in dark spaces and, sometimes, it’s best to leave those spaces dark. Well-lit clearly-defined spaces become dull for the audience. The audience must not be left comfortable. They should be forced to stare at those dark corners for as long as they can stand it. The light of exposition expels the shadows of mystery.

12. Be Like Tantric Fuckmaster, Sting

Tantric sex is reportedly about withholding “the Big O” (or if you like your orgasm references more Elizabethan, “the little death”) as long as possible in order to maximize the tsunami power of your lusty eruptions. Masturbate and “arrive” on your computer monitor after 45 seconds, you feel a crushing sense of wasted potential, then shamefully wander downstairs to eat half a sleeve of refrigerated cookie dough. Ah! But if you take seven hours to pop your cork, it feels like you accomplished something. Apply this to your story. By withholding information about the plot or the characters, you create a deeper satisfaction upon finally answering the mystery. For the record, I will now refer to ejaculation as “answering the mystery.” At the point of sexual climax I will proclaim loudly: “I AM ANSWERING YOUR MYSTERY.”

13. The Longer The Mystery Persists, The More Satisfying The Answer Must Be

All that being said, you shouldn’t drag out mysteries if their resolution isn’t satisfying. You can’t spend 300 pages or two hours just to get to, OMG THE KEYS WERE IN HER SHOE THE WHOLE TIME. *crash of thunder* The longer you let a mystery hang out there, the more satisfying the mystery — and its resolution — must be. How to gauge this? Hey, you just gotta go with your guttyworks.

14. Plot And Character: Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together

Mysteries are often tied to plot or character. (What is the Matrix? is a plot-driven question, for instance.) Ideally, though, mysteries are wound through both. Plot, after all, is like Soylent Green — it’s made of people. A murder mystery operates best when the death is tied to the characters at hand (and nothing is less satisfying than the murderer revealed to be some random jerkoff we’ve never met — “It was the Census taker! Oh noes! …wait, the fucking Census guy did it? Goddamnit.”).

15. The Quantum Entanglement Between Question And Conflict

Conflict and mystery go hand in hand. The very nature of conflict offers a situation whose outcome is in flux — we do not know what will happen and so conflict is emblazoned by a big ol’ question mark. Conflicts that are easily resolved are like mysteries that are easily resolved: major poop noise. PPPPBT.

16. Narrative Rejiggering

You can create mystery by breaking the traditional narrative flow and pulling apart the pieces, then rearranging them in whatever order gives you maximum mystery and maximum payoff. If we see part of the ending at the beginning, we glimpse changed circumstances and seek to unravel the complex knot you just dropped in our lap. If we come in toward the middle we want to know what got us here and where we’re going. Part of storytelling is the tension and recoil release of question versus answer, and changing the flow of the narrative can do a great deal toward tightening the questions and super-charging the revelation of the answers. (Homework assignment: go watch the film 21 Grams for a good example of this.)

17. Those Cagey Fuckers

Characters can be cagey fuckers, and that — thankfully, blessedly — creates mystery for readers. Characters do not make the right decisions all the time. Nor should they. A character fails to tell others the truth about what’s going on? A character who obfuscates or lies? A character who tries to cover something up? All this goes a long way toward creating mystery in the audience. Which is a total win, if you ask me. You know what else is a win? Cupcakes. Please send me some cupcakes or I’ll blow up your house. Kay, thanks, bye.

18. The Labyrinth At The Core Of The Human Heart

The greatest mysteries lurk at the center of human experience, inside the emotional tangle where the Minotaur of our worst inclinations lives. (Whoa. I need to stop with the peyote buttons.) Seriously, though, a character’s motivations and fears (and you as the author guarding those elements or at least withholding some components of them) provide the most profound payoff in terms of offering and then answering mysteries. Each character should be a mystery — not a cipher, not an endless unsolvable puzzle — but rather a question to be answered. Don’t tell us everything. Hold back. Ease off the stick, Stroker Ace.

19. Creating Mystery In The Edit

Uh oh, spaghetti-o. Maybe your first draft doesn’t have enough gooshy mysterious plasm for you and the readers? Easy-peasy stung-by-beesy! Think of your edit like a Jenga tower. Reach in. Grab a block. Yank it out. If the whole thing still stands — you’re good to go. Keep doing this. Pull pieces out. Withhold. Retreat. Release and reveal as late as you can. The edit is a great place to massage mystery and create whole new moist vaginal pockets of uncertainty in your tale.

20. One Answer Can Create More Questions

Mysteries can be like The Hydra — chop off one head, nine more sprout in its place. This is a good thing… mmnnnyeah, to a point. Eventually, there comes a moment when you end up letting more snakes out of the bag than you can properly kill. (Example: the TV show Lost.) We have to get a sense that this isn’t some explosive Pandora’s puzzle box, some infinitely-replicating Rube Goldberg mystery machine that produces ten new questions for every one answer offered. You have to know when to stop releasing snakes and just start killing those slithery sumbitches. Er, not literally. Put down the machete, psycho.

21. You Don’t Have To Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here

Mysteries and endings. A tricky subject. My essential advice: answer all mysteries by the ending. Every last one of ‘em. The audience wants those answers. The introduction of a mystery is an unofficial promise to answer that question. But. But! Sometimes, that’s just not in the cards. (See: Stephen King’s The Colorado Kid, which is a story as much about the subject of mystery as it is about the mysteries present in the story.) Sometimes it’s good to leave folks hanging on things. Because when you do that it’s like the book is still open. The story is ongoing. They remain a part of it — entrenched and unable to escape. MOO HOO HA HA HA. (But only savvy storytellers need apply!)

22. The Dangers Of The MacGuffin

Hitchcock rocked the MacGuffin — the MacGuffin being the mysterious-and-frankly-not-all-that-important-by-itself-item that drives the plot and urges the characters forward. The MacGuffin is a mystery potentially never answered and, if turned about in the hands of a clumsy muffinhead of a storyteller, it feels like what it ultimately is: artifice. Best way to think of a MacGuffin is not as a plot driver but rather as a focus point for the mysteries and conflicts and worst inclinations of the characters who seek it. It’s like a magnet for bad juju.

23. It’s The Reason Jaws Worked

A late-in-the-list sidenote: mystery is why Jaws worked. That robot shark was acting up, being an asshole, and they couldn’t use him like they wanted to. As such, the script called for a greater deal of mystery in the first and second acts — what the shark was, how big, what it could do, why it wanted to do it. Spielberg had to pull away which in turn left us with questions which in turn made us feel like scared little ninnies who suddenly became afraid to drop a flip-flop in a fucking puddle from that point forward. Mystery — unintentional as it was — made that movie.

24. “Guess What?”

That’s how the stories we tell to friends and loved ones and co-workers often begin, isn’t it? “Guess what?” We begin with a question. We lead with that — because that’s the fishhook in the cheek of the audience. And the way we tell the story is like leaving a trail of breadcrumbs — not whole loaves, just crumbs — for the listener to follow. We say things to get attention, to lead the audience in with us — “Man, Jenkins fucked up bad today!” — and the listener is all like “WHOA WHAT’D THAT ASSHOLE JENKINS DO NOW?” As Admiral Ackbar would say: “It’s a trap!” Oh, but what a wonderful trap storytelling is.

25. Bondage & Discipline

Being a storyteller like BDSM: you need to find a partner — in this case, the audience — who is willing to trust you with (and stick with me here) a complete lack of trust. They’re willing to say: “I trust that I can’t trust you,” and then they let you perform whatever deviant manipulations you care to visit upon body, heart and mind. Same thing with creating mystery in your story: mystery is one way you show the audience that they can’t trust you but, at the same time, that they trust in this implicit lack of trust. They know the questions you pose will be troubling. They know that the answers will have consequences they did not imagine. But they trust in you to answer these mysteries, to manipulate without making them feel manipulated, to not leave them hanging upside-down with a ball-gag in their mouth and a My Little Pony-branded buttplug up their… well, no need to be redundant. You and the audience have a contract (though no safe-word): they trust that you cannot be trusted. Mystery is one of the sexy tools on your sexy Bondage Batman tool-belt. What? You don’t have a sexy Bondage Batman tool-belt? Amateur.


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18 comments

  • May 8, 2012 at 7:29 AM // Reply

    OF COURSE I have a sexy bondage batman tool belt, and as owner of same, I say that mystery is ALWAYS better with pterodactyls. If you disagree, I have a ball gag with your name on it (in my sexy… Never mind). The rest of the advice is stellar, as usual. Thank you!

  • Oh Chuck, how I love this list in naughty naughty back alley ways.

    I cannot say enough about the importance of having an unanswered question acting like the bow of the ship as it sluices ahead on the ocean of words (the bow’s the front part right? I don’t do boats). And I believe at least one character needs to mirror some level of the audience, so that when the character gets it, so does the audience (whether that’s the narrator or not doesn’t matter, but I am partial to first-person here).

    Yes it will be a pleasure to work on the novel today. Thanks man.

  • Your incomplete equations look more like this, I think:

    x={q+[q^2+(r-p^2)^3]^1/2}^1/3+{q-[q^2+(r-p^2)^3]^1/2}^1/3+p

    I end up having to read the whole thing just to avoid my brain exploding from trying to figure it out myself, heh.

  • I love the observation that mystery made “Jaws” successful. Goes to show how you can use the elements common to one genre within another. Like the way J.C. Oates used the elements of a cheap horror movie to make “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” an unforgettable literary story.

  • This puts me in mind of Cat People, the 1942 original, not that one with Natassja Kinski’s boobs and the kickin’ David Bowie song.

    There’s a scene where someone is trapped on the other side of a door with the cat and you can tell from the sounds (screaming, cat roars, etc.) that the person’s being torn to shreds.

    But you never see it. The shot is completely on the door and you don’t get to see what’s going on on the other side. Finally, once the noises die down, a thin trickle of blood runs underneath the door into the shot.

    It’s a visual example, but the point is the same. The audience is given just enough to understand what’s going on and their imagination fills in the blanks. It not only makes them work for it, but more, it makes them complicit in the scene.

    One way to get that is through not going overboard on description, but another way is to actually leave the scene at the right time. That whole start late / leave early thing. Timed right it can heighten the mystery and leave the question open of what happens next.

  • About those cupcakes. I’d promise to send them, but I’m cagey and (since I write mystery) prone to lie. So…the good in me says of course, I shall send them immediately.

    But in reality… the (cup)cake is a lie.

    Which is okay, because I’m a writer and the lie is merely evidence of my mad ninja skills.

  • Thanks a lot for this. Sometimes i get so lost writing that i forget why i started at all!Having these things in mind could improve my writing and make it more likable by my readers.
    PS as you may have already figure out, editing is always the most difficult thing for me.

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