It’s 3 AM. You are awakened by a phone call. The caller is an old friend of your father’s. He begs you to meet him immediately, but he sounds distraught. He warns you not to tell anyone where you are going or allow yourself to be followed. His final words before hanging up are, “Someone has stolen the eye.”
You don’t know what any of this means. You might now be embroiled in something illegal. Or you might now be a target for a group of evildoers. Or maybe someone has just set up an elaborate surprise birthday party for you. But one thing is for sure…
You’re feeling a sense a mystery.
The Feeling that Launched a Thousand Books
The word “genre” gets bandied about a lot.
And while many different definitions for genre have been proposed, the most practical approach is that genre categorizes a work of fiction by the feeling it is supposed to evoke.
Romance fiction evokes love or passion.
Horror fiction evokes fear.
Science fiction and fantasy evoke wonder.
And mystery evokes, well, mystery.
Of course, genre-blending and genre-blurring throw some delicious wrenches at these categories. Someone may end up putting some fantasy on your mystery, or vice versa.
But understanding mystery as a genre helps us all appreciate how evoking a sense of mystery can enhance any kind of story.
Because the mystery genre is freaking HOT.
Not that anyone’s keeping score, but lets take a quick look back and see how the mystery genre has pretty much defined set rules on all other forms of modern fiction.
A History of Mystery
For most of human history, stories were extremely clear about a character’s moral orientation and motivations. From the beginning of the tale, you knew who the good guys were, who the bad guys were, and why each party was doing what they were doing.
Characters could always switch sides, of course, or have their motivations change over the course of the story. But the idea that a character’s aims and motivations could be hidden from the audience was once a radical and untested idea. And it took a genius to break that mold.
That genius was…actually Wilkie Collins. But if you’re tracing the phylogeny of the genre, then the granddaddy of all mystery writers is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The Sherlock Holmes mysteries are perhaps the most influential work of fiction in existence. Not only have they been adapted countless times, but they still enjoy a rabid fandom more than a hundred years after their first publication.
And they owe their great success to the fact that, unlike previous stories, they bestowed the reader with a level of agency. As counterintuitive as it sounds, they were popular because they gave their audience homework.
The reader’s assignment was to solve the mystery before the legendary detective did. And while few readers could successfully do so, every one of them tried. All of a sudden, reading had stopped being a spectator sport. It was time for the audience to start participating.
That point is key. Because it has kept the genre going strong ever since. As more mystery authors arose, from Agatha Christie to Dashiell Hammett to Dan Brown and beyond, the mystery genre has kept chugging along, as a perennial bestseller-printing machine.
And before you go thinking that mystery novels are only for old ladies and airport bookshops, I will remind you that the success of many books for children and young adults is rooted in their ability to present a mystery.
It has been noted that the Harry Potter series of books are actually mystery novels. They’ve merely been disguised as epic fantasy. Each book presents a series of questions that only get more thorny until all is revealed in the final chapters. In addition, some of the story’s mysteries span several books, incentivizing readers to buy and read every one of them.
This is one of the reasons why Harry Potter became the bestselling book series of all time.
What Does Mystery Get You?
In tried and true Hooked on a Feeling tradition, we take a moment to look back before we hand you a new tool to dazzle and mystify your readers. Let’s review the benefits of each feeling we’ve covered so far in season 2.
- Sense of adventure allows you to monopolize a need within the reader, causing them to turn to you as a trusted source of feeling.
The benefit provided by sense of mystery is similar, though perhaps even more lucrative.
- Sense of mystery causes the reader to take the work of fiction seriously, creating a fandom to analyze and canonize your work.
You know how some books, TV shows, and movies have message boards, where people from all over the world share their theories about what’s really going on in the story or where it might go next?
Have you noticed that these message boards, theorist videos, and fan clubs are much more common, and much larger, for those books, TV shows, and movies that contain an element of mystery? Have you never wondered why that was?
But the answer is obvious: every question demands to be answered, and mystery stories are all about questions. In a story where every offhand detail could potentially turn out to be a game-changing event, readers will pore over the text, desperate to find any clues they may have missed.
Creating the Sense of Mystery
Since the mystery business is quite lucrative (it’s right up there with romance on the profitability scale), it makes sense to ask how an author can introduce an element of mystery into their story. If it’s such an effective tool, it must be really hard to pull off, right?
No. Not really.
In fact, sense of mystery is such an easy emotion to evoke that the process can be summed up in a single sentence: remove one link from a chain.
Stories, after all, are nothing more than chains of causality, where one event leads to another. And the worlds within stories are likewise defined by chains of logic, where rules are defined and then followed.
To create a sense of mystery, all you have to do is remove one link from a logical chain, creating a gap between steps. If step 1 leads to step 3, without explaining what happened in the space between, then call Scooby-Doo, because, well gang, looks like we’ve got another mystery on our hands.
Of course, you will eventually reveal the missing link at the end of the story. But while the story is progressing, you’re going to keep that link firmly hidden in your pocket, where the reader can’t see it but will still have a chance to guess what it is.
How about some examples? Without a lot of effort, we can set up some chains of causality with missing links. Consider the following mystery:
Link 1 — A soldier is fiercely loyal to the emperor he serves and has even passed up several opportunities to betray his liege.
Link 3 — That soldier murders the emperor and escapes with the help of a group that has long opposed his reign.
Now this is a mystery that can puzzle a reader for the entire length of a novel, movie, or TV season. And they might never be able to figure out the puzzle until you provide them with the following missing piece:
Link 2 — Of the many tests where the soldier proved his loyalty to the emperor, one involved executing his own brother, who was caught while planning an insurrection. The soldier’s willingness to kill a family member to prove his loyalty won the emperor’s trust, but caused the soldier to grow resentful of his liege.
With the missing link restored, the mystery is solved. But how about this next example?
Link 1 — A young woman at a party, suddenly feeling under the weather, excuses herself from the celebration.
Link 3 — The woman returns, missing an arm and twenty years older, and she warns the partygoers of imminent danger.
The plot is suddenly, and undeniably, mysterious. There are so many questions that need answering. And the audience cannot begin to guess how the author is going to resolve them, until the following missing piece is put back:
Link 2 — The party and all its guests were a hologram. The woman was the only human being present. She shut down the program twenty years ago, then booted it up again when she realized a rogue AI was hiding from law enforcement inside her old video games.
I came up with both of these examples in the space of ten minutes. Yet both are good examples of mystery plots that could be incorporated in modern entertainment. Evoking a sense of mystery is just that simple, as is writing a mystery plot.
Though I do recommend you plan the story’s ending before you write the beginning. Otherwise you fall into mystery’s greatest trap.
The Achilles Heel
Just because writing mysteries is easy doesn’t mean you can’t ruin them. Sadly, it is all too easy to make a mystery stale or rotten. And the reason is simple.
A mystery is the only literary form that pits the reader and the writer against each other. The writer’s side of the deal is to play fair.SUE GRAFTON
Playing fair means no cheating. You can understand how hard this is to acknowledge for a celebrated cheater such as myself.
There are many ways in which mystery writers have tried to cheat over the years, including retconning, red herrings that didn’t leave room for doubt, and even the infamous “Vindow Viper” ending. An entire movie was once made on the subject, called Murder by Death, featuring a gaggle of famous detectives learning that the real villain was mystery writers as a whole.
Naturally, as the writer, you want to make the mystery’s solution less than obvious. But if you make it impossible to guess the ending, then you don’t have a mystery. You instead have a shell game, meant to dupe people out of their time and money. And you are no mystery writer, only a shyster.
Weaving it all Together
The sense of mystery is one of the most addictive emotions an author can evoke. It is the stuff that century-long franchises are made of. Once this feeling gets inside the reader, it propagates, as one mystery leads to another, creating the obsession we call “fandom”.
It requires strict honesty, and does not tolerate cheating. But for the organized author who can withhold information without thumbing their nose at the reader, there will never be a more a more lucrative pursuit.
Well, except for maybe one other emotion.
See you at the next installment of Hooked on a Feeling.
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