Imagine you’re reading a story in which the author has skillfully created some kind of mystery.
This mystery might be:
- The murder in a whodunit.
- A straightforward strategic puzzle focused on figuring out how to defeat the bad guys.
- Something more domestic, such as an ongoing question of a character’s parentage.
- Something simple and amusing, such as a character obsessively (and perhaps symbolically) trying to prove that a neighbor’s dog is digging holes in his yard.
- Less about proving a proposed solution and more about figuring out whether or not something mysterious is happening at all—e.g., is the new neighbor’s strange night activity a sign of something sinister?
The mystery could be the main focus of the story, with the protagonist’s main plot goal being the solution to the mystery (as in Chamber of Secrets). Or the mystery might just be a clever way to avoid info dumps while slowly trickling important information throughout the story (as in Half-Blood Prince).
Whatever the case, adding a mystery can greatly enhance your story’s readability. If you’re able to consistently present questions (whether implicit or explicit), you’re giving readers more reasons to keep reading. In addition to wanting to watch what happens to your characters, they now also want to know the answer to the questions you’re proposing.
But don’t miss the order of that last sentence. Readers are there first and foremost to see what happens to your characters. And this is where we encounter some of the problems you can run into if you’re relying too heavily on plot reveals to provide the entertainment factor.
Ask Yourself: Is Your Story About Clues or Consequences?
Mysteries are fun. They’re fun to create and fun to solve. But in themselves they are not stories and certainly not the best part of stories (even in the mystery genre). This is why it’s important for writers not to fall into the trap of relying on clues to carry the story.
In the myopia of early plotting, it can be easy to feel you’re writing something deeply gripping just because a new clue is being unveiled in every scene. In these instances, the plot progression may look like this: Clue>Clue>Clue>Clue. The progression grows obviously monotonous, no matter how interesting the mystery itself.
E.M. Forster famously distinguished story from plot by emphasizing the causality of events.
The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot.
In dramatic fiction, things don’t just happen. They happen because other things happened first. This certainly holds true for the unraveling of mystery. If the revelation of clues are just revelations, the story will stagnate. Instead, any and every clue your plot reveals should be the result of a character’s choice, with the discovery itself turning the plot by creating consequences.
You want the progression of your story to look like this: Choice>Consequence>Choice>Consequence. (Which is, of course, just a variation on how to view classic scene structure of Goal>Dilemma.)
Even just glancing at the two equations shows the difference. For me, the latter progression, of choice and consequence, immediately blips my writer radar. The reminder that my character’s choices have causal consequences always functions for me almost like a writing prompt. So many juicy possibilities.
Focusing a story’s progression on choice and consequence creates forward momentum—a line of causes and effects. Even better, it creates a much more interesting framework in which to leverage a story’s mysteries, questions, and revelations.
5 Ways to Turn Info Dumps Into Plot Turns
Maybe you can relate to this: A writer hands beta readers a story that the writer feels is jam-packed with exciting action.
But the beta readers are all bored. “Nothing happens,” they complain.
The writer is bewildered. “All sorts of things happen! The heroes learn all this stuff about the bad guys’ plans and what they have to do to defeat them!”
It may take several more drafts and much confused agony before the writer realizes the reason it feels like nothing happens in this “jam-packed” novel is… because nothing does happen.
The characters may be learning lots of exciting and revelatory stuff. But that’s all they’re doing. They’re sitting around in a boardroom while their spies bring in horrifying reports. Or they’re taking lesson after lesson in order to gain the knowledge and skill necessary to finally defeat the bad guy (lookin’ at you, YA fantasy). Or maybe the two love interests spend more time thinking about each other or small-talking than they do actually getting out there and falling in love.
With the best intentions, the writer accidentally left most of the story’s best stuff on the cutting-room floor. The problem isn’t that the story’s reveals of information are necessarily uninteresting. Rather, the problem is that the information is the story. And that’s boring.
Fortunately, you can have your cake and eat it too. Mysteries and plot reveals are wonderful. They just need to be sown into the causal fabric of your characters’ deep and primal plot struggles.
To that end, here are five principles to keep in mind.
1. The Character Explicitly Wants/Needs/or Doesn’t Want This Info—or Some Combo Thereof
Identify a motive for why your character will have more than a casual relationship with this information.
We all learn bits and pieces of things every day—someone was born, someone died, somebody did something good, somebody else did something bad. Some of these bits may interest us, but most are incidental. We have no life-changing motive to seek them out and no subsequent reason to interact with them.
For us, that’s okay. But the information you introduce in your story is information that matters to your protagonist. It’s info that’s going to change his life, which means he absolutely has a reason to interact with it.
The one big exception to this principle is that your story’s mystery may begin with a bit of info the character initially didn’t know he needed—but which very quickly becomes important for some reason (even if it’s just a burning need to know what the nocturnal new neighbor is up to over there).
That aside, you will instantly gain so much more story power by looking for ways to instill your story’s revelations with meaning and stakes.
What is of particular note here is the possibility of having your character choose to learn this information. This is just one of many ways to keep your character from being a bystander in his own story. It also means that when consequences ensue, the protagonist will not be a victim, but will have to shoulder the full load of responsibility for what he has learned (see #4 below).
2. Information Is Never Free
Your character’s choice to seek out information should ultimately be more weighty than her simply deciding to tap her finger on random click-bait on her phone. It should be a choice she has to think twice about—because it, unlike the click-bait, isn’t free.
Except in instances where it would unnecessarily bloat a story, your character’s choice to seek important information should come with complications (and this is before we even get to the consequences). She might have to give up some of her hard-earned babysitting money to bribe info from the school stooge. Or she might have to risk detention by skipping class. Or she might have to face her own fears to talk to somebody dangerous.
It’s possible she may not immediately understand the full cost of what she’s paying to gain this info, but the sooner readers understand the stakes, the more currency you’ll generate for character development. Naturally, not all your characters’ dilemmas will be life-shattering, but you should try to wring a little blood whenever you can by creating situations in which characters must either choose between two equally bad options or two mutually-exclusively good options.
When a character “pays” for info, readers know the info is going to be worth their time.
3. Knowledge Is Power—And With Power Comes With Great Responsibility
Welcome to Pandora’s box. Your character really, really wanted/needed/tried to avoid knowing something. But now that he does know, he can never return to ignorance. (This is true of massively life-changing reveals, but it should also echo down to the relatively small clues leading up to the big reveals.)
It’s much better for your character to learn bad news than good news. There are, of course, exceptions (and you’ll want to vary the intensity of your character’s discoveries either way), but bad news is what builds a story’s conflict and the protagonist’s increasingly pressing need to push through to the resolution of the plot goal.
Although stories can certainly reveal objectively good information, that’s not the stuff of mystery. Mystery is all about tension. Whether rightly or not, the character suspects something bad behind the closed door. If he thought it was something good, the stakes wouldn’t feel as high—and readers wouldn’t be as interested in discovering the truth.
When your character chooses to ask a question, only to receive a disturbing answer, the stakes rise. Because he chose to seek out or interact with this information, he is now responsible for his own knowledge. Whether or not he wants to do something with that knowledge (even if, for now, it’s just seeking the next clue), he increasingly feels the weight of obligation. He’s going to have to make a move (hello, plot turn!), and that is where his choices become consequences.
4. Clues Should Be Visual Whenever Possible
One of the big problems with the progression of Clue>Clue>Clue is that it’s boring. It turns what might indeed be exciting info into a dry recital of facts.
When a private slogs up to the general, salutes wearily, and says, “Sorry, sir, we lost the whole battalion”—that’s nothing but words. But when the general drives out to visit the battlefield and readers get to visualize the carnage through his eyes, the information becomes more than just information.
In a nutshell, this is simply a decision to convey the information through showing, rather than telling. Stories should be pictures on the page. Information, whenever possible, should be visceral. It should be sensory. Smelling a fire, hearing a siren, or seeing a roof collapsing under a blaze—all of these things convey information that might just as easily be learned from a newspaper article. But the visuals not only pack more punch, they also force characters to get out in the story world and do something.
5. Even Better, Clues Should Be Dramatized
If it’s better to convey information via word-pictures, it’s often one more step up from that if you can sow the revelation into the very heart of a scene’s dramatic action.
Maybe your character is hunting for proof that a legendary monster exists. He could discover that information in a dusty old book. He could hear about it from the lips of a creaky old grandmother who swears she saw the monster as a girl. He could even see the monster through his binoculars.
Or he could just about be eaten by the thing.
When your character is given the opportunity to learn on the job by personally and physically interacting with new information, the possibilities for plot-turning consequences pop up all over the place. Maybe the character’s guide (the old granny?) is eaten. Or maybe he loses an arm. Or maybe he accidentally herds the monster into an unsuspecting village, where it wreaks havoc.
As fast as that, this is no longer a story in which “nothing happens.” It’s a story in which information becomes more than a recital of facts, but rather an actual force for your protagonist to contend with.
Now it’s time for you to take a look at your story and ask yourself the following questions:
1. What bits of information are crucial to your plot?
2. Can you rework that information’s delivery so it isn’t presented straight up, but rather doled artfully with a bit of mystery and flair?
3. From there, can you go yourself one better and figure out ways to create a fraught relationship between your characters’ need to learn the information and the consequences when they do?
4. And, finally, can you brainstorm ways in which to show the information in visually dramatic ways that progress the plot?
You can use all four of these techniques to create mystery and character development in any type of story.