6 Do’s and Don’ts of Creating Mystery in Your Novel

6 Do's and Don'ts of Creating Mystery in Your NovelCreating mystery in your novel is important in every type of story, not just mysteries and suspense.

The last time you stayed up into the wee hours of the morning, what was it that transformed your normally practical, serene self into an obsessive page-turning maniac? I’m willing to bet this month’s royalties it was something mysterious. The writer was teasing you with the inaccessibility of crucial information. In short, you fell under the spell of that burning question: What’s gonna happen next?

Naming the WorldIn the anthology Naming the World, editor Bret Anthony Johnston, sums up successful writing in one sentence:

When your readers want something, do not give it to them.

Deciding what to tell readers and what not to tell them can be tricky business. The specifics of creating mystery in a novel will differ according to each story’s demands. Following, however, are general guidelines on what information an author can and can’t safely withhold.

3 Ways to Create a Good Mystery in Your Novel

1. Withhold Information the Protagonist Needs to Know

For the most part, the reader and the protagonist should be in the same boat. If the protagonist wants to know the same thing the reader does, the reader will feel as if they are in this adventure together.

2. Use Natural Plot Progressions to Create Reveals

Let your mysteries flow naturally from the plot. Fiction mirrors life in that no one is ever sure what will happen from moment to moment. If the main character is hanging on the edge of a cliff with an avalanche about to fall on his head, readers will be frantic to know how he gets out of the mess.

3. Uncover Secrets in the Characters’ Pasts

One of my favorite types of mystery (guaranteed to keep me reading chapter after chapter) is found in the tangled backstories of protagonists and antagonists. This is one area in which authors can often cheat by withholding information, especially if the point-of-view character has a good reason for having forgotten and/or trying to forget the information.

3 Ways to Create a Bad Mystery in Your Novel

1. Withhold Basic Need-to-Know Information

Withholding such elementary info as a character’s name, gender, or general goal will not entice readers into reading past the first chapter. In general, they’ll just be confused and frustrated. You must tell them enough to let them understand what’s going on.

2. Withhold Common Knowledge Among Characters

If the main character and his cronies are all in the know about this mysterious “Bill” person, and if they refer to him frequently without so much as an explanation to the poor benighted reader, the reader will probably feel like someone excluded from an in-joke. If the protagonist knows something he’s not sharing with the reader, it better be for a good reason, or the reader could end up feeling manipulated.

3. Ignore Plot Holes and Plausibility Gaps

A character who shows up in Chapter Five with the previously unheard of ability of leaping tall buildings and stopping speeding trains needs an explanation. Unless you have a good reason (and proper pacing and foreshadowing to support it) for not explaining this sudden turn of events, the only thing you’re likely to accomplish with such a mystery in your novel is a major destruction of your reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Optimally, every moment should present or further an element of mystery in your novel. If your readers ever look up and realize they have no question marks dangling over their heads, they really have no reason to keep reading. Artfully and wisely permeating your book with a sense of the mysterious is a vital factor in creating a story worth reading.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How have you created mystery in your novel? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Oh, you really should go watch Doctor Who. I will be working it into every discussion for quite a while.

  2. I don’t watch television shows, so sometimes I miss a lot. Guess I better pick up the slack via Netflix!

  3. Fantastic post 🙂

    Thanks for this. Would really help me a lot.

  4. Great! Always makes my day to hear something is helpful.

  5. The mysterious art of planting question mark? I guess I have my next blog post title 😉

  6. Insightful K. M. Learning to pace the mystery is tricky but fun, and oh so worthwhile. I’ve learned the hard way, but so grateful now for all your outlining instruction. ?

  7. This has me wondering if my beta reader will find enough mystery in the short story I sent him to keep him reading. Will keep the points you made when I return to editing my project.
    As always, great post.

  8. Louisa Bauman says:

    And answer the questions by the end of the book. It’s maddening to stay up until the wee hours to find out how something turns out …AND IT DOESN’T TELL ME!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, very true. It’s fine to carry over series’ questions from book to book. But the individual conflict of each book and its questions must be resolved.

  9. I am writing a novel that takes place over a period of a week after the main character was released from jail. The fact that he was in jail is pertinent to the story, but is not revealed until chapter 30 of a 45 chapter book – when it becomes need to know information, and becomes an interesting twist. Withholding this information adds a small amount of mystery to the main character. Is this acceptable? (I have heard that there should not be mystery associated with the main character.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      As long as there’s a reason for withholding, it’s foreshadowed properly, and the reveal is important, plot-moving, and interesting, it should be fine.

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