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!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

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. I love that you mentioned mysterious pasts and what the character needs to know, definitely helps reaffirm my direction! It makes me nervous (since all of the advice I read seems to caution every style choice I make)that my story is built to make the reader ask “What’s her problem?” because of her present day choices, and the answers lie in her past.. that she doesn’t want/like to think about. I give up little clues to those answers in the form of other characters crucial memories with the protag (in strategically placed micro-chapters). The fact that these are good mysteries according to you is such a relief!

  2. This sounds like *exactly* what I’m talking about. In fact, it sounds just like the kind of story that keeps me riveted to the page.

  3. If the protagonist wants to know the same thing the reader does, the reader will feel as if he and the character are in this adventure together.

    This is the best advice I’ve seen in a while!! 🙂

  4. In a large sense, people read fiction to experience things vicariously through the protagonist. So, often, they identify themselves *as* the protag. It’s something to always keep in mind.

  5. super post, KM! I’ve been trying to do this more in my WiPs. Thanks! :o)

  6. If you can do this in your WIPs, you’ll keep readers turning pages so fast, they’ll end up with paper cuts!

  7. Great post!

    I read a book once that might fall into your “bad mysteries” file, It was actually #2 in a series, but nowhere on the cover or on the inside the book did it indicate this. It was not a stand-alone, and began where #1 left off.

    As a result, I was wondering what in the world was going on and it left me confused and frustrated.

    The authors point may have been to get the reader to rush out and buy #1 to catch up, therefore earn an extra book sale. If that was the plan, it didn’t work in my case. My opinion: it was just sloppy, lazy writing.

  8. I hate books like that. Extraordinarily frustrating.

  9. I am (finally) reading Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. I was astonished and rather disappointed when the author announced extremely early on in the plot that the villain has to murder someone and why. I would prefer to have an element of surprise…

  10. I love stories that have that mysterious element. I love secrets in the past. But for me, it’s also about loving the protag too. Great post!

  11. gRR! Blogger ate my post again.
    Well, my first post was going to mention how SotP writing puts you in the position of the reader, so you know the feeling of discovery.
    But then I watched Doctor Who last night, and I thought that show was really good at the suspense part of mysteries.

  12. @Fiona: The thing to remember about dragging out surprise is that the longer you drag it out, the bigger the bang the reader will expect in the end.

    @Laura: Yes, I’m likely to forgive a host of technical problems if you make me connect with the characters.

    @Galadriel: Sorry you’re having difficulties with Blogger! I keep hearing how awesome Doctor Who is. I’m going to have to go dig up a few episodes.

  13. I highly recommend the romantic suspense novels of Mary Stewart. She’s a vintage author but her novels are still in print today.

  14. I was just reading about someone else’s praise of Mary Stewart last night. Guess it’s a sign!

    • I love Mary Stewarts novels too, the ones Janalyn mentioned. They are among those novels that I’ve reread numerous times. And I usually don’t reread books, at least not anymore. I read her novels when I was a lot younger.
      Great post, as a writer who’s just started to discover the mystery/thriller-genre I find a lot of great value. So thank you!

  15. I read this post yesterday and panicked (all right, I didn’t exactly panic, but I went into self-doubt mode) about whether or not I had enough mystery in my WIP. Now that I think about it with a clearer head, I’m much more comfortable with the elements of mystery in the story; after I resolve or explain one question, another one invariably works its way in, so there’s always something there.

    Good post! Oh, and I ordered both your books (Outlaw and Behold) last night. I actually found your blog through the yWriter program tutorial, not through your books, which is my one and only excuse for having not read them yet. Now I’ll go hide.

  16. It often strengthens a story to have one solid bit of mystery running throughout the story, lying under the surface beneath the smaller mysteries, but, of course, this isn’t always possible, depending on specifics of the story you’re writing. So long as there’s *always* something the reader will want to find out, you should be in good shape.

    Thank you for ordering the books. I hope you enjoy them!

  17. JS Williams says

    Excellent work, KM. Another home run for WordPlay.

  18. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!

  19. I love a ‘traditional’ mystery where the reader has to solve the puzzle along with the detective. Writing these means you can’t let the reader know anything your protagonist doesn’t, which can be tricky. But that’s the challenge and the fun. All those clues and red herrings–

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  20. I’m not a big mystery reader, but I definitely enjoy more the mysteries that don’t let you see what the bad guy is up to, apart from the MC’s POV.

  21. Thanks for the vindication. A writer friend of mine didn’t get why all the information about my story wasn’t up front. And she complained about areas where there was an abundance of information. Oddly, she herself is a good writer. But she seemed to want all my characetes’ backstories at once. I KNOW the dangers of the dreaded info dump and the importance of revealing knowledge to the reader only when the protagonist gets it.
    Fortunately, so far no one else has complained. Nadine Liamson

  22. As a writer, of course we should respect our readers’ opinions (especially if they’re also experienced authors who know what they’re talking about). But keep in mind that art is subjective. Just because one person doesn’t get what you’re trying to say doesn’t mean you said it wrong. My rule of thumb for accepting or rejecting critiques is that at least two people have to agree. I can be one of those people, so if I agree with anything a critter says, of course I’m going to keep it. But even if I don’t agree, if the same thing is mentioned more than once by more than one critter, I know I had better sit up and take notice.

    All of which is just a long-winded way of saying that if you’re confident in what you’ve written and if only one person is struggling with it, you’re probably safe leaving it the way it is.

  23. Just want to say I find something helpful every time I visit. And left something for you on my blog 🙂

  24. How fun! Thanks so much for thinking of me.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.