Cracking a Mystery of Mystery

Recently I was struggling with a story where there was a deep mystery for the protagonist to uncover as the story went on. As I got feedback from readers, I realized the problem was that the mystery was so opaque that readers didn’t have enough information to have any hope of anticipating what was to come. I wanted the story to be both mysterious and suspenseful, but without any insight into the future, suspense was out of the question. While the question of how to balance the right amount of mystery against the number of facts the reader knows is somewhat subjective, there was a middle ground I needed to achieve.

I realized, after a lot of elaborate rituals, rune-crafting and keyboard slamming, that my problem could be solved through point of view.

The point of view in my story was close third person omniscient. This meant that I couldn’t really describe things that were outside of my main character’s point of view. Obviously, if they knew what was going to happen to them, they wouldn’t go along with the events of the story, so I needed to pull the camera out a bit. I shifted the point of view a bit further out so that I wasn’t locked into the protagonist’s perspective. This allowed me to seed information in that the main character wouldn’t (and couldn’t) know.

This subtle change made a big difference to the story. Instead of events happening mysteriously and somewhat randomly, the reader was let in on a bit of the secret. This sprinkling of information gave readers enough that they could buy into the story. They could start trying to puzzle out what might happen, which let them invest in it. They could then start worrying about it, and lo and behold, I would have both the mystery and suspense I was after.

Putting the right amount in is referred to as leaving out the egg, something first done by the great Betty Crocker. It amounts to giving enough, but not everything. If I’d shifted the perspective so far out that the narrator could now describe everything, the situation would be too neat and tidy, and there be no story to tell. Leaving out the egg is kind of like the way IKEA sells furniture. They give you everything you need, including the instructions, but you have to build it yourself. What IKEA discovered, and what applies to storytelling and many other areas, is that when people had to invest something of themselves into what they’re building, they develop a stronger affinity for their furniture. We cherish what we build. 

The same goes for a story. If I can have a reader invest while they’re reading a story, then they’ll ultimately get more enjoyment out of it, even if it is a little wobbly and the cupboards are about to fall off.

There are other ways I could’ve handled this problem. I could’ve maybe had a sage character who teases information that would then build suspense. I could’ve had a legend holding some of the information with questionable reliability. The character could’ve gotten hints in a dream. Some of these tropey choices are better than others, while others are better if you’ve eaten black mold and need to induce vomiting. I hope you can see why I went with the decision I did, but there are probably ways of justifying and maybe doing the other options tastefully.

That’s one mystery solved.

Now, as far as the greater mystery of why stories can share so many commonalities yet be so difficult and unique to wrangle into shape, that will have to wait for a lengthy session of rune-carving into IKEA particle board. So many wonderful things to learn, and not enough dark rituals to host.

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