One of the most important skills every writer has to master, no matter their genre, is how to craft a mystery in a novel.
Mysteries are the lifeblood of stories. They’re the lure that keep us turning the pages and keep us glued to the book because we’re dying to know what happens. Are they going to find the murderer? Are they going to get together? What happened that fateful night?
I crafted the Jacob Wonderbar series around a central mystery: Is Jacob going to find his dad? And is he in outer space?
When it comes to crafting a mystery, I think sometimes aspiring authors get distracted by the bodies and murders and the actual plot mechanics of mysteries, and miss what really drives a great mystery.
Mysteries are about people. And more specifically, they’re about people wanting something, whether it’s an object, person, or knowledge (see also: Do You Know What Your Characters Want?). The character wants the woman to fall in love with him or to catch the killer or find the truth about what happened. We keep reading to find out if they’re going to get it.
Here comes the word math:
A character’s desire + Consequences/stakes + Obstacles + Delay = Mystery
So the first step in crafting a mystery is showing what your character wants and what the stakes are. Showing your character caring and demonstrating the stakes plants the appropriate question in the reader’s mind: Are they going to get what they want?
The next step is placing road blocks in front of your characters that prevent them from immediately getting what they want.
This is the part where I think sometimes beginning writers go astray. A great mystery is not built by withholding information, and especially not by withholding information that the main characters know but the author isn’t sharing with the reader (unless there’s a very very good reason for it). I would think instead of a mystery as being built through obstacles. The character tries to get what they want and we know what they know, but the truth is obscured or confusing or surprising or not what was anticipated. The truth/object of desire lies just beyond their grasp.
A character keeps moving in the direction of the mystery, but that delay before they get there is what prolongs and deepens the mystery, often with reversals.
The more the character wants what they want, the more significant the stakes, the more tangled the obstacles, and the longer it takes to get there, the greater the mystery.
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.
Art: Der beim Diebstahl ertappte Hausdiener by Charles Wauters