I want to thank you all for joining me, for this examination of mystery in fiction has renewed my enthusiasm amidst summer’s heat.
Mystery adds tension and suspense to a story and you should be careful to recognize its many forms so as to take advantage of their presence or add it for story enhancement. Sure, such elements are woven into a plot, but they exist in other forms and when we recognize that we can harness their energy. My perspective is fantasy, but this is true for most, if not all, genres.
This week I’m looking at location, which is related to setting, but they aren’t always the same thing. A story’s location doesn’t have to be unknown, it simply must have unknown elements that stir curiosity in the reader. They’re always there, so seek them out and draw the character’s attention to them. When it comes to world building the possibilities are endless.
I learned this when I read LOTR in my teens. If you’re familiar with my past blogs then you know I’m enraptured of maps (see examples HERE and HERE). When I looked at Middle Earth I wanted to know about every location on the map. Without a doubt, Tolkien brought each location his characters visited to life, but I wanted more.
I always want more when it comes to adventure.
That memory was still lingering in my mind years later when my fantasy world started to form. What if, I wondered, the lone human civilization that remained was located at the middle of the continent? Further, what if other civilizations existed in the distant past and their remains were located (mostly) beyond that country’s borders?
The people in that civilization (Hartise) would know a little about what existed beyond their borders before, but in the present it would be—a mystery. Too, over time the history that explained the world outside Hartise would become fragmented and distorted.
In Last Word Before Dying, the online story, 16 year-old Shayleen comes face-to-face with this issue. Engaged to write an eccentric’s memoirs, over time she’s forced to face her assumptions and faulty teachings while little knowing that more than she knows hangs in the balance. Here’s an early encounter:
“Well, as always seemed the case it was Binnie who met him first. Binnie just seemed to have a knack for finding interesting folks and Dyler Carrdon was about as interesting a character as I ever met. He was a big, fierce man who looked like he wrestled cirque cats for fun. He dressed mostly in leather and carried a fine blade. There were knives all over his person. He’d been everywhere I’d ever heard of and that was just the beginning. He claimed he’d been to the other side of the Barrier Range.”
“The mountains that form this country’s eastern border.”
“He…he’d been outside Hartise? But no one ever goes…I mean, if they do they don’t come back. I mean, they die. Don’t they?”
Tiding laughed. “That’s what the King and the Ministry want you to think. Sure, few go and fewer live to tell, but some survive.”
“We all met one night in a tavern’s darkest corner where the ale flowed without pause. Dyler had a proposition to sell and we were eager to put the war behind us. He’d traveled the Lost Hills—the western end of the old province of Crean-Domma—extensively. Too, he’d dropped south into what was once Vachea.”
Shayleen’s wonder becomes questions about the world beyond Hartise. It also becomes her questioning everything she thought she knew. Over the course of the story she comes to see that her present and Tiding’s past travels are interconnected.
Over the first half of Where Light Devours references are made to locations beyond the Hartise boarders. While ignorant of what exists beyond Hartise, Ergain accepts that others have traveled there, but doesn’t see how that relates to her. At one point she finds herself killing a few minutes in a small library where those references come together and connections start to form in her mind. Too, other seeds are planted that are important later:
On a shelf high above was Emprensen Empire Ruins in Hartise: Old Outposts, Abandoned Towns, and Absaka. Setting aside her glass, Ergain stretched and then jumped, but still the large book remained beyond her reach.
She abandoned her efforts and turned to a large, framed map. “Known Lands of the Old Empire,” she read aloud.
Though she’d seen better maps of her homeland, the lands beyond took on visual life for the first time. Bordering Hartise were Forstava, Aramon, Crean-Domma, and Sttons, but the details were few and fewer still near the map’s edges. Above the Colossus Range was the notation, Frozen Lands. Below Canyar was written, the Rocklands of Pythe in a different hand.
Near the map’s center she located Royalty Island and Transgamete where Palladon might be located. Her shoulders sagged as a frown fought to form. Her gaze followed the line that was the Key River south until she discovered a small notation: Meldenphire ruins.
One lesson here is that seemingly innocent facts sometimes carry more importance than meets the eye. H’m, sounds mysterious. That’s a lesson my readers come to realize and one which Ergain also comes to realize. Too, sometimes that importance isn’t revealed until a later book. At the beginning of Where Light Devours Ergain’s geographic knowledge, though larger than what most people possess, is small compared to what exists. Over time, that knowledge changes her in profound ways.
The mystery that is the world beyond and the locations contained in it take on greater intensity when a character encounters one. For Ergain, that happens a number of times, but one comes in a place that logic and all the knowledge she possesses tell her shouldn’t exist, especially where she finds it (keep in mind that she has “bug issues”):
The first structure she reached was the best preserved, though the roof had long ago disappeared.
“Stay.” Torch in hand, she left Doppla and advanced towards a dark entrance set amidst ill-fitted rocks that served as a crude wall.
Before entering she paused to slow her breathing and free her blade. She cast a last glance at a stark subterranean landscape where the horses watched her with keen interest. The currier stepped over a fallen door’s remains and entered a small room. Across every horizontal surface were broken, dust-laden boards that creaked and sagged underfoot. Cobwebs hung thick in the corners and she recoiled before sucking in added air and wetting her lips.
Ahead was a square table on three legs, a broken chair beside it. To the left was a splintered, narrow bunk. In the extreme rear before a collapsed wall was a rotting desk.
The flickering torchlight frayed her nerves and added menace to the twitching shadows. Still, curiosity held her firm when fear beckoned. The clue she desired was the one that would tell her when last the structure was used.
What I kept in mind while writing the above was that besides the fact that the location is creepy, that it was also a mystery waiting for someone to solve it. Even for someone like Ergain, who’s endowed with above-average curiosity, solving the mystery is more important than she realizes.
From the haunted house to the stargazer who wonders, “What’s out there,” location represents layers of mystery waiting to be revealed. Don’t be too quick to reveal them. I know, you’ve created a world and you want to share it, want to tell everyone all those great details, and you want to act as the world’s tour guide. I get it.
The lesson I learned, that Tolkien taught, was to have restraint. Let the reader unwrap the mystery with the character, let them digest the knowledge at a pace that suits the story, let them feel the wonder or terror at the tale’s pace, and don’t explain away the opportunity that mystery represents.
How? Show, don’t tell. Sound familiar?
Your story and the reader will be the better for it.