Everything you don’t know is a mystery.
There’s the mundane: “Are those leftovers in the fridge still good?” There’s the unsettling: “Why is someone watching my house at night?” There’s the frightening: “Why do I hear movement in the attic?”
Mystery adds tension and encourages involvement. I know because I’ve been an inquisitive sort with a big imagination since I was little. Ancient ruins on a hill in the middle of a forest? Bring it on!
As a writer, and considering what I write, it’s to my advantage to see life’s mysteries and recognize the value in even the smallest ones. Yes, serve up as many as possible as mysteries. Meaning, don’t rush into giving away information. You may believe you’re helping the reader, but instead all you’re doing is boring the reader and stealing the mystery.
I don’t write whodunits or thrillers per se because I have too many other genre classifications that interest me. Instead, I write fantasy that includes mystery. I’m sharing that because this isn’t a how-to post for writing a classic detective novel. Instead, it’s about how I’ve added mystery to my writing in a variety of ways.
Thus, until I run out of approaches to what I do I’m going to examine the topic each week. “But…but how how many weeks is that?”
It’s a mystery.
This week I’ll provide you two examples of what I mean about combining fantasy and mystery. My first example is from the beginning of Last Word Before Dying, my online story that recently concluded:
The girl stared transfixed, her conscious mind unaware that no one separated her from the scruffy young man. Behind him one militiaman halted, raised his crossbow, and released a bolt.
Her entire body quivering around her tension, she watched the hunted man stagger until he dropped to his hands and knees before her. His mouth twisted into a grimace. Blood ran around the grit imbedded in his hands. Amidst the stain spreading outward on his back protruded the bolt.
His chest heaving, he raised his head and their eyes met. The militiamen rushed to cover the distance while he reached out to her.
Shayleen dropped the basket.
“You must take it,” he gasped, his gaze unwavering. His bloody hand clutched her dress hem. “The Bane Dagger…you must take it…” Thunder and her heartbeat became competing drum rolls, yet their stares remained locked. He coughed, blood gushed over his lip, and he nodded. “It is good, Shayleen…you understand…”
“You…you know my name…?”
Before he could respond he collapsed. Time sat down to rest beside the girl, her eyes still staring at the handsome young man who’s face rested against the cobblestones, his lifeforce gone.
- Shayleen (and the reader) is left to wonder:
- Who is the young man who’s died at her feet?
- Why was he wanted by the militia?
- What is the importance of the Bane Dagger?
- How does he knew her name?
Likewise, in my novel, Where Light Devours, the first chapter introduces more mysteries than the reader is aware exist (some pertain to the series), but the ones most central to the chapter—and the novel, for that matter—come at this point:
Already scouring her mind for answers to the unexpected twist, she chided herself for recklessly utilizing her gift, a gift more often denied than utilized. She stared at her hands wanting to blame them for the act.
Practitioners, if sufficiently close, could sense utilized magic.
Her tone weakened. “Practitioners never venture this far north. What could have possibly prompted the change, I wonder?”
“I…I don’t know.”
“The Keepers seem to have trouble coming from every direction as of late.”
“Nels said he suspected treachery…”
Her attention reawakened. “What?”
The big man shrugged and wet his lips. “Before he left, a grayness came over him…never seen Nels scared, but he was scared at the last…”
“You mean, because of the unseen?”
Belden shook his head, the motions sharp. “No, I mean, yes, I’m sure he was, but it was what he said. I remember his face…” He swallowed to sooth his quivering voice.
He motioned with his eyes. “At the door, he said, ‘Beware, a Keeper traitor is among us…wields rabidus for the Ministry.’”
“I’ve no idea.” After a heavy exhale his agitated voice moderated. “Said the Ministry was preparing it, that it’d be ready next year, would finish the Keepers in the north. Like I said, he planned to send a message to Becker, but now he’s gone.”
- In the second example, Ergain wonders:
- Why have practitioners (otherwise known as “unseen”) ventured north?
- Who is the unnamed traitor that Nels (who’s disappeared) mentioned?
- Is there actually a traitor in the Keeper ranks? Is the information correct?
- What does the word “rabidus” mean?
- Why did mentioning the word terrify the man?
Note that there’s no information dump afterwards, no explaining that diffuses the mysteries created. What facts are supplied are necessary and brief. Readers don’t want to find themselves reading a textbook when they were expecting fiction. Readers want the journey. Otherwise, there’s no reason to have more than a first and last chapter. A beginner’s mistake is to dole out plot, but diffuse every mystery along the way, thus rendering the story a mundane recounting of events.
Advice you’ve probably heard before.
But here’s a twist. Solving a mystery is the same as learning a truth. Thus, if you dole out information about non-plot related topics the right way you create mysteries that aren’t recognized as such, but still provide the same tingle inside. Everything you don’t know is a mystery.
I’ll explain more next week.