How To Establish Mystery

I attended a workshop with Cheryl Klein a few years ago on plot. Cheryl Klein is one of the editors for the Harry Potter books, so when I heard she was presenting I jumped at the chance to go--even though it was 2 1/2 hours away and I was eight months pregnant at the time. Yes, I traveled against my doctor's wishes to attend this workshop, and guess what? IT WAS WORTH IT. And my baby is two years old now and everything is fine. Ha ha.

One of my favorite points Cheryl mentioned was the need to establish a mystery within the first few chapters of your book. She mentioned many other essential points in that opening chapter, but I'll stick with this one for now.

Establishing a mystery can also be referred to as establishing your "Hook," which many other great writers have touched on. I'm here to give my take on it.

I believe in order to establish a mystery is to have a great character to start with. We all know the ones--in fact, we've all met people like this, where you meet them and you find out just enough that we know we want to get to know that person better. Because we're establishing relationships with these fictional characters, too, aren't we?

1. Your character needs to have likeability. Cheryl Klein said one determining factor for her was if she could survive getting stuck on an elevator with this person for the next five hours. They need voice, (but voice doesn't = whining!). What is something that makes your character unique? Something that makes others like them? This can contribute to establishing the mystery.

2. Your character needs to have some kind of goal. This can also add to the mystery. In Such a Secret Place, Ambry is the only one among her peers who doesn't have magic, and her goal is to get magic! Her means? Going to a magical black market to get a jar of enchanted tears in the hopes that the tears would give her that magic.

What's so mysterious about that? If I've done my job, readers want to know why she doesn't have magic, and what she has to do in order to finally get some.

To have mystery you don't have to be writing mystery. Every story can (and should) have some elements of mystery, some way of raising questions that capture a reader's attention without any option but for them to turn pages to find the answer to it. 

3. Don't prolong your answers to the mysteries.

Readers need to have something to go on. You can have long-ended mysteries, but readers will want answers to the shorter ones along the way to get them to continue hanging on for the reveal of the "big" mystery.

Here's an example of a short mystery:

-*Swoony mysterious character swoops in* "Come with me if you want to live."
-Main character folds her arms. "I don't know who you are."
-Mysterious character grapples MC's arm. "You'll find out. The world's going to end and you're in the middle of it. Just come with me."
-"But who are you?"
-"You're going to die."
-"Yes, we've covered that. But who the freak are you?"

Okay--cheesy example, although I'm sure we've all seen this before. In cases like these, authors may intend to build mystery by making us wonder who this person is, but sometimes it's better to just tell us!

In Such a Secret Place, all through the story the mystery of this jar of tears is ongoing. The tears won't let Ambry drink them. She isn't sure what the tears' purpose is, only that they're the most powerful ever shed and she's supposed to protect them and get them to whatever purpose they have. As a result, readers also want to know what the tears are for, but they don't find out until book two.

It is possible to suspend a mystery this way. (Throughout two books? Yes.) Along the way, though, answers must be established to other small mysteries, like who shed the tears, why so many are after them, along with answers about character mysteries, like the mysterious boy Ambry is falling in love with. She knows very little about him but finds out piece by piece along the way. Be sure to dangle just enough carrot that readers get a bite before it's snatched away again.

When you hear readers say "I just couldn't connect," or "I'm bored," this is a possible reason why. If they're dragged on without any dangling carrots to follow, readers quickly lose interest.

What are your thoughts on establishing a mystery in the story? What do you think the importance of doing it as quickly as possible in a story is? I'd love to hear your thoughts!


1 comment

Kristin Smith said...

Ooh, this is such a great post!! And as I was reading, of course I was thinking of my YA novel I'm querying right now. I was thinking: "check, I did that. Okay, got that." So glad I was on the right track and didn't even realize it! :)

By the way, I absolutely LOVED The Help. Hope you enjoy it. :)

Merry Christmas!

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