Writing Tip #31: PART 1 - Don't Write This Kind of Mystery

Source: Victoria_Borodinova on Pixabay, edited with GIMP

Hello friends of The Ink Well.

In this installment of writing tips, we’re going to talk about the wrong kind of mystery. I’m referring to the type of story where you purposefully keep your reader in the dark for as long as possible.

Now, mind you, it's okay not to reveal everything, and we'll talk about that. But when the obfuscation is so thick that your reader cannot make sense of your story, it's safe to say that you have gone too far.

What Is Wrong with Hiding Details from Readers?

Have you ever read a story where crucial information seems to be purposefully kept from you, and you just feel irritated by the story and manipulated by the author? That is the net result of this approach to writing. It’s not a fun experience for the reader.

In tip #12, “Reveal Everything and Nothing,” I covered this topic from the standpoint of creating that important balance. The central idea is that you need to share enough details that the reader can follow the thread of the story, and is intrigued enough to keep learning more.

Writers go astray when they take delight in preventing the reader from fully understanding the story, or they fail to provide enough detail so that the reader has clarity.

Just as importantly, it's the details that make a story worth reading.

Antidotes to the Wrong Type of Mystery Issue

Here are some tips to help you give your readers enough information to connect with your story, get involved with your characters, and feel curious to know more so they keep reading.

Identify the characters quickly: Let the reader know who the characters are as soon as possible. For example, are the two primary characters siblings? A parent and a child? A priest and a parishioner? Let us know as soon as possible so we can attempt to “see” these people in our mind’s eye.

If they are not human - whether they are androids, talking dogs, aliens, talking stuffed animals, or whatever they may be, don’t wait several pages to reveal what kinds of beings they are. Any attempt to do so will frustrate the reader.

Identify the conflict quickly: Let us know why we are reading this story. A long lead-in that provides in-depth explanatory prose about the main character’s past is not going to get us interested. You can provide some of that later in the story. Give your readers an idea of what is causing your character grief, or what deep desire your character may feel, so we get right into the story.

Let’s Look at Some Examples

In the following two vignettes, I made up a story opening in two versions, and followed them up with some discussion. The first is modeled after a writing style I have seen many times in the work of emerging writers. The second (while perhaps not the most thrilling piece of writing) hopefully illustrates, by contrast, how important it is to give details right away.

Opening #1

They were together, weren’t they? So that was good. That had always been the way they got along best. Not that they weren’t okay on their own. No, it was not a situation of co-dependence or an inability to function, but more that they complemented one another, like salt and pepper. Like Bonnie and Clyde.

Opening #2

Julie and Sam had lived together and apart. For a time, they had even lived in separate cities, when Sam was on contract in Chicago and Julie stayed in Minneapolis. And they had made an important discovery. Unless they shared living quarters, the misunderstandings started. There was mistrust, and quarreling. Things unraveled. They finally agreed that the only harmonious arrangement was for them to live together full-time. The only trouble was that Sam was often called away on business.

The first example is designed to keep the reader guessing. It keeps a veil over the very thing we want to see: the people and their activity. I have read stories where this kind of writing goes on for a page or two, and I’m just as bewildered 800 words in as I was at the beginning. We don’t want our readers to feel that way.

The second example is about introducing the characters and the conflict in order to hook the reader. Not every story has to introduce the characters and the conflict in the very first paragraph, but I wanted to illustrate how much more effective it is to deliver important details as soon as possible.

Notice how you feel about the characters. In the first instance, it is hard to feel anything at all. In the second example, hopefully the reader thinks something along the lines of “Oh, how will they resolve this problem?”

So, be sure to reveal enough to give your readers something to fuel their imagination and take interest in the people and dramatic narrative of your story.

NOTE: This post somehow got published twice, so the twin has been edited with some beautiful writing examples. You can find it here.

Happy writing!

@jayna, writer and moderator at The Ink Well.

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If you're looking to up your fiction game and reach that next level, check out my past writing tips linked below.

Writing Tip #1: Writing from a Prompt

Writing Tip #2: Adding Conflict

Writing Tip #3: Writing What You Know

Writing Tip #4: Avoiding the Dreaded Info Dump

Writing Tip #5: Is ‘Show Don’t Tell’ a Writing Rule?

Writing Tip #6: How Fiction Writing Is Like Weaving

Writing Tip #7: Put It On the Page

Writing Tip #8: What Is a Story Arc?

Writing Tip #9: Should You Plot Your Story?

Writing Tip #10: Don’t Start a Story This Way!

Writing Tip #11: What Is “Writing Voice”?

Writing Tip #12: Reveal Everything and Nothing

Writing Tip #13: Character Types in Fiction

Writing Tip #14: Clichés - Avoid the Conspiratorial Wink

Writing Tip #15: Developing Memorable Characters

Writing Tip #16: Writing Character Descriptions

Writing Tip #17: Overcoming Writer’s Block

Writing Tip #18: Don’t Be a Copycat (Plagiarism is Wrong)

Writing Tip #19: Hook Your Readers

Writing Tip #20: Lessons in Tense Part 1

Writing Tip #21: Editing Your Work with Fresh Eyes

Writing Tip #22: We want to hear from you! What do you want to know?

Writing Tip #23: The Value of Workshops and Feedback

Writing Tip #24: What Are Plotters and Pantsers?

Writing Tip #25: Do Short Stories Have to Have a Plot?

Writing Tip #26: Action, Dialog and Narrative: The Dynamic Trio

Writing Tip #27: Let’s Explore World Building

Writing Tip #28: Getting Unstuck in Fiction Writing

Writing Tip #29: What Does It Take to Be a Fiction Writer?

Writing Tip #30: Help for the Grammatically Challenged

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