Most everyone loves a good mystery. Some people like having the puzzle to solve as the clues are doled out one by one, or perhaps as it becomes apparent they were sitting out in the open all along. Other folks love getting the big twist they should’ve seen coming, but the writer managed to slip it past them. Solving mysteries makes people feel clever, a good part of the reason this storytelling form has survived for well over a century.
A great example of the mystery story and structure is Scooby-Doo. No, seriously. In the classic series, it wasn’t unusual for Scooby, Shaggy and their pals (anyone mentioning a much later “puppy power” add-on to the cast will be banned from this blog) to go off somewhere and encounter a ghost, a haunted deep-sea diving suit, or even a reanimated mummy seeking its magical coin. However, as the story progressed, clues would be found, motives revealed, and what seemed eerie and impossible at first began to look more mundane and plausible. In the end, it wasn’t too much of a surprise to finally find out the reanimated mummy was really Doctor Najib in a costume, trying to steal the coin so he could sell it to a collector.
That’s the point of a good mystery. When all the pieces fall into place and everything makes sense. Readers (and agents and editors) love that beautiful moment when all the clues line up and they can look back over the story and say “Ahhhhhhh... I see.”
Now, here’s the one real catch, in case you missed it. Just having someone speak cryptically doesn’t cut it. Neither does deliberately withholding a ton of information from the audience. Nor do piles of weird occurrences or clues which don’t seem to mean anything but your characters treat like the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls. If you want your story to have that cool, odd air of mystery that makes people wonder and question and remember your story...
Well, you need to actually have a mystery.
A fairly common flaw I see is writers trying to convince readers there’s a mystery going on in their story. They don’t actually have one, mind you, but they know Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie became famous with them, plus shows like LOST and movies like The Prestige got people talking. So these writers will have an aloof man in a trench coat who drops one-line, indecipherable comments. An unusual reference that keeps cropping up again and again throughout the story. Sometimes (wooden as it sounds) just a character who keeps repeating lines like “What does that mean?” or “Who are you?” or “I don’t understand!”
Again, there’s no actual puzzle, just the implication there’s one the reader can’t see. The best sign of this is that nothing is ever solved or revealed—the story is just an ongoing series of empty, random events attempting to evoke a sense of mystery.
There needs to be something behind the words on the page, even if it’s something your readers don’t immediately get to see. When Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby find that smear of white paint on the wall, they and the audience all need to believe this is something important and not just a randomly inserted MacGuffin the writer stuck in to fill a few script pages. As the writer, you need to know what that smear of white paint means long before those meddling kids even see it.
In my oft-referred-to work The Suffering Map, the character of Bareback often talks in a deliberately vague, roundabout way. He also subtly displays a knowledge of future events. When the full workings and history of the Polynecronious Transporter are explained, Bareback’s prescience suddenly has an eerie logic behind it, and his earlier, obtuse way of speaking now makes sense. It’s a mystery, but it’s a real mystery.
What you want, as a writer, is to be a magician rather than a con artist. The magician shows you empty boxes and hats, a cage full of rabbits and a deck of cards. Then he or she does something amazing with it and you know they’ve done something amazing. Maybe you even have a vague sense of how it was done, even if not a complete understanding. You’re left feeling thrilled and excited.
The con artist, though... when he or she shows you those empty boxes it’s for a very different reason. It’s because they don’t really have a trick, and they’re hoping they’ll never have to show you something in the box. They’ll just take your money and you’ll be left standing there waiting for something to happen. They’re the ones who know the truth of what’s going on will just annoy their audience.
It sounds silly, but if you want your story to have a mystery, then it needs to have a mystery. It has to be smart. It has to be hidden for a reason within the story. It actually has to mean something.
If it isn’t... you’re just another con artist.
And we all knew what happened to the con artist at the end of Scooby-Doo.