Friday, January 23

Get a Clue: We All Need a Little Mystery in Our Novels

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's Refresher Friday is a heavily updated look at how we can add a little mystery and wonder to our novels. Enjoy!

A good friend of mine writes mysteries, and when she first started reading my fantasies (the novels, not the other kind) she remarked that she’d never be able to make up an entire world like I did. I found it impressive that she could write in the real world and not have the luxury of making stuff up when she needed it. Two totally different writers approaching their stories from two totally different perspectives, but what we both agreed on, was that all stories need a sense of mystery and wonder. Without mystery, stories just aren’t any fun.

I think as writers, we can get so caught up the plot and characters and showing all the cool things we created, and making sure the technical stuff is working, that we forget readers want more than just "good writing." They want a story they can get lost in. A puzzle to solve. They want to figure out the truth and be surprised.

Even if your novel isn't a mystery, there are mysterious things going on that can hook a reader and give them the same experience. Let's look at a few ways a sense of mystery and wonder might appear in a novel.

World Building Mysteries

When you think world building it's common to think it only applies to fantasy and science fiction, but all worlds need to be built in a novel. The details in that world, how it works with the characters, how those characters view their world--these are just important in a real world setting as they are in a fantastical setting. Things to consider:
  • What dangers lurk in this world?
  • How did this culture evolve? 
  • What about this world is strange to the protagonist?
  • What might the reader be intrigued by?
  • What inherent secrets exist or are hinted at?
While some worlds and settings will lend themselves to the mysterious more than others, there's a lot of unknown in any world. Tapping into that can create another layer in your novels that keeps readers interested in the story.

(More on world building here)

Plot Mysteries

Obviously, we want our plots to be unpredictable and hook our readers, and the bulk of the mystery is going to fall here. What's going to happen next? is the biggest draw, and the more unpredictable we can make that, the better the odds of the reader being sucked into the tale. They'll be wondering right along with the protagonist about what's really going on. Ask yourself:
  • Are there twists in the plot or does it march along predictably?
  • Do the characters always do what's expected of them or are their surprises?
  • Are there secrets to be revealed over the course of the novel?
  • Are there unexpected surprises from secondary or minor characters? 
  • Is everything figured out quickly or are some things left hanging for a while?

(More on plot twists here)

Character Mysteries

People are messy, contradictory, unpredictable, and inconsistent, which makes them a perfect vehicle to inject some mystery into a novel. Even in a straightforward plot, where the outcome is pretty certain (such as a traditional romance) the hows and whys won't be always be known or understood. Motives will be fuzzy, secrets will be kept, and choices will be uncertain. Think about:
Who is hiding information?
Who has secrets?
Who is lying to themselves?
Who is lying to others?
Who is missing vital information?
If readers aren't certain what a character might do or say, then they'll be much more interested in how a scene will turn out. The mystery of what that character might do draws them forward.

Drafting Mysteries

Don't forget about the fun of mysteries when you're wring or planning your novel. If we bore ourselves, odds are we'll also bore our readers. Craft a story that's fun for us to write and figure out, and we'll likely have a novel that does the same for our readers.

I outline my novels, but I never plan exactly how my characters are going to achieve the goals I’ve set for them. It would spoil the mystery to know how they were going to solve this delicious puzzle I’ve concocted. I write myself into corners (not recommended unless you enjoy a challenge and a bit of hair ripping) and put my characters into situations that sometimes take me days to find a way out of. The moment when the solution comes to me is one of the best in world.

Because I’ve solved the mystery.

(More on writing yourself into a corner here)

If you weave a variety of "mysteries" into your story, readers will never lack for a reason to wonder what happens next. And who doesn’t love a good mystery?

What kinds of mysteries do you have in your novel? 

Looking for tips on revising or planning your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She is also a contributor at Pub(lishing) Crawl, and Writers in the Storm.

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Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour at Killer Fiction. Updated July 5, 2013.


  1. Ha, I love those moments too. The best surprises are the ones that surprise the writer first :)

  2. Wen: And the ones that wake you up in the middle of the night with a revelation :)

  3. Yeah,

    I accept, it is hard to thrill a writer!! I surely love mysteries!!

    Thanks for telling me about how life is from point of view of both authors(aka different genres)!!Ha Ha!!

    with warm regards

  4. I've been trying outlining -- and I think that organic characters-in-trouble is one of the hardest things to pull off. I know how things are going to happen, so when I revise, I realize my characters aren't worried about everything they should be because I already knew they weren't going to get hypothermia. When I didn't outline, I didn't have this problem (though, there were plenty of others).

  5. AllMyPosts: Most welcome!

    Megan: I run into that same thing once in a while. I write the scene as "protag beats X" and my antags don;t do anything to try and win. I can see how outlining can add to that. Sounds like you're a panster :)

  6. World-building mysteries are always so much fun to solve!

    For instance, I have an entire society of highly evolved immortals. They're not dependent on food or water to survive. They have no 'needs' to speak of. It sounded plausible during the initial stage, but the inevitable question arose: So what do they do with all their time? And solving that puzzle created a whole new plot point that I hadn't thought of to start with.

    That's certainly one of the joys of writing sf/f.

  7. Janice, this is a skill I admire so much in other authors, and something I'm practicing myself. When done right, it looks easy. But I knot it isn't!!

  8. Swati, fun! I love the world building aspect, too. Which might be why I have all these worlds without stories to go in them, lol.

    Julie, it's certainly not. I have some mystery writer friends who impress me all the time with how they plot out all those twists and turns.

  9. Darn it, I've just put a review of a friend's novel up on Amazon and now I find that you've put your finger on the basic structural problem in his book. He introduces his obvious romantic pairing on Page Two and from there on it's only a matter of time. It's a "caper" plot. Either they find the Royal Diaries of Alexander the Great, or they don't. Not too much mystery there. The author simply didn't pose enough puzzles for the reader. Thanks for your analysis. I can use it in my own writing too!

  10. Shadeburst, glad I could help. Different genres will have different levels of mystery, so if your friend's book is a pure romance, then there aren't always as many mysteries to that type of story. But if it's caper with a romantic subplot, then there usually are.

  11. I'm a committed plotter, but I get a thrill when I resolve a dead-end even at an early stage. But, as you say, even more fun when you are with your character in a tight spot. Thanks.

    1. I love that thrill :) It's worth the frequent hair tearing to get there.