Writing Excuses 11.25: Elemental Mystery Is Everywhere
Key Points: Why do people turn the page in a mystery story? To see if they’re right! How will it unfold? Curiosity! What’s the answer? Mystery as a subgenre may not have a body or a big problem, but it is still a mystery whenever the character tries to figure something out. Something weird just happened, what is the hero’s dark past? Mystery is the journey, the curiosity leading up to the reveal, but the reveal shows what subgenre is blended in. Curiosity keeps you reading, foreshadowing tells you what kind of reveal is coming. To create mysteries, think about the information the reader needs to know. What do the characters want to know? Why? Start with what a character needs or wants, and what it will take to achieve that. Now, what information do they need to search for to let them accomplish that? There’s a mystery! Whodunits, why is it doing that, even what is this thing we keep running across — all good mysteries. Make sure you have the right mystery. Which one does your character interact with most? When you have a body on the floor, the question is obvious. But sometimes you need to plant stuff, and hang a lantern on it to make sure the readers notice the question. Mystery as subplot usually is easy to see, trying to solve a crime, but elemental mystery as subgenre may be more subtle, using curiosity to answer a question.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 25.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Mystery As Subgenre.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] Let’s keep talking about mysteries!
[Brandon] So, the question I want to ask you is why do people turn the page in a mystery story?
[Howard] To see if they’re right?
[Mary] Well, yeah. I think that that’s actually true. I think it’s… People are… There is a question and people want the answer to it and they are trying to solve it. So I think that in a lot of cases, as opposed to idea stories which we’ll talk about later, with the mystery story, it’s not just that the character has a question, the reader has a question and they are trying to solve it.
[Brandon] Right. Now I will say that there are a lot of readers I know who don’t want to try to figure out the mysteries. That for them, the fun is just seeing how it unfolds. I’ve met a number of these who just want to go along for the ride.
[Howard] Those are the people who are not following or participating in the Schlock Mercenary Facebook group.
[Brandon] That is true.
[Howard] I will be… As I watch that group, I think, “Oh. Okay. You guys have identified all of the red herrings that I identified, and there is no way for me to make all of you be wrong, so I’m not going to try.”
[Howard] But I can tell what they are loving.
[Brandon] Yeah, well… This is an interesting thing just to bring up. We get a skewed perspective sometimes as popular writers interacting with fans. The fans who interact with us our a self-selecting crowd. The fans who go on Internet forums and talk about these things are a self-selecting crowd. When I’ve gone to signings and kind of asked questions along these lines, a lot of people don’t want to know, don’t want to guess. A large number of people. But the hard-core fans all are trying to figure it out, because they’re the people who talk to their friends and say, “What do you think about this?”
[Dan] Well, even the people who are not playing along at home, they’re still reading the mystery because they want to know the answer to it.
[Brandon] Right. They did.
[Dan] Even if they’re not the one actively trying to solve it on their own.
[Brandon] I just want to point out that there is the sense of “I want to see how this plays out.” In the same way that adventure was “I want to see what cool things they do,” this is “I want to read along because I know something is coming, and it’s going to blow my mind when it happens, and I’m so excited to have my expectations rocked in that way.”
[Howard] We’ve covered this over and over and over and over and over again. In your critique groups, it’s incredibly useful to have readers who are readers. When we talk about the true fans who we get feedback from, and yes, it skews our perspective. Having a reader in your writing group who loves to read mysteries, but who doesn’t hang out on the fan sites. That person is the one who’s going to tell you if you’re getting it right.
[Brandon] The alpha and beta readers are even more valuable for that sense. Because the writing group people will be tainted by everyone else’s guessing.
[Mary] I use my dad for beta testing, because if there’s a plot hole, he will find it. He’s an engineer. So I think that one of the things that I was answering when I was saying why do we keep turning the pages is like, “This is why I keep turning the pages of a mystery.” Because when I’m reading, and I’m not reading science fiction or fantasy, the two genres that I go to are romance or mystery. Usually mystery. The thing that I am turning the pages because I’m intrigued, I want to know what…
[Brandon] Right. Curiosity.
[Brandon] Curiosity is the king right here. Even if you’re not trying to figure it out yourself, you’re still curious. This actually is important for this discussion of mystery as a subgenre. Because a lot of times, you will be as a writer embedding mysteries that don’t look like mysteries to the reader. They are not presented as a “here is a body” or “here is a big problem.” It is the characters working on something and gaining information in some way. That’s a mystery, even if the outline that the reader would put for yet doesn’t make a mystery for this book.
[Dan] Well, especially in… We’re talking about using them has subgenres inside of a larger work. That can be so effective in a thriller or in a horror story, when suddenly something weird happens and you can’t figure it out. That will build tension for your larger story. But it also gives you a little chapter long or scene long “let’s figure out why all the lights suddenly went out.” That kind of thing.
[Mary] Romance also has a mystery that’s very common embedded in it, and that is the hero’s dark past.
[Mary] What is…
[Brandon] Action movies, too.
[Mary] Yes. Yeah.
[Brandon] What is the hero’s dark past… I just came up with something that really sounded right to me. Just I’d never thought of it. The mystery is really the journey. The reveal at the end of the mystery is going to define the subgenre being blended with it. For instance, if you are feeling like when this gets revealed, I’m going to find out the dark eldritch horrors that will break my brain, you’re a horror and a mystery. But if the reveal is going to be we are going to discover what’s hidden underneath the city and it turns out to be a city of gold, then you’re in wonder, right? We have discovered the thing. So the emotion that immediately follows the curiosity is your blended emotion.
[Mary] Oh, that’s interesting.
[Howard] That’s a really good way of looking at it. One of the things that I have puzzled over for quite some time now in thinking about these elements as subgenres… What is the subgenre, what is the element that gets used the most often as a subgenre? I’m leaning towards mystery because it just gets used so often. Second place is probably relationship, because that is so important. I don’t know. But what you just said kind of sums it up. Sometimes the reveal is so powerfully sense of wonder or horror that I forget that mystery was there, and I’m not counting it.
[Brandon] See, here’s what it is. Curiosity sustains the reader until you hit the reveal. As you’re going, you want to foreshadow that reveal. You will foreshadow that this discovery is going to be terrible and frightening in a different way than you foreshadow this discovery is going to change the way that the magic works and makes you really think in awe about wizards in a new way or whatever. You’re going to foreshadow those differences, but curiosity is what’s sustaining you during that.
[Mary] Yeah. That’s a really good way to point at how these genres, these elemental things blend together. Because you have to be doing both at the same time. You have to be bringing in the elements of whatever your other genre is while you’re bringing that curiosity all the way through.
[Brandon] I think that might be the difference between mystery as a genre and as a subgenre. In mystery as a genre, the reveal is information, information that you’ve been thirsting after all along so that the puzzle locks closed. “Ah. I am done now with this puzzle. I have had the reveal.” Whereas in another genre, the reveal adds to your major genre, whatever it is.
[Howard] It’s… Mystery, as the principal element of the reveal is “Aha!” But in science fiction, it’s “Wow!”
[Brandon] There you go.
[Howard] In horror, it’s “Oh, no!”
[Brandon] I wish I could like have a book so that when I open it to the last page, you give one of these reactions in each voice.
[Dan] A little greeting card. “Oh, no!”
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Dan, you are going to have our book of the week this week.
[Dan] Our book of the week is Thud by Terry Pratchett. Terry Pratchett writes fantasy comedies. He’s combining wonder and humor. People who pass him off as just a funny guy are really discounting the incredible work he does as a fantasy author. He has, for example, in Thud, is towards are the first truly original take on dwarves that I have read since Tolkien. They’re incredibly new and fascinating. What’s great about Thud is that it is a murder mystery. Someone has killed the leader of the dwarves in the city, and good old Vimes, this world-weary city watch commander, has to figure it out before…
[Dan] The political oppressed… Uprising comes, and people go nuts. Absolutely wonderful book. Hilarious and brilliant and very intelligently constructed as a mystery.
[Brandon] I would say that almost all the Vimes stories are mysteries. Pratchett uses a couple of different things across his various subseries in Discworld, but mystery is his most common one. They really are fantasy mystery humor, all completely hybridized.
[Dan] It’s hard to say which is the subgenre of the other one, because he blends them so thoroughly.
[Brandon] Well, you can start a trial at Audible, by going to audiblepodcast.com/excuse. Pick up a copy of Thud by Terry Pratchett, read by Stephen Briggs, to start off your trial.
[Brandon] So, let’s go into how you approach creating a subplot that is a mystery plot for one of your stories. Anything specific you do? If you know you’re writing like this big, this horror story, this fantasy, this historical fantasy, how do you insert your mysteries?
[Dan] Well, one of the places that I start is when I look at the information that the reader needs to know. I decide would this be best explained through some kind of expository scene, or would it be best explained to have the reader… The characters figure it out on screen? If the latter, then I’m putting some form of mystery into the book.
[Howard] If you look at the… If you go to writingexcuses.com and look at the tag cloud on the website. The largest word in that cloud is characters. That is because we drill down on that so often. For mystery, as a subgenre, if you ask yourself what the characters are asking themselves, what is it that they are curious about? Why are they curious about it? What is driving them to find the answer? Then that… That’s what’s going to engage the reader, because that’s whose shoes we’re standing in! I find that when I do that with Schlock Mercenary, what I will often do is… I change points of view a lot in the strip. I look for the character who is the most puzzled and the best able to articulate the puzzle. That’s where I switch to. Because that’s… for me, that’s what engages it the best.
[Brandon] When I was building the Stormlight Archive, I did something very similar to what you’re saying here. I said, “I want each of my five main characters to have a mystery hook to them.” When you read that character, after a few chapters, you should be like, “I want to know what happened to this person to bring them to this point, where the book starts.” That was one of my main hooks, to get people through the first five books, is each one would take a character and delve into their past. So I needed something really intriguing. I needed a question that by the end of the book, if readers came to me and said, “What happened to such and such that caused this?” I knew I was doing it right. Right? If they could put their fingers on it and say, “Oh, I want to know what happened there.” Then… That’s part of how I design these. I’m like, “What question is the reader going to ask me, if they’re halfway through the book? Or if they’re done with the book? What are they going to come and say, ‘ Oh, Brandon. There’s one thing I want to know, and it is… This!'” Which would be a huge spoiler for the next book…
[Brandon] Then I’ve done my job right.
[Mary] One of the things that I’ll do sometimes, and I don’t do this every time, but it’s a useful hack, is… I figure out what it is that my character needs or wants and what it is that they need to do to achieve that. Then I look at what piece of information do they lack that would allow them to accomplish the thing that they need to do. That search for that piece of information then becomes a mystery within a larger…
[Brandon] I’ve said many times before that when I build a plot, I do this thing where I say, “What are all my subplots, what are all my emotions?” Then I build each one backwards. I don’t build a huge outline, I build a bunch of little outlines. A lot of them are mysteries. It will be… Sometimes they’re whodunits. Hey, somebody got killed, the characters don’t know. Let’s lead them on a journey discovering this. Sometimes it’ll be a piece of information. A true mystery of we don’t know why the magic is doing what it’s doing. Like a classic Isaac Asimov mystery, like I mentioned. Let’s lead them and the reader slowly as clues are gathered. Sometimes it’s not even the characters wanting to gather the clues, it’s just during their normal plot cycle, they’re running across things that are pieces. So that you can earn your ending this way.
[Dan] In the first draft of I Am Not a Serial Killer, the mystery was “Who is the bad guy? Who is the monster that’s killing everyone in the town?” I realized in our writing group that that was the wrong mystery. Because the character was not interacting with that mystery as effectively as he could have been. The right mystery was “I know who the bad guy is, and it’s the monster. How do I kill it?” That’s what all the rest of the series has turned into. That’s the first question I come up with as I sit down to write a new book, is “How does this monster work? How can John kill it?” Then build the mystery backwards from there.
[Mary] Which is, again, looking at what it is the character needs to do and what is the information that they lack to be able to pull it off.
[Dan] Well, John Cleaver specifically, his entire character journey is “Well, should I kill this thing?” The books would not be as interesting if he weren’t constantly grappling with that question.
[Mary] One of the other things when you’re using it as a subgenre is that it’s very easy to raise the question when you’ve got a dead body on the floor and that’s your main genre. But with it as a subgenre, a lot of times you have to raise the question for the reader by planting stuff and calling attention to it. So like in Of Noble Family, I have… There’s a mystery subplot that’s pretty significant. One of the things that I had my main character do is notice “So-and-so reacted very strangely when I just said that. I wonder why?” Then I moved on.
[Brandon] Right. Hang a lantern on it is really important. Hey, this was a clue! Even if you don’t notice right now it’s a clue, there’s enough of a little stop moment in the prose, that you’ll remember this moment.
[Howard] It’s worth taking just a moment to put a pin in something here. When we’re talking about elemental mystery as a subgenre, that’s not the same as mystery as a subplot. Okay? I mean, those… You are kind of doing that if you have mystery as a subplot. But mystery as a subplot is easy to pick out. Oh, well, I’m in this romance story and they are detectives and they are solving a murder. Versus John Cleaver needing to figure out how to kill the monster.
[Dan] My new series, Bluescreen, is primarily a thriller. But what I tried to do with that was to create a mystery in it that you don’t realize is there until you’ve already gotten several clues. Because we’re in this thriller plot. Here’s a weird thing. Here’s a weird thing. Eventually, they’ve built up to the point where there’s so many weird things, the characters go, “Wait a minute. Let’s figure this out before we move on.”
[Brandon] All right. Let’s go ahead and give you guys some homework.
[Mary] All right. So what we’re going to have you do is insert a mystery into whatever it is that you’re currently working on. Short story, novel, whatever it is. All I’m going to ask you to do is look at what it is that your character needs. You’ve probably got the solution already in there. Take the solution out. Then build it in so that the character has to figure out the solution. So essentially, you have just created a mystery within your story.
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go solve some mysteries.