Everybody knows what mystery is; hardly anybody can
by D. J. Herda
The fact that teaching a writer how to create mystery is about as simple as teaching a hydrophobic quadriplegic how to swim isn't going to stop me. Uh-uh, no sir. And, as if that weren't enough, this aficionado of Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle is going to go even a step further. Yup. I'm not only going to teach you how to create mystery ... I'm going to teach you how to do it with style.
First: a definition. Mystery is the unknown. We don't necessarily care at this point just what that unknown is. For now, let's just keep it simple.
Second: a given. A writer creates mystery when he deliberately prevents his reader from knowing the truth. Take a look at this:
A car roars by a fast-food restaurant. An Arabic suicide bomber leaps out the back door and goes tumbling through the crowd. Dazed and barely conscious, he comes to rest in a pool of blood by the front door as several people cluster around, anxious to help. Suddenly a bomb hidden beneath his coat explodes, sending tables and chairs, shards of glass and human flesh flying everywhere.
There is no mystery here. The writer has explained it all--except, of course, why it happened. But once you know what happened, the "why," except in psychological thrillers, is rarely more than an also-ran. Now check this out:
A car roars by a fast-food restaurant. It slows for a brief second as the back door flies open. Perched halfway out of the car is a man wearing a long coat, despite the grueling mid-August heat. As the driver hits the accelerator, the man flies out of the car, tumbling through the crowd until his body slams up against the brick facade of the building, where he lay for several minutes in a swelling pool of blood.
Now, all of a sudden, we have a ton of mystery. Who are these people? Why did the driver slow down? What made the car door open? Why was the man perched at the edge of the door? Why was he wearing a long coat in the middle of summer? Why did the driver suddenly hit the accelerator? What sent the man flying from the car--did he leap, or was he shoved? Who is the man? Is he dead or alive? What's going to happen next?
Mystery. So much mystery. And all because the writer of the second passage chose to hold back some very pertinent information from his reader.
Holding back information from the reader is the lifeline of all mystery. Doing so accomplishes two things. First, it keeps the reader in the dark. He doesn't know what happened or why, so he's forced to guess (everyone wants to know if his "hunch" is right). That creates tension and intrigue within the reader and keeps him turning the pages, keeps him coming back for more.
Second, holding back information creates multiple avenues of action and motivation for the writer. Even when working from the most complete outline imaginable, as a writer unfolds a mystery, new possibilities, new wrinkles, invariably strike him. Changing an outline on-the-fly to incorporate these new concepts is often one of the most enjoyable things about writing a mystery. Not only has the writer figured the mystery out in advance of starting the book, but also he gets numerous opportunities to alter it along the way to its completion. Talk about fun!
But where--I know you're getting ready to ask--does the element of "style" come in? Mystery is mystery, isn't it? Withholding information is withholding information, no matter how it's done.
Well, that's true, but only to a point. Style, as I define it within the realm of creating mystery, is an unmistakable uniqueness to a character or a situation. Here's an example of mystery with very little "style," in the opening graf of a mystery novel:
John watched as the young woman got onto the bus and slipped into a seat across the aisle. As she opened her purse to reach for a tissue, he saw the unmistakable glint of hardened medal--blued metal--the kind of metal you find nowhere else but on the barrel of a gun. "Now what the hell would she be doing with a gun," he mumbled to himself.
That's an example of what I call a generic mystery scene. It works. It creates suspense; but it carries little, if any, style. Now listen to this version of the same scene:
John settled into his seat, his knees pressing hard against the metal frame of the seat before him. His eyes, twin narrow slits in an otherwise placid face, scanned the bobbing heads of the passengers--"I hate buses," he thought--before settling on the sylvan shape of a young lady picking her way slowly down the aisle. She stumbled awkwardly to one side as the bus weaved and veered its way through late-night traffic. Grabbing the polished metal frame of the seat just across the aisle and in front of John, she slid down into the time-worn vinyl. She shifted her hat and tilted her head. John ran the narrow slits down the side of her body, the red chintz of her dress, to her heels--black with no straps--and then back up again in time to see her open her purse and reach one hand inside for a tissue. The slits suddenly widened. Peeking out at him from the corner of the bag was the gaping muzzle of a snub-nosed revolver--its time-dulled steel-grey complexion in marked contrast to the honey-blonde hair dancing only inches above it.
Notice how the second passage relays the same sense of mystery as the first one: the reader knows that John saw a gun in the woman's purse and that he wondered what it was doing there.
But the second passage goes on to spread a thin layer of jam across the bun. Its sweet, sticky, tasty thereness draws the reader in more deeply, gives him a sense of what the characters are all about ... and maybe what the tone of the story is about, too--something the first passage fails to do.
It accomplishes all of this, of course, through description. Not just general descriptive banter, but description that adds to the sense of mystery, of the hush-hushedness, of something going on that the reader simply can't fathom. In the second passage, the woman suddenly becomes a lady. John's eyes are narrow slits. Her form is sylvan. She wears a hat and tilts her head forward. Her dress is red chintz; her heels, black strapless. The gun is a snub-nosed revolver. Its coloring is time-dulled steel grey; while her hair is honey blonde.
All of these descriptive adjectives and phrases feed into the reader's sense of heightened mystery. By the time this paragraph is history, the reader is absolutely convinced that something wonderful, something awful, something sinister and unpredictable is going to take place here. And, chances are, the reader is right. The author has succeeded.
So, you want mystery? Plan in advance. Work carefully. Give the reader enough information to make sense but not enough to make too much sense. Never, ever give him enough to allow him to figure out who did what and why until you're ready to tell all.
You want mystery with style? Give the reader exactly the same thing and then some ... but still leave him wondering--and wanting--more.