What is it? And no, I’m not talking about, Crispin Glover.
A mystery is unknown, and is perhaps the most frightening thing we can ever experience.
Mysteries are not confined to stories with dead bodies, though a body or two can occur during the story itself, but mysteries inhabit our everyday lives. You encounter mysteries whenever you go outside or on the internet. Some are rather simple and disappoint us, Clickbait for example, and some are downright mind boggling, see D.B. Cooper. Yet, we are drawn to mysteries all the time, in fact many books and many movies have a mystery in them even if the mystery isn’t the driving force behind the story itself.
I am preparing to write my next book, and while WML was a blast to write, it was really more of an action filled tale. I love action and I love mystery, so trying to meld the two together is something I am going to be forever learning. During my research, and my lifetime love with both items, I have come up with the four parts of a mystery.
1. The Promise
2. The Evidence
3. The Trail
4. The Reveal
You see, every mystery has these parts.
The Promise is the hook, the thing that gets the reader/viewer/player into your story. It’s usually the first thing they see or experience and it sets the tone for the rest of the story. It also sets up a lot of preconceived notions, which depending on how you want to spin that, could play well for you or be your biggest hurdle.
A good example of The Promise is the beginning of The Prestige (the movie) where we are witnessing the possible murder or death of Hugh Jackman’s character while Christian Bale stands by and watches. I suggest watching the movie if you haven’t yet, because it is very good.
The Evidence is what your characters have to go off of in order to solve the mystery. These pieces are also going to involve your reader/viewer/player, and always treat them as if they are smart. A lot of creators forget that rule and that is how you get characters acting dumb on screen while the audience yells at them because the answer is so obvious. The Evidence is probably the hardest part of any mystery because you need to provide enough to give a clear vision for the characters, but deliver it in such a way that is believable and even make it seem unreliable. The more red herrings you have here, the better really, but then again you don’t want to throw too much around. It’s a hard balance to find, and there is no steadfast rule.
Good examples: Murder on the Orient Express, Seeker by Jack McDevitt, Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy, and Myst.
The Trail is the adventure portion of your story. Evidence can be collected along the way, but the trail is the part where the evidence has to start fitting or else you’ll find your characters are lost and without direction. Your reader/viewer/player will also lose attention if you cannot start making the pieces of the puzzle fit. This will ruin flow and pace and you’ll be dead in the water. Hopefully you’ve plotted out some portions of the story, or have a style that is so delightful to read that you can babble on until you figure out a fix. The Trail also gives you time to weave a tighter mystery and raise the stakes for your characters. Many stories have used the evidence and the trail to great effect, but again, this is all about how you want your story to feel and be experienced. If you want a slow burn, then do so, if not, then figure out the most expedient way to get your information across.
Good examples: Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, The Thing, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (Fincher Edition), Somebody Owes Me Money by Donald E. Westlake, Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.
The Reveal is the most important and the hardest part to pull off. This part of the story must reflect your themes or your tempo in order to really pay off for the characters and your audience. I’m not talking about the ending here, the reveal is when your audience and the characters get a shiver up their spine. That feeling is the sign of a great mystery. Once we see the monsters face, know the madman’s plot, and have the documentation to nail that politician’s ass to the wall the game is up. A mystery is only interesting as long as it is mysterious to us and once the reveal is finished you have one last thing to do: the ending.
There you go! This is what I feel constitutes a mystery, your ending is something that I am not going to go over. Make it good? Sure, there you go, make it a fitting ending. With mysteries it is the chase that makes them interesting, the characters you encounter along the way, and the world you are exploring. Now if you excuse me, I have a book to work get to work on.