The primary goal of any good story is to engage the reader.
You’ve probably heard me say countless times before, “Predictability is the death knell of good fiction.” If your reader knows what happens next, there’s a good chance they won’t continue reading, or if they do manage to press on, they’ll be distanced or otherwise disengaged.
A fundamental method to engage readers in any story, is to lure them with mystery and suspense.
[We’ll tackle suspense in another article]
The clinical definition of mystery is; something difficult or impossible to understand or explain… But this is only half the accurate definition when it comes to writing.
Because in fiction, mundane, irrelevant, superfluous or minor elements all lack mystery, no matter how difficult or impossible to understand you make them.
So while “how the bag of coffee beans got from the bottom shelf to the top shelf, with all the roommates denying moving them,” might be mysterious in real-life, in a story, it’s a distracting waste of time.
To establish mystery in fiction make sure the element is interesting by itself, important & relevant, and contains significant narrative drive.
Also, “impossible…” impossible is a bad word in most instances of establishing mystery. I’ll explain why later, but for now, take my word for it, which leaves us with the following more accurate definition for establishing mystery in comics;
An interesting, highly relevant, difficult to understand or explain element with high narrative drive.
Let’s break it down.
Someone has been found murdered, stabbed in the heart, outside the local comic shop. The only clue is a footprint in the mud outside the back door of the shop. It’s a size 10 sneaker.
There are actually two areas of potential mystery here. The first is the murder itself. The second is the murderer.
I was originally going to unpack them both, but for the sake of room in the article, let’s focus on just the murder itself.
Since the murder was committed by a stabbing through the heart, there is really nothing difficult to understand here (if the murder remains what it is at face value-meaning no new additional reveals pop up that suddenly alter the understanding of the killing).
Next, we look to interesting. A stabbing through the heart is not totally boring or commonplace, but as far as crimes go, there’s really not much to it, so I’d say; it’s not very interesting.
The last two are hard to judge without context, so let’s give it a shot making it up as we go along.
Highly relevant. It turns out in our story, four teens have disappeared from the comic shop in recent days. All from wealthy families tied to politics. Our murder victim in the alley, is a middle-aged homeless guy with a bad drug habit who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, which makes him irrelevant.
Lastly, narrative drive. This is closely associated and often confused with relevancy. Truth is, if the element is not relevant at all, it can’t have narrative drive. BUT, here’s the twist, if the element IS relevant, it could still be fumbled and NOT have narrative drive.
Remember Narrative Drive means progressing the story.
Let’s rewind a bit and instead say;
The murder victim is the sister to one of the missing teens. That’s no mere unconnected coincidence, that’s a potential bombshell. But narrative drive isn’t about potential, it’s about action and momentum. If the sister’s murder doesn’t springboard the story in new direction, if doors leading to new discovery don’t fly open, it’s a highly relevant element void of narrative drive.
Ok, let’s take a crack at rewriting our story, hitting proper mystery points;