I spent last week in the company of other writers at a workshop/retreat in the beautiful mountains of North Carolina. It’s the first time I’ve done a writing retreat like this: months before we all turned in 50 pages of a WIP and not too long after a full manuscript (or however much we had written). During the first half of the retreat week we workshopped the fifty pages and in the second half we broke up into small groups to discuss the fulls. During the in between times we ate, threw around story ideas, helped worldbuild and generally discussed the industry and the writing life.
It was amazing. I walked away with my head spinning, one book fixed, another polished and the world of a third idea fleshed out. I’m still reeling from how much I learned! I’d forgotten just how much you can learn from reading and discussing other writers’ WIPs. In fact, this is something I highly recommend to anyone hoping to better your craft. When you pick up a book at the store, it’s already gone through rounds of edits and (hopefully) most of the gaps and flaws have been smoothed out. But when you read a first draft, those flaws still exist (and trust me, every first draft has flaws!) and, because it’s not your own project, you can look at the text without all the emotions and baggage.
One craft technique I learned last week was the difference between a faux mystery and a true one and this distinction is a huge eye-opener in my own work. Mystery is one of many ways to create tension and drive the plot — hopefully the reader will turn the pages because they want to uncover or solve that mystery. However, I think there are two types of mystery (actually, I’m sure there are more but right now I’m just using these two).
The first is what I call a faux mystery: it’s when the protagonist knows information they’re not sharing with the reader. For example: “The smell of rain reminded me of that night… no, I couldn’t think of it or the memories would deluge me,” or “My disease has always kept me from doing what I wanted [but I’m not going to tell you what my disease is, how I got it, or what I wanted]” (note that I’m exempting unreliable narrators or story lines that depend on something like amnesia, etc). The problem with this kind of mystery is that there’s no mystery! The protagonist already has the information but is simply choosing not to share it. So that leaves the reader to just sit around and wait which can become quickly maddening (especially in first person). Furthermore, this puts the protagonist and the reader out of alignment — the reader can’t fall into the protagonist’s head because the protagonist is holding back. This also means that the protagonist may make decisions based on the secret information that won’t make sense to the reader who is still in the dark.
To me this is similar to the character who desperately wants information but just won’t ask the person standing in front of them who can impart said information. If you want to use this technique as a writer, you have to make sure to seriously set it up. You can’t have a character whine for half a book that they must absolutely know X but then turn down an opportunity to get that information (unless the method for learning that information would be far costlier than not knowing the info).
I think authors often fall back on this kind of writing for two reasons. The first is to create this faux mystery — to hope the reader will keep turning pages to find out what the character knows but just isn’t saying. The second is that the author is afraid that if they impart that info… there will be nothing left. I see this happen all the time — characters wander for days rather than having a conversation because if they have a conversation then the plot will have to move forward and the author doesn’t know what comes next. Almost always the plot is better served by going ahead and imparting that information and moving forward.
So, then, what is the real mystery? This is when the protagonist legitimately doesn’t know the information and must learn it. Under this scenario, the author and the protagonist are aligned — they know the same info and are both on the same quest to uncover more. This creates a real tension because we don’t know if we’ll be able to uncover that information — if we’ll succeed or fail and, because we’re aligned with the character, we desperately want the info because the character does.
The reason I think this distinction is important is because (a) a faux mystery is often just annoying. If the protagonist knows something, why keep it from the reader?; (b) while it may be useful to tease some information to create tension, it will never be enough to drive an entire plot (unless the plot centers around said witholding); and (c) the tension isn’t real — it’s a conflict between the reader and the character, not the character and his/her world.
In a movie like Memento or a book like Liar or Fight Club, it makes sense to keep the reader somewhat in the dark (especially since in at least one of those instances the protag keeps himself in the dark). However, imagine if Katniss in Hunger Games never bothered to tell us the basic information of her world — how disorienting that would be. If, instead of basically saying, “Today is the reaping and two from our district will be taken to the Hunger Games where they will have to fight for the death,” she’d said, “Today is the day, the one we all fear. Some of us may be chosen and then have to face horrors I can’t bring myself to contemplate.” Sure, the latter sounds foreboding, but which actually drives you to keep reading? Maybe you’ll flip a couple of pages to find out what “the day we all fear” is, but why keep that information from the reader? Why not come right out with the reality, especially when it is so compelling and tense? What reason is there to withhold that info — what part of the plot does it serve? Rather than forcing the reader to guess what danger the character is in, explain the danger and then let the reader worry whether the character can overcome it. That’s creates a much stronger tension.
It’s very very easy to write coy characters — to want to tease the reader with promises of secrets. However, make sure that this isn’t at the expense of allowing the reader to fully enter the world of the book and ground themselves in the character and plot. If you hold back information, ask yourself why? How does it serve the plot? What good reason do I have to not share this information now? If there’s not a good answer, go ahead and tell the reader what the protagonist knows. If you want a mystery, make it one the reader and protagonist can solve together. The tension should come from what the character faces on the page, not what the character refuses to tell the reader.