In the Middle with Mystery
Something I used to tell my students about fiction is that fundamentally, a short story is about the day something different happens. Often, when a novice writer begins a story (or even novels) it is with an overview of the norm for their character. Frequently, they never get beyond the normal stuff to the “something different” and they wonder why their story doesn’t seem to go anywhere. When writing teachers talk about starting in media res, they mean skipping this normal stuff and getting to the beginning of the different stuff. For example, when writing about a car wreck: instead of going through what a character has for breakfast every day before going to work, even though it might seem like you’re building up tension or expectations, start at the car wreck, which is different from usual. If there’s important information in the usual activities, you can cover it in flashback or summary later, or perhaps show the character’s attempt to return to normalcy the next day, which fails, thereby inserting tension into the normal routine. Also, starting with that break from the routine gives the story some action, some tension, and maybe some mystery, since you’ve now opened up the character’s world view. Before, everything was humdrum and the same; now, there’s a whole new world of possibly terrifying possibilities to explore.
(Another idea to keep in mind about the above scenario is believability. Extraordinary occurrences are difficult for readers to believe in a work of fiction. A tornado suddenly swooping down in the middle of a story is hard to sell to a reader. Opening or ending with these extraordinary events is much easier to swallow, since the focus of the story is now on the extraordinary event, whereas before, the event seemed to interrupt the story.)
Usually, this “normal stuff” I’m talking about isn’t necessary to the story at all. It’s a kind of clearing of the throat for a writer, or prewriting. If a story were a rap song, this would be the part where the rapper talks about how good the song he’s about to rap is going to be. Sometimes, the rapper never actually gets to the song since he’s so busy talking about how good it will be. Novice writers, also, frequently never get to the story because they expend their energy and momentum prewriting and exploring their character. This is fine to do, but it probably doesn’t belong in a story.
Similarly, writers will often open with a character (though it frequently isn’t even specified that a character is doing it) contemplating some image or idea, maybe the weather, maybe something s/he sees. There are instances where this can work effectively, I’m sure, but for the most part, it’s simply more prewriting. Get to the change, the “different,” the problem which is the source of tension as soon as possible. Another handy rule of thumb is to get to dialogue as soon as possible, as well, as in probably on the first page. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but it’s a good general idea to get your characters talking (and doing things) ASAP. It is through interaction with other characters and the environment that your characters are truly revealed.
It’s tricky because on the one hand we’re talking about tension or maybe even pacing but on the other hand we’re talking about structure (an argument could be made we’re even talking about tone). It’s important to remember that all of these things are intricately linked, and tinkering with one affects the others.
One of the most effective forms of tension comes from the reader’s expectations. Similarly, mystery is an element that will keep readers reading and is very important in a story. When I say “mystery” I don’t mean the genre, and the conventions thereof. But I do mean the same basic idea. Mystery occurs when the reader isn’t handed every piece of information, but rather has to work things out for themselves. Nothing draws a reader’s interest like mystery. But first let’s talk about how this can be a bad thing.
Mystery draws attention to an idea, and therefore, that idea will really stand out in the story. So it’s important that the idea SHOULD stand out. Weak descriptions or confusing elements may create mystery that’s unintentional. Some information should be given as quickly and simply as possible. Here’s an example: I used to hate to dump character’s names on the reader. I wanted the name to be revealed naturally, through dialogue or the like, but this wasn’t always easy to accomplish. That meant I might withhold a character’s name for several pages, so that when I did finally give it, one of two things happened: 1. the name lost all significance and the reader was probably confused about who I was talking about. 2. the character’s name became a mystery which, therefore, seemed really important, when in reality, I was just being an anal stylist. It’s much better to just bite the bullet and give the name in an obvious way immediately and then move on, unless there’s some reason to create mystery around the name. (Giving the character’s name in a natural way really soon is the best approach, of course.) Similarly, poorly described elements can be imbued with mystery for no intentional reason, which shifts their significance within the story. Of course, mystery can also go too far and a story might become obtuse, which is often off-putting for readers.
So what’s good about mystery? Mystery lets the reader play the game of putting together clues and figuring things out. This is the most significant way to indulge active readers. Allowing mystery in a story also demonstrates to the reader that the author respects and trusts the reader TO work things out, which is always a plus.
Again, not everything should be a mystery. Often, minor though significant details (like the character’s name…) should be given soon and clearly. But major ideas, especially big themes, probably shouldn’t be stated. This is where mystery is most effective. A character’s true motivations and desires can definitely stand to have a touch of mystery, though these should be things a reader CAN discern. Remember: mystery simply means being subtle, not completely withholding information.