No matter the genre, whether it be a romance or thriller or a traditional whodunnit, there’s nothing better than getting swept up in a great mystery. But as the author, how can you ensure the mystery that’s unfolding in your story does what it needs to do and captures the attention of your reader?
Here are four tips to keep your reader engaged and guessing.
1. Don’t just keep your reader guessing, make them WANT to keep guessing.
If I was to tell you about a mysterious box left on a family’s front porch in the middle of the night, you might be a little intrigued. But what if I told you what was inside that box made the family flee the house with just the clothes on their backs and rush to find the nearest underground bunker? Now you might really want to know what was inside.
An engaging mystery is one that has ramifications for the plot and consequences for the characters involved. Make sure they aren’t simply bystanders. If you make it easy for the readers to actively engage with the story and attach themselves to your characters, then they’ll be desperate to turn the pages.
2. Know the ending before you set off.
Authors often fall into one of two camps: plotters or pantsers. Neither is right or wrong–it’s a matter of personal preference–but when your story features an element of mystery, regardless of whether it’s central to the plot or runs along the main narrative, you need to know where it’s ultimately going to go.
Knowing how to properly set the scene and establish the stakes, knowing when and where to sprinkle the breadcrumbs and flash the misdirects and how to properly bake all this into your story is critical to the overall reading experience, and it’s going to make the reveal that much more impactful and satisfying. And the only way you’ll be able to do this effectively is if you’ve outlined from the beginning.
3. Create atmosphere and immersion.
All good books should have a strong sense of place, but this is arguably even more important when you want your reader to involve themselves in your mystery. The good news is that you don’t need paragraphs of description to achieve this.
By making the locations in your book characters in their own right, and by having them play an important role in your unfolding mystery, you’ll do something that no string of flowery adjectives could ever do … you’ll create immersion. Now your reader isn’t only attached to the emotional plight of the characters—they are active participants in your fictional world.
4. Avoid using "get out of jail free" cards.
While it’s important to push your characters to the edge and have them encounter obstacles that seem completely impassable, don’t then undermine all your hard work by introducing an implausible deux ex machina that miraculously saves the day. If you don’t resolve your roadblocks logically and in a way that’s consistent with your story, then you’ll lower the stakes for your characters and lose the ‘buy in’ of your reader.
Don’t sweep the rug out from under them. Don’t untether them from your story with a ‘get out of jail free card’ that hasn’t been properly set up and foreshadowed. Putting the effort in upfront to define the rules and craft a plot that doesn’t rely on convenient contrivances will help create a story that’s not only engaging and satisfying, but ultimately a joy to experience for your readers.