What gets a reader to keep turning pages? It’s a fundamental question all writers grapple with, and craft books and articles are loaded with advice on the subject: a compelling plot, tension, conflict, and sometimes, literally, mystery.
All of this—however frustratingly vague at times—is true in some sense or in some situations, but while I personally think tension is king, and very few stories can live without conflict and plot, the last one can be dangerous. One of the traps many emerging writers fall into is thinking that mystery creates tension.
They take the idea of a reader turning pages to “find out what happens next” to a new level and try to pull the reader through a story by leaving even the most innocuous things vague in the beginning, like where the story is set, what the relationships are between the characters, or what the protagonist even wants. I call these things non-essential mysteries, and they are more confusing and frustrating to a reader than the other type, the one that actually does help propel narratives: essential mysteries.
Somewhat surprisingly, an essential mystery in a story may not even be “what happens next.” Essential mysteries may be someone’s deeper motivations (that even they aren’t aware of in the beginning) or the circumstances leading up to the story’s start (why is the protagonist in the position they’re in?) or why they want what they start out the story wanting.
Most of the time when we read, it isn’t for the “what” but for other, more interesting, interrogatives: why, how, and when. We read not necessarily for plot but for how characters react to plot and how that reveals them (and ourselves in the best cases) to us.
Determining essential versus non-essential mystery is critical in delivering a clear and compelling story that will earn your readers’ trust and devotion and keep them invested in following your characters to the end. To show some of the ways to knock non-essential mystery out of your story without killing a reader’s taste for more, allow me to delve into the following examples.
Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
“The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. ‘Now look here, Bailey,’ she said, ‘see here, read this,’ and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. ‘Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did.’”
O’Connor is a master of telling you exactly what’s going to happen in a story on the first page, and in this one, she does it within the very first paragraph. With this bare amount of exposition and dialogue, we know everything: the grandmother is a difficult woman; she has a tense relationship with her son; she will absolutely, no doubt about it, have a run in with The Misfit; and it will not go well.
So why even read the rest of the story? Because you want to know how it’s going to happen, how things will explode between the grandmother and The Misfit, and who will get their comeuppance and in what way.
Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
“Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down. All spring, the gossip had been about little Mirabelle McCullough—or, depending on which side you were on, May Ling Chow—and now, at last, there was something new and sensational to discuss.”
Within the first two sentences of this novel, we know where the story is set, the kind of community it is, and, more importantly, that the mystery isn’t who set the house on fire but why. The rest of the book is an exploration of the relationships in that house and outside of it (Mirabelle vs. May Ling) and the many conflicts that reveal character and drive the tension of the story.
In this case, who set the fire would be a distracting, non-essential mystery that would only muddy the narrative drive of the book by diverting the reader’s attention and distracting them from what the story’s really about.
Amy Bloom’s “The Sight of You”
“It was ninety-seven degrees and I took my kids to the club for a swim. Everybody was there, including my lover, Henry, his wife, Marie, and their two boys, whose names I forget. My husband, David, stayed home to mow the lawn and read the Times.”
Some other writer could make an entire story of what has led up to the start of this one, neatly encapsulated in those three sentences. A lesser writer would try to dangle the nature of Henry’s relationship with the narrator to entice the reader along, but Bloom lays it out there along with a solid premonition of how things are going to turn out with the killer phrase ending the second sentence: “their two boys, whose names I forget.”
Earning a reader’s trust and their abandonment to the story is critical, so withholding information from them must be done with extreme caution. As these examples show, describing the situation—and the stakes—clearly, right at the beginning of the story, can be done without deflating the narrative of its tension and drive and can also heighten the pleasure of turning the page to find out why and how instead of just what and who.