Intrigue & Mystery with Selective Prose

This post is based on a question I got quite a while back and answered for a newsletter subscriber. Bethani asked, “How do you write stories that are intriguing without using too many words?”

I’d been intending to expand this into a blog post for at least several months, and finally got to it in my big batching project before my wedding so I can finally share these tips with all of you!

Thank you, Bethani, for your initial question!

Questions and Answers

The heart of fostering intrigue and mystery in your book is to make the reader ask questions and then gradually answer those questions. If you answer questions right away, it sucks the interest out of the story. If you leave questions unanswered for too long, you frustrate the reader. Keeping the reader intrigued is a balancing act.

One illustration I’ve heard described is to have overlapping loops. A question starts a loop, and an answer closes it. The idea is that you want to open a new loop before you close the previous loop so that you always have an open loop to drive the reader forward in the story–until the end, at which point you want to close (at least most of) the remaining loops to resolve the story.

A lot of your questions will relate to one another, moving the reader through each portion of your story arc. Maybe their first large-scale question is whether the MC will successfully get undercover with their suspect. After they do that, maybe the question is whether they’ll find the evidence they need to snare the suspect. Maybe that loop is answered with the MC finding that they had the wrong suspect, and your new question is whether they’ll discover the real suspect.

Other questions will relate to your subplots and tie in differently. Maybe a smaller question has to do with the identity of a character your MC keeps alluding to from their past, and as the hints come together it’s revealed that they were an old friend who betrayed the MC, just in time for the MC to find that the old friend is actually helping the false suspect investigate the same crime and now your MC has to work with them.

Regardless of how your loops link together, the point is the same: Make your reader ask questions, then gradually resolve their curiosity with answers.

Words = Clarity

This header is a little misleading since using too many words can actually muddle your meaning and reduce clarity. But for a moment I’ll be focusing on overwriting, and context in which you want to make things less clear for your reader.

To return to the original question of maintaining intrigue without too many words: it can be easier to keep your work intriguing if you use fewer words. We authors can tend to over-explain in an attempt to make things as clear as possible to the reader and make sure that our intentions come across accurately, but this ruins the element of mystery and intrigue. Certain things ought to be clear–what is happening in a given moment, what our settings and characters look like, why the main character is doing what they’re doing–but other things can be left unexplained for a time.

Your antagonist’s plan, a side character’s ulterior motive, the main character’s backstory, the meaning of a symbol or item the character notices, the function of a recurring locale, etc. can all be left unexplained as mini-mysteries to add intrigue to the story. Readers like to be a little in the dark; they want to be on the edge of their seats wondering what’s going to come next–or what happened before the story began.

If your readers aren’t curious, if they’re bored or can see the whole story laid out ahead, keep an eye out for when you’re over-explaining or info-dumping and identify where you can cut back on that. Don’t tell in places you can show instead.

Hint with Details

If there’s something about a character/setting/etc. that you want to be intriguing, use hints to get your reader interested. Bring it to their attention, draw out a particular detail, and then move on until you’re ready to resolve it in the story–or ready to drop another hint along the way.

Maybe your MC keeps making vague allusions to a character from their past. Each allusion may add something to the picture your reader is forming of that character in their mind, but it’s not until that character appears in the story to shock the MC that the reader’s curiosity will be fully resolved. Don’t give away so much in those allusions that your reader is bored and feels they already know everything about the character by the time they appear on-page. They may have some familiarity with the character by the time they appear and be excited to meet them, but they shouldn’t know everything your MC knows.

Dropping hints, drawing out the details you want your reader to focus on at any given time without giving away all of your secrets at once, is a delicate balancing act, and you’ll likely have to adjust that balance as you rewrite and edit, both as you realize things that don’t work and as you get feedback from beta-readers and so on.

Be Selective

As with avoiding info-dumping in general, you want to bring things up as they become relevant–not all at once. Maybe your MC doesn’t include their ability to ride a motorcycle when someone asks them about their skills because it reminds them of that old friend, or because they want to keep it secret for some reason. Maybe instead it comes up later when they notice a motorcycle driving by and are automatically reminded of the friend, or when they have to use a motorcycle as a getaway vehicle. Withholding information can not only surprise the reader and make them wonder about things, but do the same for other characters in the story–which can, in turn, help your reader relate to those other characters.

This also applies to description. Maybe you want to highlight a particular door in a room, or a notch in a wall, or a pattern on a desk, or a character’s tattoo, to hint at something larger later on. As long as it’s something your character would notice, even if they simply glance over it and don’t focus on it until later, you can raise questions in your reader’s mind by the simple mention of it. Especially if it’s one of only few details you mention to outline a setting or character.

Your choice of words can hint at certain things, as well. Describing a character with “a hunter’s focus,” even if all they’re looking for is the buffet table and the MC likes them fine, can imply a lot about their character–especially if someone else describes their gait as “predatory” or an extra looks “cornered” when approached by the character for conversation. Whether the MC is glad to be on the “hunter’s” good side or they end up their intended prey in the end, the character of the “hunter” will have been foreshadowed by your word choice, as your reader will be wondering by that point why the character is painted that way (presuming, of course, that they’re not a literal hunter or a known antagonist).

As the author, you have a similar role to the cameraman for a movie. You have the power to draw the reader’s attention toward exactly what you want them to notice and away from anything you don’t want them to see yet. In fact, thinking of scenes in terms of movie shots can sometimes be a helpful exercise for this purpose. Use your words, your description, and your character’s attention and behavior to direct your reader where you want them to look and lead them to ask the questions you want them asking.

There are my best tips for maintaining intrigue and mystery in your stories. Which of these points was the most helpful? Anything I could have covered more? Comment below!

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