Today I want to talk about mystery in fiction, and I'm not referring to the genre of fiction, mystery. The fun thing about stories in general is that each one is kind of like a mystery, in a sense. Each deals with the [typically] very slowly unveiling of information, one piece at a time, that continues to illuminate the bigger picture of the story. Therefore, a good story purposefully poses captivating questions that readers wants to know the answers to. That's what keeps them reading the pages or watching the movie or TV show or what have you.
To that, I wanted to point out, well, a couple pointers (how's that for a suave turn-of-phrase?) that I'd been thinking about lately. The first one is that I realize that I personally want to keep the questions, a.k.a. the mystery, going all the way to the very bitter end of my own stories. I've noticed that, over the years, when I'm reading a book or watching a movie, unless it's a comedy I sometimes lose interest in what's happening toward the end. Now that I've thought about it, I think part of the reason is because the writer hasn't included a question to keep my interest. Sometimes at the end of the second act of a story I'm reading, the overall story question basically boils down to, "How is the protagonist (and perhaps her friends) going to get out of all of this NOW?" And that's a fine question, for sure. In fact, it's necessary for a good story, as far as I'm concerned. But I personally want a little more. I want another captivating question that I want to know the answer to, even if it's just a small mystery that doesn't necessarily impact the plot in a major way. Again, as long as that question is captivating. Because of this realization I've made (at least about myself), I now strive to have a small mystery like that toward the very end of my own stories (again, if it's not a comedy). Or, barring that, at least some kind of plot twist. I think it just makes for a stronger, more arresting story.
The other thing pertaining to mystery in fiction I was thinking about recently deals with always trying to put yourself, as the writer, in the eyes of the reader. Okay, that might sound obvious enough on paper, but as writers we tend to get so carried away with the world and characters we've created (I know I'm personally more likely to get lost in the fantasy worlds I invent) that we sometimes forget to take a step back and try to view our stories through the lens of the reader. When I'm in the throes of creation (a.k.a. writing, for the layman), part of what makes the story fun for me is that I, as the writer, know what's "really going on it" in my story. Oftentimes I even know exactly how I'm going to throw the reader's perception of my entire world itself on its head (if that particular twist happens to apply to my story, which it does sometimes as a science fiction/fantasy writer). However, that doesn't necessarily mean that that fun is going to translate to the reader. Since they don't know what I'm planning, they need a little something to keep them going. A little something extra. They need a little extra something special called mystery. (Okay, I'm sure you saw that coming from a mile away based on how I was building up to it in those last couple sentences).
To go into the matter further, there needs to be something in the plot or world that makes the reader think, "Hmmm...I wonder what's up with THAT?" Or, "That's odd. I wonder what THAT has to do with in the story." Ultimately, you want them to wonder about "what's really going on," to keep them reading until BAM! You hit them with the next big plot twist. Of course, you don't want them to figure out that twist in advance, so there's that difficult balance to strike, but that's part of the fun for us writers, too! Bonus points if you can drop some red herrings in there (those can be quite fun, indeed).
Anyway, those are just some of my recent thoughts on mystery in fiction and how I've employed them and intend to continue to employ them. It's tough, of course, and you never want to be predictable, but if you can pull readers along with perfectly planted little nuggets of mystery, make them think something different than what you've got planned, and then - BAM! - hit them on the head caveman-with-a-club style with a twist that both surprises and reveals more about the story, I can think of few things more satisfying as a writer.
Now, off to think about more nuggets of mystery to infuse throughout my current story, including toward the very end.