One or two people have described my book as ‘gripping’ or mysterious. I’m not relating this in order to show off but because it’s about time I did a proper blog post about writing, so I thought I’d describe my process of building up tension and mystery.
Plot events, however exciting, don’t create much mystery on their own. They need foreshadowing by little clues that encourage the reader to wonder what’s going to happen. Giving away too much obviously reduces the tension, but it is equally unsatisfying to hold back all the information and then hit the reader with a twist that comes from nowhere.
I want the reader to anticipate something without being certain what that something is. For me, most of the work towards achieving this takes place once the book is at a second draft stage, i.e. when it’s hanging together without any gaps in the narrative, with all the major plot points in place and after any superfluous first-draft scenes have been binned.
At this stage of writing Kill-Grief, I printed off the whole thing, got an A4 lined notebook and wrote “Questions” at the top. Then I went through every page of the manuscript and listed every question that might come into my future reader’s mind (not counting things like “Is it dinner time yet?” or “How the hell did this get published?”).
For example, the list for the first page was something like:
Why is Mary nervous/frightened?
Why is the beggar watching her?
What’s wrong with his skin?
Why has Mary come to the city, and where was she before?
What’s the new job she is going to?
Why does she tell herself she has nothing to give the beggar, then we find out she has coins in her pocket?
Who is the ‘he’ who gave her the coins?
And so on…
If a page raised few questions, I considered whether any of it could be cut altogether, and then I worked more questions into the text – for example, a character’s behaviour suggesting they are not telling the whole truth, or a subtle hint at something that might happen later. Each of these hints is meant to act as a hook to keep the reader reading, while also asking them to concentrate so as not to miss something important. The further I got into the manuscript, the more questions were being answered too.
So, for me, creating mystery does not rely on some indefinable knack – it requires work that may seem somewhat clinical compared with the notion of the perpetually inspired writer. This suits me just fine and is one of my favourite parts of writing. If only I could find an equally methodical way to write a first draft!
Originally posted on Writing and all that: http://writingandallthat.wordpress.com/2009/08/21/creating-mystery/