Small Mysteries in Fiction

We have all read novels or short stories that encourage us to turn the pages to find the answers to large-scale mysteries. In Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, for example, we keep reading to discover the details surrounding Lydia’s death. How do we know when the novel is over? Because we know what happened to her.

But I have been thinking much more recently about creating mysteries on the sentence and paragraph levels. How do we leave things out as writers to make our writing seem “smart” and “indirect,” to entice readers to read on to find out the answers to the little mysteries?

One of my favorite openings to a novel is from The Collector by John Fowles:

When she was home from her boarding school I used to see her almost every day sometimes, because their house was right opposite the Town Hall Annexe. She and her younger sister used to go in and out a lot, often with young men, which of course I didn’t like. When I had a free moment from the files and ledgers I used to look over the road over the frosting and sometimes I’d see her. In the evening I marked it in my observations diary, at first with an X, and then when I knew her name with M.

 The marvel of this as writing, I think, is that the narrator appears to be telling us simple facts directly, so the language doesn’t feel coy or obscure, but in truth we are forced as readers to piece together clues in order to understand what is actually happening.

Some of the mysteries here are about “facts.” The fact that M. is in boarding school gives us a sense of her age without being direct. The fact that the narrator is working with “files and ledgers” tells us something about his profession.

But the mysteries that draw us in the most are about characterization and plot. The line “which of course I didn’t like” tells us a great deal about what this narrator is thinking and feeling, without coming out and saying it directly. And the fact that he is so obsessed with M. that he keeps an observations diary feels truly creepy. The “X” and even the “M” further work to dehumanize the young woman, which only adds to the tension. Already we know that the narrator is dangerous and that “M” is in jeopardy, even though the narrator presents the material in such a matter-of-fact fashion. Indeed, it is this ordinariness that creates the largest mystery of all. Why doesn’t the narrator see how unsettling his words are, and is he planning to act on his obsession in some disturbing way?

If large mysteries ask us to turn pages to find answers, small mysteries carry us through sentences and paragraphs. Fowles, for example, has given us clues to the very center of a disturbed character, all while asking us as readers to piece together those clues.

So the question I keep asking myself more and more in my own fiction is this: how can I create more small mysteries on every page?

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