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What Mystery Propels Your Novel?

Photo [1] by Pixabay, CC0 [2]

Some years ago, as a nervous newbie attending my first writing conference, I overheard an interesting conversation. An instructor was explaining to another attendee that a famous writer, whose name I missed, had once said all good novels, regardless of genre, were ultimately mysteries. The idea instantly captivated me, and I spent the next several days contemplating books I loved in a new light. Ultimately, I even introduced an unsolved riddle to provide structure for what became my first novel, which until then had consisted primarily of scenes brimming with emotion but lacking any unifying thread other than the brooding presence of my war-damaged protagonist.

So while the inspiration proved invaluable, a funny thing happened when I recently got around to nailing down precisely which brilliant writer had provided the lifeline for my early efforts. You see, it turns out that either the instructor had taken liberties with the quote, or I had simply misheard it. For what Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty actually wrote back in 1949 was this (emphasis mine) – “The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery, not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement.”

Delving further into Welty’s essays on writing, a new light bulb went off. For the idea I had initially latched onto, though providing a kernel I sorely needed, consisted mainly of developing story questions for the reader. But Welty’s observations were in regard to an even stronger connection, those deep threads that compel both writer and reader, the type of insights writers reveal when straying from a standard talk to confess “what the story taught me.” It’s the alchemy that takes Gone Girl from being merely another crime thriller to an expose on deceit and manipulation within a seemingly picture-perfect couple. It’s what transforms To Kill a Mockingbird from a collection of anecdotes about a young girl raised by a widowed father into a wider exploration of changing social mores in a segregated community. In short, it is the immersion you experience whenever a story fully engages you, awakening your intellect or triggering profound emotion. When that happens, you are no longer seeking only the answer to plot question x or to learn what happens to character y. Instead, you begin reading in order to better navigate our real world, or to resolve dilemmas in your own life.

Talk about a powerful hook! But how does one tap into that vein? How, in a world of 1-page synopses, 30-second elevator pitches, and 7-point plot structures does a writer develop an “alluring mystery” for a current work in progress?

Revisit the Initial Spark

Fortunately, writers tend to be intuitive and at least passably self-aware. You likely already have a good handle on what drives your interest in your current work. Just remember to return to that well on occasion, and consider whether the story still honors its initial conception. Perhaps your muse had delivered a protagonist with a defining character trait, or an inherent flaw. If so, your interest may stem from a desire to see how a person like that would rise to the occasion, or lash out, in the face of obstacles set before them. Don’t lose sight of whatever initial seed gave life to your tale, even as the plots expand and the characters grow.

On the other hand, perhaps your original idea was a thought experiment. Maybe you wanted to craft a new take on an existing genre. Anthony Doerr once explained that part of his interest in writing All the Light We Cannot See was the challenge of weaving a more nuanced story within the well-tread territory of WWII, one in which not all French resistance participants were dashing geniuses and not all Germans were evil torturers and that, in some circumstances, such enemies might align to protect each other. It is voices such as that one within ourselves we must heed if we are to bring original stories to life.

Ask Your Beta Readers

Then again, sometimes we may be too close to our work. I’ll never forget my surprise when a wise friend pointed out an obvious theme in a novel draft that, while clearly within the pages, had somehow escaped my notice. Her pointing it out afforded me the opportunity to strengthen the thread, to refine it just as I had others placed with intention. The lesson I learned from the experience was to ask for that kind of feedback or, rather, to broaden my queries. Trusted beta readers typically provide honest feedback on strengths and weaknesses in your writing. But when gathering their insights, be sure to ask open-ended questions too. Ask what they consider to be the main point of your story. Inquire what parts touched them, or made them think. Ask for aspects they wish you had pursued farther, or where they feel you held back. Their responses may surprise you, and open an entirely new avenue on a story you thought was nearly finished.

Learn from the Master

Of course, given my newfound appreciation for Eudora Welty, I would be remiss at not suggesting you discover her for yourself. Though she passed away in 2001, three works on writing craft emerged from her nearly five decades of experience publishing novels, short stories and essays. One Writer’s Beginnings, a collection of autobiographical pieces, was published in 1984. It was followed in 1990 by a larger collection of essays called The Eye of the Story, Selected Essays and Reviews. Lastly, following her death, a smaller collection of previous essays was produced in 2002 under the title On Writing. All three are currently available in print, with the latter available in e-book format as well.

Does an underlying mystery propel your current work in progress? What do you feel is the role of mystery in novels (of any genre)? Does a novel come to mind that captivated you by exploring a particularly intriguing concept? Which of the following typically provides you an initial spark for a new story — 1) a compelling character, 2) a clever plot, or 3) an interesting concept? Lastly, have you ever been surprised by insights into your writing from someone unexpected? Please share your thoughts in the comments; I look forward to hearing them.

About John J Kelley [3]

John J Kelley [4] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [5], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.