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?