As readers, our instincts are to always try to solve the mystery at hand. As writers, we must ultimately provide some kind of resolution or answer for our characters. But it is a mistake to rush to solving the mystery too soon, to "knowing" before you "don't know." Part of engaging our readers in the story is cultivating the mystery—deepening it, allowing it to expand, and exploring all of its possibilities. Before you sit down to write your next mystery story, try the following exercise, which we've adapted from "The Making of a Story" by Alice LaPlante.
I Want to Know Why
Goal: To identify interesting gaps in your understanding or knowledge in order to generate raw material for stories.
What to do:
1. Create a list of at least ten items that fit into the category of things not known: "I want to know why." Important: impose constraints to avoid abstraction or otherwise "large" topics. For example, you might want to limit the things not known to the events of that week or to family encounters. For instance, why the man in the coffeehouse never smiles; why the house on the end of your street never sells; why your mother always sounds angry on the phone.
2. Do a freewrite based on one of these items. Complete one to two paragraphs filling in the details of the idea. Explore why it bothers you. What compels you about this mystery? Why is it important?
3. Based on the paragraphs you wrote, now deepen the mystery. What would make it even more strange or compelling or confusing? What elements could you add to the setting or the characters involved to keep the reader (and yourself) guessing?