What makes a mystery? Unanswered questions, of course. But aren’t there unanswered questions in other genres. Author and Killer Nashville Guest Blogger offers his take on what unanswered questions separate mysteries from all other genres.
Enjoy! And read like someone is burning the books…because somewhere in the world, they are.
Until next week!
Unlocking the Mystery
By Blake Fontenay
What makes a mystery novel mysterious?
The answer seems obvious. A mystery is a story in which major plot points are unknown to the protagonists — and readers as well. In a murder mystery, the main question to be answered usually is: Whodunnit? And quite often, why and how the murder was committed as well.
Now, there are some authors who give readers the answers to these questions fairly early in the story. Through an omniscient viewpoint, the reader learns who the good guys and the bad guys are — and the tension in the story comes from knowing that the good guys and bad guys will eventually clash.
To me, that kind of story doesn’t really qualify as a mystery. It might be classified as a thriller, provided the author does a good job of building and holding tension.
I consider my most recent novel, Scouts’ Honor, to be more of a thriller than a mystery. The book has unanswered questions — about the good guys’ mysterious advisor, about the true scope of the bad guys’ nefarious plans — but at its core, it’s a story about a group of Boy Scouts trying to survive in the wilderness while they’re being hunted by terrorists.
By contrast, I consider my first book, The Politics of Barbecue to be more of a mystery because the key to the story was finding out why the mayor of Memphis was so dead set on building a Barbecue Hall of Fame in his city.
I suppose an argument can be made that any work of fiction will have unanswered questions. In the romance novel, for example, the unanswered question might be whether the lonely widow will choose the socially inept pool maintenance worker with a heart of gold or the slick stockbroker who’s kind of a jerk.
Virtually all stories have some unanswered questions. In a mystery, however, I think those unanswered questions take on greater importance than they do in other genres. Yes, it’s important for a mystery writer to have interesting characters who grow and change throughout the story. It’s important to have a compelling setting for the story. And it’s also great if a writer can educate his or her readers on one or more issues of social importance.
But for me, those unanswered questions — and how they ultimately are answered — are what make mystery novels special, provided the writer follows certain rules.
It’s important for a writer to play fair with readers. That means there have to be enough clues provided throughout the story to give readers the opportunity to figure out the answers to those questions before they are revealed in the story.
There’s nothing wrong with a writer creating some misdirection — clues that are intended to throw readers off a little bit. However, I find it very frustrating when all the clues point one direction and the answers to the story’s central questions aren’t related to any of those clues.
The element of surprise in a story is great. The element of surprise when it’s completely unsupported by anything that has preceded it in the story is not so great. I think the best mystery novels are the ones where the right clues are there, but they are so subtle that they only make sense in hindsight. My favorite mystery novels are the ones where, at the end, I’m asking myself: “Why didn’t I see that coming?”
I’m also a big fan of having multiple unanswered questions in the same story, some concerning major plot points and some concerning relatively minor issues. As a writer, this provides a measure of insurance. Say the writer’s clues to one of the unanswered questions aren’t subtle enough and readers are able to solve that part of the mystery. If there are other questions that remain unanswered, that’s an incentive for readers to keep reading. If there’s only that one unanswered question and the reader figures it out halfway through the book, he or she is likely to feel disappointed at the story’s end.
In my own writing, I try to tell stories from many different points of view, although I’ve been told by writing coaches that this is a no-no. I’ve heard from people whose opinions I respect that limiting storytelling to one or two or three points of view is generally preferred. I don’t necessarily agree with that for all types of stories, but I can see the merit in a well-crafted mystery.
In a mystery, I’m fine with knowing only what the main protagonist knows. That makes the story a journey of discovery for both of us. He or she gets the same clues I get, at the same points in the story. With any luck, we’ll come to the same conclusions about the unanswered questions at the same time.
If you’re reading this and thinking to yourself that I read too many Encyclopedia Brown books as a kid, then I would disagree with you. Because you can never read too many Encyclopedia Brown books.
Maybe the points I’ve asserted in this post will seem too formulaic or conventional to some. But I know what I like. And I know what kind of stories I’m going to buy.
Blake Fontenay spent more than 25 years as a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for metropolitan daily newspapers – including the Sacramento Bee, Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville), Orlando Sentinel, and Commercial Appeal (Memphis). He won several awards for editorial writing while at the Commercial Appeal. Since leaving the newspaper business, he has worked as the communications director for Tennessee’s Comptroller, Treasurer and Secretary of State. He is currently the coordinator for the Tri-Star Chronicles project at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. His debut novel, The Politics of Barbecue, was published by John F. Blair Publisher in September, 2012. The Politics of Barbecue won the Independent Publishers Book Awards gold medal for fiction in the South region in 2013. He and his wife, Lynn, live in Old Hickory, Tennessee, in a neighborhood filled with other artists. His second novel Scouts’ Honor is available online at www.secondwindpublishing.com
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