Jilly: Keeping The Mystery Alive

Keeping The Mystery AliveSome books, like mysteries and police procedurals, are all about solving the puzzle. The reader expects to play detective, and it’s the author’s job to play fair and feed the reader enough information for them to work out the answer, though ideally not too soon.

How about romances, though? When you read a love story, do you expect to be an active participant, or do you think the author should do all the heavy lifting?

I like it when a romance author raises lots of questions in the first act of a book. A hint of a connection here, a whiff of back-story there, and I’m mentally making note of information I believe will be important later. So the Duke believes he’ll never marry? The movie star is in disguise, working in a supermarket under an assumed name? Please don’t tell me why, or at least, not yet. As long as I’m confident the dots will be joined before the story ends, I’m super-happy when an author piques my curiosity. I start speculating, which makes me engage with the story, and as the author adds in pieces of the puzzle, I pick up clues and adjust my guesses.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, thanks to some fairly consistent feedback I’ve been getting from contests. Usually, out of three judges, at least one loves my story and wants to read the rest of the book because they like my characters and they’re dying to find out the answers to all the questions I’ve raised. On the other hand, at least one says they’re frustrated with my story because there isn’t enough information and there are unanswered questions that prevent them from engaging with the book. As Justine would say, Oy!

I spent a couple of days earlier this week going through my opening scenes to see whether I could add useful information without giving the game away, slowing the story down or indulging in info-dump. I added a few nutritious nuggets here and there, but for the most part I came up empty-handed.

I’m starting to think this is a matter of reader taste, along the lines of how much description do you like? / do you prefer the bedroom door open or closed? / where do you stand on plot moppets?

My tentative conclusion was strengthened by a post I read recently on Ilona Andrews’ blog. Ilona-andrews.com is one of my favorite author blogs, and I love, love, love the books, including the Kate Daniels series. The latest book is out this week, (you’ll probably hear my squee from across the Atlantic), and a couple of weeks ago Ilona put up a temporary post with a snippet from the book. It was great. The snippet is gone now, but the next day’s blog post (link here) is still there, and it’s hilarious. Apparently Ilona’s in-box was bombarded with emails from readers trying to work out what was going on, getting the wrong end of the stick, jumping to conclusions, asking the wrong question and generally having a fabulous time. Read the 114 comments to the post and you’ll see what I mean.

I’m still chewing on this question as far as my own writing goes, and I’m due some more input over the next month or two that should help me to make up my mind, but any and all feedback would be very welcome.

What do you think?

11 thoughts on “Jilly: Keeping The Mystery Alive

  1. I think it’s a matter of preferences: if you’re the kind of person who’s about the journey, or about the destination. To my mind, if all questions are answered right away, why bother to read to the end? I’d probably be bored silly. In your work, if you have one judge in a contest who loves your book, then I think you’ve got it nailed. Not everybody will love any given book, so if 1/3 of your readers do, that’s pretty good validation.

  2. I’m one of those who doesn’t like too many unanswered questions of a certain kind. I don’t know why other people don’t like them, but for me it is because of my reading style. When I am reading a character’s POV, I am not me, I AM that character. Male, female, good guy, bad guy, doesn’t matter.

    So when there are questions raised in the text that the character I am inhabiting should know the answers to and probably be thinking about, this pulls me up from the depths of my reading bliss. Questions the character has no answer to don’t bother me, and information they just wouldn’t be thinking about at that time isn’t necessary for me, either.

    Maybe there is a sweet spot where questions are left open for those who like a puzzle to solve, but enough information is given to comfortably inhabit that character’s head.

    • Actually, Jennifer, I think you put your finger on part of the art involved here. The questions that will make for a better reading journey need to be presented as though the POV character either doesn’t know the answer or wouldn’t be thinking about it–either because it’s not top-of-mind at the moment, or because it’s too long ago (deep backstory) or because it’s something they just don’t like thnking about. And I think that’s easier to do if you present your character very active and in conflict in the early scenes, so they have their hands and minds full without maundering on about how they got here.

      • That’s makes sense, and I’m definitely anti-maundering but let’s pick something simple, active and full of conflict – the book opens with the POV character being attacked by the bad guy. They fight. You’re meeting the POV character for the first time. Do you expect to be told how he got his awesome fighting skills and where he got his bad-ass rune-engraved sword, or is it enough for now to see that he’s a master swordsman, and to show what kind of person he is by the way he fights (brute force or brains)?

        • I doubt if, while fighting for his life, he would be reminiscing about his training or his sword, so that would be weird to have in the opening fight scene.

          Also, I SO want a bad-ass rune-engraved sword. Actually, my husband has a bad-ass sword, my daughter has one of those electric engraving tools, and I have a book of runes. Hmm.

        • LOL, Jennifer! Expand your art! Rune-engraving sounds like a very, very good hobby. I have no swords, but maybe I could engrave something mysterious on the door sill. “Good Eats Here” or something.

          (I loved the runes that were in the back of The Hobbit, and at one point, I had memorized them all and used them for secret memos to myself. Runes . . . .)

    • That’s interesting. I like a really close POV, and I love being in a character’s head, but I just share their world for a while. I wonder if (say) Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles, which I love, would not be your cup of tea. The hero, Francis Crawford, always knows more than the reader and often behaves outrageously in a way that’s not explained until much later. He’s dazzling, and I care passionately about him, but I’m not him.

      I like the idea of a sweet spot. I definitely think the reader needs enough information to own the character, or why should they care?

      • Comments are posting in a weird order today (obvs the Dorothy Dunnett reply was in response to your first comment). My thoughts entirely that it would be weird to expect a briefing on our hero’s back-story while he was fighting for his life. You’d see him in action, and know that in due course you’d find out where he got his legendary fighting skills.

        If you decide to go for it with the bad-ass rune-engraved sword, may I please have a photo? It would be perfect for a story I have brewing in my subconscious 🙂

        • I did buy the first of the Lymond Chronicles. I started but didn’t get very far. Another book came along that distracted me and I never went back. May eventually. I just haven’t been interested in historicals these past few years.

          The sword is probably a no-go. My daughter says that the sword material is too hard for her engraver. Bummer. Maybe she’d like a more serious engraver for the holidays. 🙂

  3. I’m in the middle here. I like to do some of the work BUT don’t like it when information is unnecessarily withheld. By that I mean, the longer you withhold information, the bigger pay off it has to have. It’s annoying when the bit of information (usually back story) just isn’t worth the wait.

    Also, especially in a romance, you have to set up both characters so that the reader knows from pretty early on why this couple would be perfect for each other (long before couple does), so that they can root for the couple. Also, in romance, it works well if the reader knows what the obstacles are way in advance, because there is nothing more pleasurable than anticipating the sparks that will fly (or tears that will fall) when the other party finds out what we readers already know.

    Hmm, thinking about it right now, it does perhaps seem as if information should come out sooner than perhaps it would in other types of fiction, especially where we are using dual H/h POV. The reader has the benefit of being in both heads, so knows everything, and it is watching the protagonists’ battle that is the pleasure. Of course, if you had single POV, then you could have your POV character being blind-sided by a late revealed secret.

    Having said all that, I don’t recall DWM withholding information too long. The only thing (which I said to you) was I thought the spanish artists’ colony should be better explained earlier because I had trouble connecting with Rose’s motivation for that. (But that was just personal preference.)

  4. In general, I’m pretty good with leaving out unnecessary backstory and discovering it along the way. If it’s done well, it’s really good and I love imagining stuff.

    One thing I don’t like is when you are in first or close third, and the heroine or hero opens a drawer, looks inside, and thinks, “Ah! Just what I need!” — and then the chapter ends without telling us what it is. I can forgive it if the next chapter opens with the mystery item, but if we don’t find out for pages what the mystery item is, I’m peeved. Hey, author, you’ve been showing me all these thoughts and probably (quite frankly) some TMI, and now, when you’ve got ahold of something important, you decide to play coy? Boo to that. Inconsistent.

    Judging from the number of people out there who do infodump backstory all over the place, some readers (two-thirds?) do like everything clearly spelled out.

    It’s a fine line.

    Oh, and one more problem: you leave out some details, the reader fills in the blanks with her own details (or his), and then suddenly, boom, you drop in a detail and the reader thinks, “No, no, it’s not like that at all!” I don’t experience this often, but I can see this being a problem.

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