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Monday, November 7, 2016

The Mechanics of Rendering Mysteries and Undercurrents—How to Withhold Info from the Reader Right

For months (years?) I've been saying I'm going to post the mechanics of writing mysteries. And today it's finally here! I'm a huge fan of stories that include a good mystery--if not as a main focus, as a side line. Last month, I did a whole post on crafting killer undercurrents. It's worth noting that the techniques needed to render mystery are the same techniques needed to create a strong undercurrent! Win-win!

In the future, I will be doing a post that argues that you absolutely can withhold important information from the reader (even if the viewpoint character knows it)--as long as you do it the right way. That article will reference this one for techniques.

Selecting the Experience You Want for Your Reader

Conscious Mysteries vs. Subconscious Mysteries (works for Undercurrents too)

There are different types of mysteries. A conscious mystery is one that (as you may have guessed) the reader is aware of. In whodunnit stories, the mystery comes from the reader (and protagonist) trying to figure out who the murderer is. It's on the page. The reader is very aware of it, and trying to solve it with the character. In the Harry Potter series, Harry trying to figure out who opened the Chamber of Secrets, who put his name in the Goblet of Fire, and what Malfoy is up to, are all conscious mysteries. The reader is actively looking for clues and hints in the text to find answers.

In a subconscious mystery, the reader is not fully aware of the mystery, but they may be somewhat aware of it. They might read something that seems slightly "off,"  but only recognize it as "off" on a subconscious level. The reader may even realize something isn't adding up, but because they are not actively looking for these sort of answers to this particular mystery or because they haven't yet been given enough of a reason to suspect a mystery, they don't think much of it and move on. In Chamber of Secrets, when Rowling writes that Harry feels a personal connection to Voldemort, describing it as a connection to an old friend, it mainly functions as a subconscious or nearly subconscious piece of information, because we don't yet have any context to make us believe it contains any more significance than what's stated. Readers might think twice about it, and subconsciously may get the notion that something is wrong here, or there is more to this here. But they aren't actively solving a mystery and finding a "clue."

Alternative: I didn't See that Coming (Undercurrents only)

The third option is that the reader doesn't sense any significance in a bit of dropped information (which is why I don't think this technically can be called a mystery, because they aren't aware that a "mystery" even exists). But at the end of the story, a revelation is made, and all these details and dropped information that seemed completely insignificant to the reader falls into place, to back up the revelation (and blow minds). "It all fits!" the reader might say.

A small example of this may be when J.K. Rowling name drops Sirius in the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book, but doesn't reveal his significance until book three. And between those two points, she gives no indication that this "Sirius" person has a lick of importance.

Sometimes the connection isn't made on the page. In Holes by Louis Sachar, the fact Zero's real last name is Zeroni seems to carry no significance. The reader doesn't even bat an eye. Heck, the reader probably makes nil effort to even remember his last name, because it's portrayed as trivial. The book itself doesn't guide the reader to discover the significance of Zero's heritage. But when (or if) the reader makes the connection, it has the same affect. "It all fits" and "minds-blown."

Working with a Viewpoint Character and Reader

It's important to note that your viewpoint character will influence your reader when it comes to mysteries. In a physical sense, usually the reader can only "see" (or smell, taste, touch, and hear) what the viewpoint character does, so it doesn't work to randomly put in a "clue" the viewpoint character of the scene wouldn't see or notice. A reader can, however, come to a different conclusion about what the viewpoint character sees and experiences. I talk about how to do that in my post on subtext.

Remember that if a dropped clue isn't important to the viewpoint character, she's not going to sit and think about it. In a case like that, it's up to the reader to figure out what's going on. When that happens, the reader's experience begins deviating from the viewpoint character's experience.

In some cases and stories, your reader can "see" things the viewpoint character doesn't see whatsoever, depending on how you are handling point of view and viewpoint penetration. If you're story is in first-person, than yes, you are limited to what your character "sees."

Techniques for Planting Clues

Sometimes when I'm reading unpublished stories, I see writers dropping in "clues" and then blatantly pointing at them in ways that seem to say, "Hey, this is going to be important information for a mystery and I'm going to tell you about it later!" This is essentially why I did that whole post about mysterious backstories, and how they are rendered in unsatisfying ways. The dreaded example: "Alice used to go the festival every fall with her sister, until her sister got in that accident. Alice shook her head and pushed the thoughts from her mind."

In this example, the writer is pointing out that this accident is going to be brought up later, and it's done in a way that noticeably withholds info from the reader.

That's one of the biggest problems with learning to write mysteries: how to plant clues without appearing like you are withholding information or simply teasing the reader by dangling a carrot in front of him. Luckily, I've compiled a list of techniques that teach writers how to drop info seamlessly:

As a Tidbit of Info

Instead of trying to create a mystery by being mysterious, plant clues as info. Let the reader come to the conclusion that there seems to be more than meets the eye (more than what's on the page). Here's the tricky part--the info has to be enough to catch the reader's attention, but not so important that the characters and narrator seem positively stupid by ignoring it or paying it no mind (which is also a red alert that this info is important to the mystery and the writer is doing an amateur job with it).

Let's look at an example from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn that basically functions this way. Kelsier is one of the main characters, but this takes place when readers meet him for the first time:

"How do you do that?" Mennis asked, frowning.
"Smile so much."
"Oh, I'm just a happy person."
Mennis glanced down at Kelsier's hands. "You know, I've only seen scars like that on one other person--and he was dead...." Mennis looked up at Kelsier. "He'd been caught speaking of rebellion. Tresting sent him to the Pits of Hathsin, where he worked until he died. The lad lasted less than a month."
Kelsier glanced down at his hands and forearms. They still burned sometimes, though he was certain the pain was only in his mind. He looked up at Mennis and smiled. "You ask why I smile, Goodman Mennis? Well, the Lord Ruler thinks he has claimed laughter and joy for himself. I'm disinclined to let him do so."

Here we get a little mystery about Kelsier's scars, and Brandon Sanderson withholds telling us exactly where they came from--even though Kelsier is the main character. Sure, the Pits of Hathsin are mentioned, but we soon learn that a lot of people have different opinions as to how Kelsier got those scars (which creates ambiguity, another great tool for mystery that I touched on in an earlier post). Sanderson presents the scars not as a withheld mystery, but simply as information. The writer isn't trying to "hide" a mystery from us. We think twice about Kelsier's scars, especially when we learn "They still burned sometimes"--which hints that these might not be normal scars--but we don't feel like the author is dangling a carrot stick above us and pointing at it.

You'll notice that in this example, Brandon Sanderson fit the mystery into a larger conversation, so it's sandwiched between the talk of smiling, and as readers (and for the characters) it makes sense that we don't get a follow-up question about the scars--we're talking about something else. We don't feel "cheated," which would have happened if the talk about Kelsier's scars was the main focus of this passage, instead of a passing tidbit (this is where many beginning writers get tripped up).

You don't have to sandwich the info, as long as it's presented as passing information.

An alternative to this is that you don't really want your reader to think twice about the info, so that when they look back once the mystery is solved (or about to be solved) they can recall reading it, and experience that internal connection. In that case, you want to drop info, and drop it in such a way, that the reader doesn't think much of it (very much "in passing").

In Sylvia Ann Hiven's short story, "A Glamour in Black," we learn that the protagonist, Keanie was in an accident, and as a result, had a special parasite put inside her by a shaman. The parasite is what saved her life--"[sucking] her soul back from the beyond." After we get this information, we get this sentence:

She had lost her memory of the incident and everything that had come before, so all she knew was from her father’s feverish dreams.

Again, this is presented as mere information. And there is nothing mysterious about it at this point in the story. But as the story unfolds, we realize this was actually a clue to a much bigger discovery.

If you want to study how to handle mystery, undercurrents, and withholding information from a reader in an appropriate way, this short story is a good example to look at and study, particularly at dropping info as info. You can find it in this anthology.

A good motto for using this technique is, "Don't linger."

Burying Info

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, there is what feels like a whole chapter devoted to the trio having to help clean up Grimmauld Place. While it's somewhat interesting for us Muggle-readers, most of the info seems rather unimportant. But among all the paragraphs of cleaning and discarded magical objects, is one tiny object that turns out to be vitally important in the seventh book: Slytherin's Locket. Here is the passage it appears in:

They found an unpleasant looking silver instrument, something like a many-legged pair of tweezers, which scuttles up Harry’s arm like a spider when he picked it up, and attempted to puncture his skin. Sirius seized it and smashed it with a heavy book entitled Nature’s Nobility: A Wizarding Genealogy. There was a musical box that emitted a faintly sinister, tinkling tune when wound, and they all found themselves becoming curiously weak and sleepy, until Ginny had the sense to slam the lid shut; a heavy locket that none of them could open; a number of ancient seals … [the list continues]

J.K. Rowling completely buries the important object in rather unimportant objects. As readers, we think nothing more about the list than a writer's act of using details and descriptions to immerse us into the story. It's tricky too, because when you've been reading that much description about them cleaning up the house, it becomes kind of natural to mentally skip over it (or for some readers, literally skip over it).

So later when we find out it was in fact Slytherin's locket, a Horcrux that the trio actually, on the page, threw away, not only do we panic, but--minds blown.

So you can bury important info in unimportant info. Or alternatively, you can bury it in info that appears more important than the info you dropped (which overlaps and connects with some of these other techniques I'm going to get to).

But worth noting, is that it's usually best not to mention the "clue" at the end or beginning of the "clutter" you are pairing with it. The beginning and end items will draw the most attention from the reader. Notice that the locket isn't the first or last item in the list. Also, give your list more than three objects--three is a magical number in the writing world, especially if you want your reader to remember them. More than three, and it feels less significant and is harder to remember. (Of course, if the reader catches onto your tricks, you can mix it up and break the "rules" to throw them off.)


In magic shows, misdirection happens when the magician leads the audience to focus on something else while he does his sleight of hand. You can do this similarly in writing. While the audience is mainly focused on a larger concept you are guiding them through, you casually drop some information, almost in the background. The information must usually be somewhat related to the bigger concept, otherwise you won't be able to casually drop it in. The key here is that you aren't connecting those dots. You aren't, in writing, as the reader's guide, clearly connecting the dropped info to the concept--they relate, but you don't connect them.

In fact, if you want to take this further, you can suggest by your sentence structures that it connects in a wrong way, or at least, a less significant way. So, the reader is connecting the dots wrong, or not to their full extent. While this is all happening, you have the main focus on the bigger concept. The reader may be getting a wrong or "off" impression of how this is connected.

I admit, I haven't quite tracked down the right example to include of this, but I know I've seen it done and have used it myself. Next time I find a passage that fits this, I'll update it here.


Distraction may seem similar to misdirection, but it's carried out differently. In misdirection, you are leading the reader off the true path, often leaving dots unconnected. In distraction, you are dropping info, but immediately (or at least, very close) after, putting in something else that either calls more attention to itself, or demands more attention to itself.

A concept that calls more attention to itself may be something that is far more intellectually stimulating or emotionally charged than the dropped info.

A concept that demands attention is usually some sort of unusual or big action happening on the surface, in the present, of the story--like a bomb suddenly going off, or a neighbor your character is trying to avoid coming out of nowhere. It demands attention.

J.K. Rowling does this in Prisoner of Azkaban. She slips in some important info that raises questions in her readers, but then distracts them, so that her readers aren't even consciously aware that they are missing something.

This exchange takes place when Ron takes his pet rat, Scabbers, to the pet store to get some medicine, since Scabbers hasn't been feeling well. (Underlined parts signify something that distracts readers from the mystery, while bold denotes a mysterious tidbit.)

On the counter, a vast cage of sleek black rats...were playing some sort of skipping game using their long, bald tails....Like nearly everything Ron owned, Scabbers the rat was second-hand...and a bit battered. Next to the glossy rats in the cage, he looked especially woebegone.
"Hm," said the witch, picking up Scabbers. "How old is this rat?"
"Dunno," said Ron. "Quite old. He used to belong to my brother."
"What powers does he have?" said the witch, examining Scabbers closely.
"Er--" The truth was that Scabbers had never shown the faintest trace of interesting powers. The witch's eyes moved from Scabbers's tattered left ear to his front paw, which had a toe missing, and tutted loudly...."And ordinary common or garden rat like this can't be expected to live longer than three years or so," said the witch. "Now, if you were looking for something a bit more hard-wearing, you might like on of these--"
She indicated the black rats, who promptly started skipping again. Ron muttered, "Show-offs."
"Well, if you don't want a replacement, you can try this rat tonic," said the witch...
"Okay," said Ron. "How much--OUCH!"
Ron buckled as something huge and orange came soaring from the top of the highest cage, landed on his head, and then propelled itself, spitting madly, at Scabbers.
"NO CROOKSHANKS, NO!" cried the witch, but Scabbers shot from between her hands like a bar of soap.

Did you notice that just when J.K. Rowling gave us something quite mysterious--that Scabbers shouldn't live longer than three years--that she immediately drew out attention elsewhere? First subtly and then with something bigger (Crookshanks)? As readers, we hardly even have time to wonder over the mysteries surrounding Scabbers, but we'll remember the information when we learn Scabbers' true identity.

Buzzwords and Consistent Telling Details

Sometimes you can cleverly imply connections by word choice, and imply them strong enough that smart readers will pick up on it. In the project I'm working on, I have a background magic system of sorts (it's a magic system that the main characters aren't even aware of), but I want to drop hints to the reader that it exists. One of the ways I do this is by using the same terms ("buzzwords") or phrases every time that type of magic happens in the story. Never on the page do I say these incidents connect to a particular magic system, I just make sure to use some of the same phrasing.

Similar, but different, is using telling details (as in details that are bigger than they are, not telling as in "show, don't tell"). One connection that is never on page in the Harry Potter books is that the size of a wand is proportional to the character's height (or what will be their height when the are full grown). So Umbridge has a very short wand (8"), while Hagrid's was unusually long (16"). This is just tidbit, worldbuilding info found deep in the undercurrent, but you can use this technique in other ways too. You can use it in more significant "clues." Basically you are dropping consistent details that over time imply something more.

Use Wrong Conclusions (& Right Conclusions)

Sometimes you want or need to guide your reader through the problem-solving, but you don't want to spoon feed them and give them a play-by-play on the page. Sometimes you want or need your character to wonder about the mystery, or try to solve it on their own, but you don't want to take all the magic out of it for the reader (and therefore weaken it, because it's all on page). Back in the day, I used to have my characters wonder and wonder about something, hoping to get the reader to wonder and ask those same questions, and this works, sometimes, to an extent. But I soon found that it wasn't as interesting as I thought it should be. And my characters sounded wishy-washy, especially as more of these moments piled up without any sense of closure. I realized that what actually needed to happen was that my characters did need to come to conclusions--the wrong conclusion. Or at least, a conclusion that was only half-true.

This does a few good things:

  1. Not all this open-ended wondering work (which I wanted to happen in the reader) was showing up on the page.
  2. It gave my characters a sense of direction. They were mentally getting somewhere.
  3. It can be used to mislead the reader.

Of course, if you always use this, the reader is going to catch on. You'll probably want your character to come to the right conclusion sometimes, but in order to keep the tension, have others cast doubt on their conclusions.

Rowling again does an excellent job of this. In all the books up to Half-blood Prince, Harry is coming to conclusions of one sort or another, but he's always wrong or off on some level. But six books in and Rowling pulled a fast one on us by having Harry actually comes to the right conclusion in the beginning of the book: Malfoy is a Death Eater. As a reader, I was thinking Harry was wrong, because he always was, so Rowling played a game by switching it up. And she keeps us guessing by having everyone around Harry tell him he's wrong and explain why. So you can do that too. Your character doesn't always have to be wrong. The trick with a good mystery, one that has suspense, is to keep readers uncertain about what the truth is.

They might say things like "I knew all along Harry was right," but the fact of the matter is that they didn't "know"--if it was that clear and that obvious, they wouldn't feel the need to brag about knowing at all. It wouldn't even need attention, unless it was negative attention for the mystery being so shallow. So if you hear strong expressions like that (and not tired and annoyed ones), chances are you're doing it right.

A Common Problem with Writing Mystery

All the detective work happens on page instead of in the reader.

Just as emotions are most powerful when the reader experiences them instead of reading descriptions and emotional indicators on the page, mysteries and undercurrents are most powerful when the reader makes connections and discoveries within him or herself. As writers, we might be tempted to "spoon feed" every part, facet, and step of the mystery to the reader, because we want to make sure they "get it." But mysteries and undercurrents are always most powerful when the reader reaches the conclusions on his own.

Now, it's not always realistic or effective to have the reader make all the connections. Some connections the reader won't make, and so they need the guiding force of the narrative, of you as a writer. Readers have different levels of intelligence, and even intelligence aside, are on different levels of how much attention they pay to what they read. Sometimes they won't make all the right conclusions. Sometimes they come to the wrong conclusions. But if you want to have a very effective undercurrent or mystery never guide them through all the connections.

How much or how little a hand you, the writer, via the narrator, play on connecting things on scene depends on the type of story you are telling, the audience, and the effect you want. Young audiences, like middle grade, need the writer to help connect things more often for them. But the more mature and intelligent your audience, the more you can back off. (For example, in Holes the author makes no on-page connections, and as such, teachers picked up on significant connections and conclusions, while many of their students didn't.) (Also, remember that readers have to learn how to read closely and make connections. It's a skill.)

In some stories, where the narrator backs off completely, making the connections can seem like a lot of work that the reader doesn't want to put in. In order to motivate your reader to put in that work, they need to be very invested in your story and characters, trust you as a writer enough to know that there is mental and emotional payoff for making those connections (which means the connection and conclusion have got to be really good and that you've proven you deliver on your set-ups), and strong promises of that payoff. If those things aren't in place, especially if the reader doesn't care about the story, they won't want to put in the effort (heaven knows I've read stories like that, and when I'm not invested, man, my desire to put in the work to make the connections is a whole lot smaller than the effort it requires).

My recommendation for playing it safe and doing a good job with mystery and undercurrent, is to have a little bit of everything, like I talked about in my post on undercurrents. Connect some main things, imply some things, back off and let the reader make the connections on other things.


And that's my post on getting mystery and undercurrents onto the page effectively. If you found it helpful, let me know--or better yet, share it and let others know. And good luck mastering your own mysteries and undercurrents. It definitely takes skill, but if you want it, you can get better at it.

Related Posts for Further Reading

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely LOVED this post!
    I'm one of those writers that likes to drop info hoping the reader will get them. I know I may do this even too often, but then, I love it when writers leave me space enough to come to my own conclusions, whatever they might be. Becuase as a reader I get great involvement in this kind of stories, I tried to be the same kind of writer.

    Really loved the techniques you explained here. I use most of them... though I don't write mysteries ;-) (I actually write historicals with speculative inclinations).

    One thing I've learned is that we can almost never rely entirely on ourselves to have this kind of undercurrents work. We always take too many things for gratend. I've seen that at some point or other I need to have beta readers go though the story and see what they pick up. It has helped me greatly to adjust the info-dropping in a more effective way.


I love comments :)