Q&A

When Is It Appropriate to Dispel the Mystery?

questions and answer talk bubbles

Hey! So my question is how often a writer should utilize mystery and enigma in stories.

  •  In Star Wars, there was a huge fiasco when in the prequels they explained the nature of the Force, as many fans would have preferred it had been left ambiguous and unexplained.

  •  In Dragon Age, there are mentions of a people called the Voshai who faced some sort of cataclysm on the other side of the continent, and while I thought this was surely foreshadowing some future event in a future game of the series, other fans thought it and the people themselves should be left mysterious and unexamined as it is more realistic that way.
  • And then, in the Witcher series, a country to the far south is named Zerrikania, and some fans have expressed interest in one day visiting that far-off land or even just the much mentioned and narratively important country of the Nilfgaardian Empire. But then many also believe that exploring these areas will utterly ruin their mystique and appeal, and knowing too much will make them boring – the unknown is more exciting and appealing.
  • And, as my last example, in Trollhunters one episode has the main protagonist delve into an area known as the Deep where he fights a mysterious shadowy figure. The next episode he escapes the Deep, and no mention is ever made again of that strange shadow or what exactly happened down there, and some fans seemed to prefer it that way as delving deeper (ha! puns) into that mysterious apparition would ruin its appeal and otherworldly ethereal charm.

So my question kinda boils down to when/if it is appropriate to dispel the unknown mystique of a character/place/event.

I kinda feel as though if the main appeal of something is the lack of information you know about it, then there really is no appeal at all because you just don’t know anything about it to make it appealing – to me, that enigmatic mystique is boring and raises more questions than answers.

Thank you so much! Keep being awesome!!!!!

~ Bonnie

Hi Bonnie,

You’re right that mystery comes with its own benefits. As you mentioned in your examples, it can create an enjoyable atmosphere, allow fans to imagine whatever they want, and in the case of villains and other dangers, enhance the sense of threat. It’s hard for something that isn’t mysterious to be scary.

However, it’s worth noting that sometimes mysterious elements will also feel like unfinished plot hooks. I haven’t seen that Trollhunters episode you mentioned, but when something mysterious happens to a protagonist off-screen, many fans will expect those questions to be answered. If no answers are forthcoming by the end of the series, those fans will leave the show feeling unsatisfied. The closer the mystery is to the plot of your story, the more likely it is that fans will expect answers.

It’s also possible for dispelling a mystery to have enough payoff to make up for the reduced novelty. If you dispel a mystery in a way that doesn’t fit everything you’ve already established or is just underwhelming, people will be unhappy. But if you dispel it with a reveal where everything clicks together in a satisfying way, they could love it.

Mysteries at some level beg to be solved. Many fans will want a closer look at the mysterious part of the world. Writers just have to be careful not to do it in a way that offers less value than the mystery did. If they didn’t plan what’s in the mysterious part of the world ahead of time, that can be hard to do. In those cases, it’s probably safer to leave any mysteries that don’t feel like loose ends the way they are.

Sorry I can’t give you a clear-cut answer here. It’s a matter of looking at the particular situation and weighing pros and cons.

Chris

Do you have a question you’d like answered by Oren or Chris? Submit it here. Q&As are only made public if you give your permission and we decide to feature it. If you’d like more than an answer to a general question, you can hire us to look over your story.

 

Comments

  1. Michael Campbell

    To a degree, you’re the author.
    If you think turning enigma-alpha into story-event-alpha is worth it, then write it. Otherwise just leave it as the enigma you’ve outlined.

    If you becomes a really well known author, then there’ll probably be fan fiction covering the matter.

  2. Kori

    This is a quote whose context was specific to horror, but I think the wisdom behind it definitely applies. Stephen King said in Danse Macabre:

    “Nothing is so frightening as what’s behind the closed door. The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. ‘A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible’, the audience thinks, ‘but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall’.”

    Sometimes you have to open the door for the sake of your book, but other times its best to leave the possibility to speculation. I hope you find the answers you’re looking for!

  3. Jenn H

    I think one way to avoid disappointment is for the reveal to further fuel the plot. Explaining the nature of the force, for instance, didn’t in any way add to the story in Star Wars. Compare that to the reveal of Darth Vader’s identity.

    The reveal might be the start of a major conflict. It might show that what we (and the characters) knew about the setting was wrong. It might reveal yet another mystery.

    • Michael Campbell

      I suspect the midi-clorian thing was created as a foundation of a reveal to be told later on in the prequel trilogy but that George Lucas dropped the idea when the early forms of social media that the world wide web-a-verse used; condemned the whole thing mercilessly.

      • Rose Embolism

        Evidently Lucas had ideas that the next series would take place on the midichloran level. They being sentient and all, and all of the events of Star Wars being controlled by them.

        Anyway, I think it’s not so much that a mystery was revealed in a disappointing way, as one explanation was replaced by another one. “Energy field created by living things that binds the galaxy together” works perfectly well as an explanation for all intents and purposes. Midichlorans was a detail out of left field that didn’t add anything to the story.

        • Michael Campbell

          Actually it did add to the background of the story. Midi-chlorians are organic and found within the body so it would then be more understandable as to why “the force is strong in my family.”

        • Cay Reet

          In addition, it turned a mysterious force only few could wield into something scientific – how long until someone would try to inject midichlorians into a person without force powers and see if they can ‘make’ a Jedi that way?

          • Lizard with Hat

            There is acutally a story about that where a sith turns midichlorians into macrochlorians or something along that lines…

          • Cay Reet

            I know it was only a matter of time.

            Which begs the question why they didn’t optimize the clones by giving them midichlorians, too.

  4. Cay Reet

    I think the real answer might be a combination of the two above: there are reasons not to reveal some mysteries, but in that case, the plot may not hinge on the mystery. In other cases, the mystery must be revealed at the time at which the reveal has the most impact.

    If you reveal the traitor you’ve hinted on during an intense fight or while your heroes are sneaking through dangerous territory, the reveal has impact. The traitor will act suddenly and things will become much harder and more dangerous for ther hero/heroes. If you reveal the same traitor during downtime, while there’s nothing horrible happening, the impact will not be as big.

    Some things, like the nature of the Force (which was never spoken about after Episode 1), should be kept a mystery. In horror stories, you can get away with not showing the monster. Think of (as far as I remember that was King’s example, too) the Monkey’s Paw. We never see what was behind that door, because the man managed to wish it away in time. And because of that, we will automatically assume it was the most horrible thing we could ever imagine. A monster we don’t see is more scary than whatever we see.

  5. Laura Ess

    When the Mystery’s also the McGuffin driving the story but isn’t of real importance. For example THE GREAT GAME episode of SHERLOCK, where it’s crucial to recover the plans but at the end the person who murdered to get get the plans still has them, because he doesn’t know how to sell them.

    • Michael Campbell

      McGuffins are like that.
      Are the travel documents that everybody wants, really all that important to Casablanca? Or is it really the effect that they have on people that the story is about!?!

Leave a Comment

By submitting a comment, you confirm that you have read and agree to our comments policy (updated 9/3/18). We send comment data to outside parties for spam filtering and other services. See our privacy policy for details.

Follow Us

Facebooktwitterpinterestrsstumblr

Get Our Email Newsletter

We'll send our best work every month.