This post was inspired by DC comics epic failure: Final Crisis. Now I am primarily a DC fan (though I do enjoy Marvel at times) and Grant Morrison drew me into comics with his quite excellent JLA run. How then can I say that their latest works is a failure? Because Morrison and DC have forgotten one of the most important rules of mysteries.

The audience has to care.

Of course that’s true of any story (fiction or non) so what makes mysteries different?

Mysteries are about keeping key information away from the audience until the final moment (the “reveal”) if ever. This is accomplished by either leaving the info out all together or hiding it in unassuming disguises (the “clues”). The former is easy, the latter is much harder to accomplish without spoiling the reveal ahead of schedule. Thus, many lazy writers use obfuscation to create mystery. But like Jim Doom says :

The fact that I don’t know what the mystery is doesn’t make me more intrigued.

Does this mean you can never have a vague mystery? No! But imagine your mystery is like a scene in a movie. A scene can open or begin completely blurred and out of focus. However, some shape and definition has to come into focus or the audience quickly grows bored. Parts of the scene can still remain blurry, but the audience has to have something to latch onto.

What do I mean the audience needs to latch onto something? How is it done? Like most techniques, this can be broken down into some basic components:

  1. The audience needs to know what question(s) is being asked. This doesn’t mean it has to be the right question, but you have to give them an anchor to hold onto. Imagine watching a cop show where the police are investigating a crime without ever telling you what the crime is. Is it a murder? Robbery? Kidnapping? Public nudity? Without this crucial info, you are left distant and uninvolved in the proceedings, less interested in what’s going on than in trying to figure out why anybody’s doing anything. This is Final Crisis’ biggest failing. Instead of being involved in the story, we’re left asking “What’s going on? Why should we care?” Though the book started off with a mystery we could latch onto (Who killed Orion?), more bewildering threads were tossed at us till we were no longer able to hold onto the anchors in the story and were drowning in questions. Now instead of following the mystery, the audience is left asking “What is going on?”
  2. There needs to be clear stakes if the mystery isn’t solved and the audience needs to know them. There are many things which are primal and instinctual to your audience, thus why murder mysteries hold such strong and enduring appeal: justice may be subverted and the murderer may escape. This is another failure of Final Crisis. We the audience can’t be drawn into the mystery because we have trouble understanding what will happen if things go unsolved. We’re given a hint that the world might end but since that’s a normal Tuesday in comics the emotional ‘punch’ that stake has is greatly reduced. We no longer care that the world might end (that’s been the case for how many decades?) we have to know how it’s going to end.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t do weird, world changing mysteries in your stories, but you have to start with those two. Think about the X-files. They didn’t launch right away into the government conspiracy but gave you a tangible mystery (part 1. What happened to Mulder’s sister? part 2. He will never find peace). Then as the series unfolded, that anchor was used to lead you into a deeper and greater mystery (part 1. What’s the deal with aliens? part 2. They will doom humanity to extinction or slavery.).

Build your world first and draw the audience into it. Once they are comfortable, begin the deeper, more fascinating mysteries. Don’t be lazy and tell your audience nothing in an effort to keep the reveal in the dark. Once they understand the rules of that world, they will be more intrigued by your mysteries within it, and you will have a successful story.


  1. fffan on 29 April 2010, 04:55 said:

    I’m not really into writing mysteries, but this is definately a huge reminder that my audience has to stay interested. Thankyou :).