Let Your Characters Speak for your Readers
by Jason Black
In an interesting story, unexpected things happen. That’s pretty much a given. Without the unexpected, there’s no drama. So we pack out stories with surprises, calamities, mysteries, and twists.
But the mysteries and twists can get you into trouble. Inherently, mysteries and twists present situations that don’t make sense right away. That’s the whole point of them. When a reader encounters such a situation, they’re faced with an implicit question: why doesn’t it make sense? The danger is that there are two possible answers to that question. One of them is good, while the other will kill your novel.
The good answer is, “It doesn’t make sense because it’s a mystery yet to be solved. I wonder where the author is going with this? I’ll read on to find out!” The bad answer is, “What? That can’t be right. Clearly the author messed up.”
I see the second answer far too often in my clients’ work. My belief is that writers are striving not to tip their hand too early. They don’t want to reveal any clues that would give away the solution prematurely. It’s a good instinct, but if not handled correctly, runs the risk of making the story feel broken. What was supposed to be a mystery comes across as a mistake.
What to do? How do you present seemingly nonsensical situations in a way that piques the reader’s curiosity, also feels believable, yet doesn’t tip your hand as to what the solution is? As with so many elements of novel-craft, your characters are the key.
Recently, I read a manuscript in which a police detective was trying to locate the next-of-kin for another character. He searched the dead guy’s house for a birth certificate, but there wasn’t one. The detective more or less shrugged and gave up.
Ask yourself, does that make sense? Later, it turned out that the lack of a birth certificate was an important clue about the deceased’s origins. But in that moment, if we assume the detective is remotely competent, does it make sense for him to just give up? Of course not. We can all think of other ways one might track down a missing birth certificate, but the detective didn’t do any of them. Having ostensibly established that there was no birth certificate, the writer let that thread drop.
As a reader, I was left with no idea of why the detective stopped looking. Not finding one doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I couldn’t see any way to reconcile the situation against my ordinary intuitions. When the eventual answer about the dead guy’s origin came, I could see that the writer expected me to have believed there really wasn’t a birth certificate. But in the moment, I couldn’t believe it. The mystery, as presented, felt like a mistake.
Readers, characters, and you
Readers experience two levels of interaction while reading a novel. One level is with the characters. It has to do with how they assess the characters and evaluate what the characters are doing. When a novel is running smoothly, everything readers see can be interpreted naturally in terms of how it all reflects on the characters.
The other level is between readers and you, the writer. It has to do with how much readers implicitly trust you to tell them a good story, and that you know what you’re doing. Everything in the novel reflects on this balance of trust, too. When a novel is running smoothly, when readers are allowed to stay immersed in the story without being troubled by questions of your literary competence, you’re building up that trust.
Readers will follow you pretty much anywhere, so long as they trust you to know what you’re doing. That’s the problem with mysteries that feel like mistakes; they call into question readers’ belief in you. But as long as readers are convinced you have a plan for those seemingly nonsensical situations, we’ll roll with it.
Let your characters speak for the reader
The best way I know of to present a mystery—without giving away any clues, while reassuring the reader that you do have a plan—is to bring your characters into the mix. You have to anticipate the questions and objections readers will raise when faced with the nonsensical, then let your characters voice those same concerns. Moreover, you have to let the characters take all appropriate actions in response to those concerns.
If you do that, then the answer to that question of “is it a mystery or is it a mistake” becomes clear. Obviously, you must have a plan if your characters are explicitly aware of the nonsensical. There can be no other interpretation.
What I needed to see, in that birth certificate situation, was for the detective to stop and say, “Now, where the heck can that birth certificate be?” I needed him to show me he understood the oddity of it not being present. Further, I needed to see him making efforts to track the thing down. I needed to see him contact the dead guy’s employer, get his social security number, track that back to the area where the character was likely born, and search the records of local hospitals looking for a match. After all that effort, his failure to find one would have served as convincing evidence that there was truly no birth certificate. But moreover, the effort itself would have preserved my belief that the writer had a plan.
Reassure the reader
The reader’s trust is one of your most valuable assets. Don’t throw it away on mysteries that feel like mistakes. It’s all about reassuring the reader that you have a plan, and the best way I know to do that is to let your characters speak on the reader’s behalf. Let the character’s own incredulity prove you have a plan, even if we can’t see where it’s going.