I’ve heard from several people lately that in order to create fear in your writing or a drive for the reader to know more, writers need to remember to include a good sense of mystery or the unknown. This camp includes J. J. Abrams, who is known for loving the idea of the “mystery box”–something that will drive you crazy for not knowing what it is. Think of a wrapped box under a Christmas tree.
I have problems with this idea. A few months ago I was trying to write a draft and keep it interesting by introducing as many mysteries as possible–codes, meetings with strangers, anything I could think up for the main character not to understand. The only problem was that it still didn’t sound interesting. There was no drive to care what the answers were or feel that anything especially bad was going to pay out. As a writer, I could give my readers the most diabolical riddles and the deepest mysteries in the universe–but that won’t make them care.
I spent some time looking up bestsellers and books that I’d been unable to put down in the past, everything from The Hunger Games and Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone to Ella Enchanted and an old Royal Diaries book I especially loved as a kid. Patterns began to emerge.
None of the stories I looked at emphasized the unknown, the mysteries. They focused on the known and the problems with it–what didn’t add up and what it all meant instead of simply asking questions without answers. It was the conclusions and the hard facts that brought the tension and fear every time and made me as a reader want to keep turning the pages–not the unknown.
How does it work? Let’s say you’re writing a story about a middle school girl who is spending the night home alone for the first time and a little nervous about it. Which of the following scenarios makes you want to read more?
Scenario A: When she’s in bed at night, she hears a rough sound and doesn’t know what it is. She’s worried that someone broke in but can’t see anything unusual from her room and has no way of knowing.
Scenario B: When she’s in bed at night, she notices the sound of boots clopping outside her door. She opens her eyes and sees light from a cell phone spilling into the room while someone outside whispers something under his breath.
Scenario B is far more terrifying–even though it doesn’t have as much mystery and is much more up-front about the concerns at hand. Scenario B satisfies you as the reader. It’s not going to tease or promise that something good is coming up; it’s going to say that something is happening right now so that you can enjoy every moment as if you were really there, knowing you won’t be disappointed by a cheap cap-off.
Scenario A says that something might be wrong–Scenario B confirms your worst fears.
What ways to you like to build tension in your stories? Please share and discuss in the comments section below!