Chime by Franny Billingsley has several mysteries. Is Briony really a witch? Was her stepmother actually so very kind as Briony remembers? Is her father truly an uncaring bastard? Did her stepmother commit suicide or was she murdered? Why did Briony burn her stories?
Most of the mysteries are interrelated, with the answer to one dependent on the answers to the others. Even though I had pretty much figured out partial answers to most of the mysteries quite early on, I couldn’t stop reading. I needed to know how Billingsley tied it all together. I needed to see the final tapestry and how it all fit into one big picture.
That is the sign of an expert writer. The reader needs to feel like they are catching on along the way. She can’t feel abandoned in the dark, maybe just a little lost in the fog. And when the answer finally reveals itself it cannot come as a complete shock. It must be an “Ah Ha! But of course, that makes perfect sense!” moment.
Today I am struggling with that fine line in my own middle grade manuscript. I don’t want to give away the mystery on page four, but I do want the reader to have hints and be able to feel that “Ah Ha!” thrill when everything falls into place out toward the final pages.
Writing a book is like building a jigsaw puzzle from scratch. You draw the picture, you cut the pieces, you make it all fit together just right. Everything must combine so the when the picture comes into focus it all makes sense. I think that’s my favorite thing about fiction, generally it makes so much more sense than real life. At least in my favorite stories.
The struggle is how do you as the author, who knows how it all turns out, distinguish a good hint from a complete giveaway that spoils the ending? How do you set aside what you know and pretend you are reading your own manuscript for the first time?
One way is to set it aside for long enough to forget, and certainly I've done a lot of that. But my biggest helpers are my wonderful critiquing friends with their writing expertise and fresh eyes. I would be lost without them.
How about you? How do you keep the mystery without frustrating the reader?