Mystery Writing Tips: Confusion Is Not Mystery

I’ve been reading a lot of novel beginnings for webinar critiques lately, and it’s gotten me thinking about mystery writing tips. First of all, I must applaud some of my students for diving right in there and starting with action. Some of these guys are just off to the races…we’re plunged into the middle of a scene, into a world, into new terminologies, into names and places that we haven’t encountered yet, etc. Kudos! Most novel beginnings have the opposite problem–they are too information-heavy, with confusing writing (lots of backstory or telling or explaining). Boo. I’ll take an action-packed opening that drops us into scene any day.


mystery writing tips, confusing writing
If your reader seems confused, you may need to add some grounding info to your novel opening.

Mystery Writing Tips: Balance Action and Information

Yes, there’s a “but.” It’s all about balance, actually. Because too much action and not enough information can be alienating to an audience that expects some grounding facts right at the beginning of the book. If we’re thrown into a story with no context or frames of reference, we are likely going to end up bogged down in your confusing writing. And as I like to say, “If you confuse us, you lose us.” Especially when beginning a book. Nobody wants to pick up an object that they just paid $16.99 for and be frustrated or feel out of the loop. We want to be tickled, intrigued, our interest piqued. Think about a meaty mystery from a detective’s point of view: they have some clues, but not all of them. And it’s that tantalizing yet puzzling amount of information that keeps them digging. Want to know how to start a chapter? Use my mystery writing tips: That perfect balance of action and information is what you want to give readers right off the bat.

If You Confuse Us, You Lose Us

So, to repeat, some of these writers who do plunge the reader right in are taking a risk. They know that unanswered questions and tension and mystery are like catnip for readers (if readers were cats…though they often act like cats, curling up in various nooks, etc.). This is very true. If you start with action, you’ll most likely have tension or mystery working to your advantage, because the reader will want to follow and know more about what’s happening. It’s a natural instinct. But if you give us no grounding information at the beginning–if it’s all action and no context–you run the risk of losing your reader with your confusing writing.

Where Do You Fall? Get Some Valid Writing Feedback

The best way to gauge where you fall on this spectrum is to run your opening by people who know nothing about your book (but who are writers or teachers and otherwise qualified to provide valid writing feedback- check out our critique group article). If they end up feeling like they get what’s going on at the beginning, or get it a little too much, you’ve got just enough or even a surplus of information to get the reader going. Maybe pare down some of the telling and work on increasing tension, action, and conflict to make it even more exciting — otherwise, you’ve incorporated my mystery writing tips nicely. If your reader comes at you with lots of questions, on the other hand, or if they seem confused, maybe you should take a few well-placed pauses and slip in some context (remember: show, don’t tell) to clarify your confusing writing.

Mystery writing tips broken down into a basic formula: Confusion, bad. Mystery, good. The two are not the same.

When you hire me as your manuscript editor, I’ll help you craft a strong novel opening that’s a mix of grounding info and tension.

8 Replies to “Mystery Writing Tips: Confusion Is Not Mystery”

  1. Ha! I loved the title of this post. I know exactly what you mean. It’s such a tough balance.

  2. I too loved the title, which suggests that Chapters One are like blind dates. Create an intriguing first impression and make a connection. Bungle your introduction and leave your prospective partner looking for an escape route.

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