Mystery v. Murky
As writers, we’re often admonished to establish mystery. The great unknown will keep our readers turning pages, so they say. But this inadvertently leads several beginning writers into a trap—the lack of detail trap. Do not confuse murky for mystery.
The difference between mystery and murky is subtle and simple—it’s specificity and detail. Take for example, the classic, “Avery walked in blackness. He could see nothing, hear nothing, feel nothing. Then, a voice swirled around him…”
This is an excerpt (as best as I can remember) from my first novel. I thought the lack of detail and the disembodied voice would prompt readers to turn pages, if for no other reason than to find out where he was. Of course, it was all a dream (another gimmick).
The primary problem with this opening (and there are many) is that it does not establish authorial credibility. That is, the reader does not get a sense that I know what I’m doing. If, in the opening lines, I’m resorting to gimmicks to carry a story, it is a sure sign the story is not strong enough to carry itself.
To establish credibility as a writer, you must demonstrate, from the first line on, that you know what you’re doing. That you’re in complete control of the story (even if you don’t feel you are). The key to that is information, detail, specificity. How much more compelling is it if we know where Avery is? I’d argue that anyplace is more interesting than no place.
Think of it this way: the reader cannot imagine nothing. They must be given something with which their imagination can work. My opening would be roughly equivalent to paying to see a movie with no images—just a black screen and a primarily silent audio track (except for the prerequisite disembodied voice). If, however, you appeal to the reader’s senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch), we’ll experience the story rather than simply being told it.
Is mystery bad, then? Not at all. Mystery is still a powerful force, if used correctly. But the key to mystery is through detail. Think of any crime novel you’ve read—the point is to give as many details as possible, and to piece them together. How frustrated would you be to read a mystery novel with no clues? No red herrings? Mystery only exists through the use of detail.
Let’s start with a dead body, as most novels are wont to do. For the sake of contrast, here’s a murky opening and a mysterious opening.
MURKY: The gun exploded in a flash of light, and the body crumpled to the floor. The killer replaced the gun in his coat, turned and walked away.
MYSTERY: Detective Cromwell examined the body: Male, about six feet tall, rather unremarkable in every way, except the purple botch of a birthmark, shaped roughly like the state of Texas, on the mans left shoulder. At first glance, he thought it was a tattoo, but the color and the texture showed it to be something the man had had from birth.
Now, go find all your murky prose and illuminate it. Shine the light of specificity on it, and find out where the story wants to go.