Mystery is Key to Story

Mystery is the key to every successful story. Even if a story is not explicitly a mystery, it needs to have some element of mystery within it. If there’s no mystery, wherein the reader is wondering what will happen next, they have little reason to continue reading the story.

Every story idea should infuse mystery in some way. This doesn’t mean it must have a crime, murder, or whodunit (though those are an easy way to add mystery), but at least pose some unanswered questions that the audience wants to see resolved. Introduce setups that pay-off later in the plot. Have certain characters keep secrets from other characters, then there will be inevitable drama when those secrets are revealed.

Most successful stories include mystery, though you may have never realized it. A space adventure like Star Wars may not appear to be a mystery, but there are plenty of mysteries throughout the movie—such as who is this Princess Leia hologram in R2D2’s message? Or who is Obi Wan Kenobi and the Jedi? What is the Force? Who is behind the mask of Darth Vader? These were all mysteries at first, which were resolved later in the movies.

Even dramas and romances often include mystery: Will they or won’t they? What is Rosebud? Why is Rick so upset by that song in Casablanca? These types of unanswered questions keep audiences interested in the story. It is human nature that once a mystery is presented, we cannot help but want to know the answer.

J.J. Abrams explains this in his TED Talk about the “mystery box.” He understands the allure of mystery in stories, and he is a master of setting up a juicy mystery that intrigues audiences—though he is not as good at resolving those mysteries by providing satisfying answers.

That is another key: to solve the mystery. Not that everything always needs to be tidied up at the end with all the solutions explicitly spelled out. It’s acceptable—and perhaps preferable—to retain a sense of ambiguity and leave some mysteries open to interpretation. But you have to give the audience something—some kind of catharsis or resolution. That is a tricky balance to maintain, knowing how much to reveal without being too pedantic.

Audiences tend to react most negatively to stories in which they felt dissatisfied by the resolution to a mystery set up by an author. But this is only because the audience felt so engaged and invested in the story—they truly cared about that mystery. You may think that it would be better to avoid that potential risk of disappointing your audience by electing to not include any mysteries in your story. However, then the audience may not be engaged or care about your story at all. Mystery is essential to all story, though how much and what kind can and should vary wildly.


Work for Idle Hands is primarily a mystery story, but I use the frame of a mystery plot to explore larger philosophical themes. Discovering those themes are one such mystery in the story. To uncover the mystery behind Work for Idle Hands, read the novella, available on Amazon as an ebook or paperback.

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