Plot and Motivation: Keeping Secrets and Mystery

As I mentioned in my update last week, the time I have spent reuniting with my biological family has been really enlightening about a lot of things, providing a big pile of new insights and topics that I could apply to writing.  In today’s Plot and Motivation, we’re going to take a look at the very tip of that iceberg.  Now, no doubt you’ve looked at the title and think that the story at the heart of this topic is a horrible one about family lies and secrets.  To be honest, it isn’t.  In fact, the story itself is a heart-warming one, but it showed to me just how easy it can be for there to be secrets and plots going on right under one’s nose.

The story in question is a good one.  My recently-deceased best friend Jon, my mother told me, had been the actual contact point she had first found when she tried to get in contact with me once more.  Jon, having been there when our family had drifted apart, engaged my mom in a long conversation and, once he was sure that everything was of pure intention, directed her to me and, without me realizing it, subtly influenced me to be more open to her approach this final time.  I never knew what he had done until just this past week, when Mom told me all about it.

It’s a beautiful story but where, you may ask, is the takeaway that can be applied to writing?  Well, first and foremost, it shows that, no matter how close a character may be to others or to a situation, it is entirely possible to plot a mystery around them, to have secrets withheld (good or malign), and have them unaware of it, no matter how intelligent or perceptive.  This means, obviously, that you *can* have a smart, perceptive, or deductive protagonist in a mystery and not feel like you are suspending disbelief or be forced to have them act in a counter-productive manner to sustain the mystery or secret for any length of time.  Often, the closer a secret is being held, the harder it can be to focus on it.

Also, this story is illustrative of the manner in which a plot or a scheme or a mystery can be carried out without anyone the wiser.  It all comes down to the approach and the events that you, the author, lay out.  It’s easy to go down the rabbit hole of feeling the need to create more and more elaborate twists and turns in an attempt to throw off a reader from the mystery’s resolution.  This, unfortunately, often ends badly as the plot becomes so convoluted and arcane that there is no ‘OH!  So that’s how it happened!’ moment for the reader.  The essence of a good, enjoyable mystery isn’t just keeping the mystery under wraps until the end, but providing enough clues and foreshadowing to make it possible to be deduced.  Yes, a very astute reader will figure it out early, but it ensures that everyone will ‘get it’ in the end.  No one wants to read a mystery just to have it revealed to have been a nonsensical plot that wasn’t confirmed by the story or that the story was so convoluted the facts were obscured.

I guess what I’m getting at in the end is that a good mystery is easier to put together than it seems.  Focus on the elements of secrecy and attention to detail, especially in enforcing a character’s point of view and knowledge of a situation, don’t overly complicate the plot for complication’s sake, and never forget the power of secrecy.  Obviously, there’s more to it than that, and if you have more tips for the would-be mystery writer, please leave them in the comments below!

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