Story Musing: Too much mystery and the importance of explanation.

Originally, I was going to have another book review prepared for today to fit in the usual scheduled cadence that I planned for. However, I felt the need to rant a bit about a writing failure I’ve been seeing quite a bit of. I am a big fan of the game Destiny 2 which had a really well written story in the last expansion but this expansion, Lightfall, had a tremendously poorly written story that it made me contemplate why it was so bad. The obvious thing was the fact that it was centered around a McGuffin that none of us knew about and was never explained why it was important. But I realized the core problem of the story was one I constantly struggle with myself as I work on my own book. There’s a very difficult challenge in know what should be kept mysterious to keep people interested and what needs to be explained for the story to even make sense.

One of the core elements of writing an engaging story is having a level of mystery and intrigue that keeps people interested in the story. It’s what makes finishing the story worth it in the end. There needs to be that payoff. But it needs to be set up properly with breadcrumbs throughout the narrative process. The payoff at the end needs to make sense with what’s been established. Brandon Sanderson is a really good master of pulling off this kind of narrative hook. Especially in both the Reckoners series and so far in the Skyward series, Sanderson creates a narrative mystery that gives enough information be enticing but not enough to completely give the mystery away. Often the explanation of the mystery is what leads to the climatic payoff in each book of those series.

The level of exposition needed to balance the fine line of intriguingly mysterious and downright nonsense is a skill every writer needs to try and figure out for themselves. The tricky part is that it’s very subjective based on both the mystery and the readers themselves. Some mysteries need a bit more build up and explanation to make sense. The reason why the Lightfall story failed so miserably was because the core mystery of the Veil was never explained or even hinted at. To make matters worse, it is a strange magical extraterrestrial force somehow connected to The Traveller (Destiny’s version of a god so to speak) and it’s never explained what it is or what it does but it is almost assumed the player already knows. It’s a McGuffin and a poorly used one as we the players do not care about it and don’t understand the significance of it. A McGuffin can still be a mysterious thing the drives the plot forward but still needs a degree of explanation that gives it some significance that the readers can then understand why the protagonists and antagonists care about it. My favorite trilogy, The Shadow of the Fox by Julie Kagawa, makes excellent use of a McGuffin in the form of a scroll that can grant a wish every thousand years. We don’t necessarily care about the scroll itself, but we understand its significance and why everyone is vying for it. The reader doesn’t need to care about the McGuffin, they just need to know why the characters care about it.

There is a style of story that I personally love that has a lot of mystery within the world that can even relate to the story but that mystery is never explained or revealed. I know it’s a bit odd to make this claim after going into detail why there’s a delicate balance between mystery and explanation, however there is something fascinating about the unknown. It’s something that makes us contemplate the story’s world and think about it with wonder and curiosity. But the mystery never interrupts the understanding of the main story to the point of creating a pointless McGuffin or a deus ex machina incident. My favorite example of this is The Lord of the Rings series. There are so many things that seem mysterious and wondrous for those only reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy and it never takes away from the main story. A lot of things happen during the trilogy that isn’t fully explained but it never felt like it needed to be explained to enjoy the story. The core focus was always present and the reader was given enough to make their own inference on how everything worked without being outright told.

Incorporating mystery and intrigue into a story is a really good way to make it exciting and interesting, but there needs to be balanced so that the majority of people interacting with it will understand it. It’s a very important task for any writer to understand just how much information needs to be given. People often frown upon information dumps as it can break up the pacing of a story, but there are times when it’s needed, it just needs to be done in a more elegant manner.

– Raphael

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