Story Musing: Challenge with Mystery is Key

This week was a bit of a struggle for me. I was trying to write out the remaining chapters of my third book to finally get this draft done. But something just never felt right as I continued to write the remaining chapters. I had the main plot figured out, I had the mystery established and the questions laid out with hints throughout the story but it didn’t quite feel like it was complete. I though about what makes a compelling story for a person vs person conflict to be interesting. While a core part of the conflict is the protagonist overcoming an opponent whose more powerful than them, it doesn’t quite feel like enough. I thought about some of the more compelling stories I’ve read and realized that it’s not only a mystery to be solved but a challenge to overcome.

The challenge the main character faces is what makes the main plotline compelling, but when it’s tied to the central mystery of story, it creates an anticipation in the reader to see how it all comes together. It sounds quite simple but the execution can be rather hard to plan out. For instance, Steelheart from The Reckoners series has a rather simple challenge and mystery surrounding the antagonist, Steelheart. The challenge here is how David can get revenge against Steelheart but the mystery around Steelheart is what creates the core of the plot line. Steelheart is essentially invulnerable but somehow he was hurt once and no one knows how. That creates a mystery that David and the others work towards solving to overcome the challenge of defeating Steelheart. It makes for an exciting and enticing story that ultimately has a satisfying payoff as it all comes to fruition.

But there’s some caution to be had that when creating a challenge and mystery combination without properly thinking of satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t matter how amazing the characters, the world, or the events leading to the climax are if the resolution to the mystery that solves the challenge feels unearned. What might be the most famous example of an amazing story with phenomenal characters, a really well built world, but absolutely disappointing ending is Avatar: The Last Airbender. Everything about the series is so close to being perfect with how well written everything was. All of the characters, even the side characters, were endearing and very fleshed out. The world itself was well written and the soft magic system had enough flexibility to allow for a lot of creativity without ever feeling like they needed a Deus Ex Machina to resolve the main conflict. Yet that’s what they chose to do. The story, no matter how amazing it was, failed at it’s ultimate climax because the resolution felt unearned as Aang didn’t have to resolve his internal conflict. Because of that, the exciting and interesting story ends on a weak note.

Sometimes, however, you can have the mystery and the challenge in a story separated but still tangentially connected. One avenue would be the concept of fate or a prophecy that looms over the protagonist while they face against the antagonist. It’s a very common trope for a stories, especially fantasy stories, to have an overarching predestination guide the characters and the reader to a foregone conclusion. It’s an easy way for writers to inject a bit of mystery into a story while having the antagonist challenge the protagonist in some way. God of War: Ragnarok does a good job of that, following the Norse Mythology of fate guiding the inevitability of Ragnarok. In a way, it’s two separate challenges the protagonists must overcome while maintaining a question of how or even if it’s possible to circumvent fate itself.

I’ve found in my own writing of my third book that something was lacking and when it struck me, it was an epiphany that seemed so simple yet I didn’t realize it until I took a moment to understand why the story didn’t feel compelling. It occurred to me that it wasn’t quite clear what the challenge was facing the protagonists despite the clear antagonists present. There was a lack of impending danger and urgency combined with a mystery of how the protagonists could overcome it. That created a lack of tension and makes the overall story less interesting to read.

I hope this epiphany I had helps you as much as it helped me!

– Raphael

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