You may write science fiction or horror or romance or thriller, but what you’re really writing is a mystery.
Every story should be a mystery. Obviously, I don’t mean you need a murder and a detective and a bunch of suspects. What you need are unanswered questions — the kind that keep readers turning pages to find out what they mean.
This is not easy but on the other hand, it’s tremendous fun. I love dropping those clues that make the reader go, “Wait, what? Why did he wink knowingly at the other character? Why did that strange car drive by at that moment? What did he mean when he said “there is another”?
In my current work in progress, the main character has a secret. It’s a secret I keep from the reader as well. It’s fun to drop hints. Here are some examples from the first draft:
Beverly smiled. Many white people at the time would have never considered offering her such hospitality. She had heard of Mr. Roosevelt, read many of his books on American history, and knew that he was a good man who supported both women’s suffrage as well as racial equality, and it was nice to see this confirmed by his household.
It almost made her feel guilty for not telling him the truth.
The reader at this point has already come to like Beverly and Beverly has told everyone about who she is and what she is doing. Then this last line comes out and the reader has a mystery: What was false? She’s not what she said she is! The only way to discover the mystery is to keep reading …
Sometimes the “mystery” is merely a postponement of the reveal:
“Now calm down, Miss Haddad,” Samuel replied. “But there isn’t a plan there, is there? You’re just running into danger, hoping that maybe something good happens.”
“Do you have an idea, Mr. Clemens?”
“Well, as a matter of fact—”
The cabin shook as a loud booming noise filled the air. Above them, they could hear yelling as footsteps echoed through the hull.
Teddy was on his feet immediately. He ran to the door and threw it open just as Hugo appeared, eyes wide.
“Pirates!” he yelled.
Wait, what was Samuel’s plan? Would it have worked? Are they still going to use it or is the attack going to ruin everything?
Keep your readers guessing. Don’t reveal everything at once. And then make sure that there is an answer and that these answers don’t wait to the very end of the book. If you string them along with questions but never provide some answers along the way, it gets very frustrating.
Go back and read over some of your favorite novels and you’ll see this is true. The best writers know how to keep you turning pages, and that’s to have a question on every page, no matter how small, to make you search out the answer.