When I read a book I want to not be able to predict what will happen…

It’s easy sometimes to underestimate suspensefulness. Except in certain kinds of books, the suspense isn’t really what you remember. Further, a book needs to have more than suspense if it is going to endure: a book that can’t be reread is unlikely to last more than a few year’s beyond its date of publication. 

And yet…I’ve read a spate of otherwise fine books that were marred by one flaw: I could predict the end-of-second-act plot twist by the time I was a quarter of the way through the book. 

And in all three cases my enjoyment of the book was marred. And I struggle to articulate why. Part of it is simple boredom. But it’s more than that. A book can be good even when all of its plot twists are known. But I think it’s hard for a book to be interesting if it doesn’t respect the reader.

If there is an obvious secret, then let it be obvious. Give us a wink, wink and a nudge nudge. Don’t continually hammer on it, and be like, “I wonder what this terrible mystery might?!?!?”

When a book expects you to be surprised by obvious stuff, then it’s weakened. It expends it’s force on effects that never arrive. Whereas if it went one step further, then you could really boggle peoples’ mind. 

For a book that does this well, take GONE GIRL. The book never pretends that Amy is actually dead. You know from the beginning that she is alive. And you know, more or less, that she is somehow toying with her husband. Since the book assumes you’ve figured that out, it doesn’t expend much energy on those points. Instead, it gives you a wonderful second-order problem to think about: “What is the deal with this diary?”

That’s good plotting, and no, it’s not enough to sustain a book by itself, but I do think that it’s absence is enough to cripple most books. 

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  1. Dustin Katz

    This is something we talked about in Kelly’s class! I think that stories often feel “cheap” or “shallow” when it becomes clear that the author is trying to sustain reader interest by just withholding information. That “I wonder what this terrible mystery might be” thing. I think this will happen no matter what the secret is, whether it is “obvious” or not. Always better to try sustaining reader interest by developing characters, I think. That’s why detective characters are always getting in trouble with their bosses, getting too personally involved in cases, etc., because we secretly care more about the characters than whatever information they’re going to find out. I also suspect that the most mind-blowing twists are the ones that audiences/readers aren’t encouraged by the story to wonder about beforehand–look no further than Star Wars. The identity of Luke’s father was never even a mystery before it was suddenly revealed.

    Sorry for the tangent–you’re kind of talking about something else, which is how to create a “terrible mystery” that is actually interesting to readers. I’m not clever enough to come up with brilliant ideas all the time, but I still think there’s something to be said for erring on the side of not making mysteries seem like the main point.