It’s pretty common for a story to accidentally give away its mystery with heavy-handed foreshadowing or a limited pool of suspects, but some stories go a step further: they give their mysteries away on purpose. Instead of an exciting investigation, we get a fizzled-out dud. Mysteries generate their satisfaction by letting us solve them along with the protagonist, and if that doesn’t happen, all we have is a not-so-mysterious case of boredom. It might seem as though no storyteller would actually do that, but it’s common enough that I have plenty of examples to choose from.
1. Soon I Will Be Invincible
The big mystery of Austin Grossman’s superhero novel is what happened to Corefire. He’s the most powerful hero in the world,* and he’s missing. While the reasons we need to find him could be more compelling, that’s still a decent setup. It’s enough to get his old super team back together for a search, and they’ve got a prime suspect in mind: Corefire’s well-known nemesis, Dr. Impossible.
With this mystery hook in place, we can settle in for a story about superheroes investigating the fate of their lost comrade. Except… we already know Dr. Impossible didn’t do it. You see, Impossible has his own viewpoint chapters, and while he withholds a lot of information from us, one thing he’s clear about is that he doesn’t know what happened to Corefire either. Unless this story is so meta that Impossible can lie to the reader,* he’s a dead end.
In a more traditional narrative, it could be a really cool twist for the heroes to discover that Dr. Impossible was a red herring the whole time. But since we already know that, it’s not a twist. Instead, we spend most of the book watching our heroes follow a lead that we already know doesn’t go anywhere. It makes everything they do feel pointless, as if we could just skip forward until they figure out the truth.
Part of the problem is that Grossman doesn’t actually have a cool reveal at the end of this mystery. Instead, we eventually discover that Corefire was temporarily knocked out in a fight against a minor villain. He eventually recovered on his own (offscreen, of course) and then decided to fake his own death as part of a convoluted plan to catch Dr. Impossible and return him to prison. So despite the heroes spending most of the book investigating Corefire’s disappearance, there’s nothing for them to find.
The rest of the problem is that Grossman doesn’t actually seem interested in telling a story. Instead, we spend huge sections of the book delving into backstory for characters we barely know and have little reason to care about. Some critics call this “thought-provoking,” but for my money it’s just tiresome, and the book giving away its own mystery is a sign of problems to come.
Seanan McGuire’s trippy urban-fantasy novel features protagonists with the rhyming names of Roger and Dodger. They live across the country from each other, but as the story starts, they discover the ability to communicate with each other telepathically. That’s pretty cool, and it raises questions of why they have such an ability. It’s not hard to guess that they’re twins,* but where does the magic link come from and what are its implications?
Our heroes will spend most of the book figuring this out, but we apparently don’t have that kind of time. Instead, McGuire cuts over to alchemist and main antagonist James Reed, who helpfully explains what’s going on. It seems that James created Roger and Dodger as part of an attempt to manifest the Doctrine of Ethos, a magical MacGuffin that would give James ultimate power to fulfill his evil agenda. The Doctrine is too powerful to manifest all at once, so instead, James splits it into the two twins.
That’s very cool, and it puts the twins in a difficult position. To stop James, they have to realize their power, but this is exactly what James wants. What a conundrum! At least it would be, if the characters knew anything about it. Instead, they continue in ignorance for most of the book, while we readers know everything. In fact, McGuire spends a number of chapters explaining the extremely complex nature of Middlegame’s magic to us, all while the protagonists remain in the dark.
While this is happening, Roger and Dodger go through a series of tragedies and traumas, mostly caused by James’s agents meddling in their lives. These tribulations are well written and poignant, but it still feels like we’re waiting for the heroes to catch up with the plot so the story can start. Unfortunately, it takes so long for Roger and Dodger to look behind the curtain that by the time they do, the book is almost over.
Once the heroes figure out what’s going on, another problem raises its head: there’s such a huge gap between what we know and what they know that the only way to close it is for a side character to deliver some epic info dumps about the nature of magic and the villain’s plans. That kind of extreme exposition isn’t advisable anywhere, but it’s especially out of place in the final quarter of the book, when everything should be clicking together in preparation for the climax.
3. Stranger Things 2
The first season of Stranger Things ends by tying up most of its plot threads. The Demogorgon is destroyed, all our heroes are safe, and the evil government agents are all dead. However, there is one big mystery leading into season two: what happened to Eleven? The last we see of her in season one, she destroys the Demogorgon and disappears, presumably into the Upside Down. Then, as a coda, we see Hopper leaving a box of waffles out in the woods. That’s a little odd, since if Eleven is in the Upside Down, how can she get the waffles? Oh well, add that to the mystery for Mike and friends to solve next season, along with more pressing questions like how to get Eleven back.
Then season two arrives, and along with many other disappointments, we learn that while Eleven was indeed pulled into the Upside Down, it was only for a few minutes. She only had to walk about 20 feet to find a way back, at which point she let her friends think she was dead because the government might still be looking for her. That’s pretty contrived, as it would not have been hard to slip Mike a note without being seen.
More importantly, it immediately defuses one of the main reasons for watching season two in the first place. The threat of the Upside Down is still present, but Eleven’s disappearance made that threat personal. Attachment to the Stranger Things cast is very high, and the story matters more when it endangers characters we care about.
This fizzled-out mystery also signals season two’s most consistent problem: what to do with Eleven. She’s so powerful that she’d easily outshine the other characters if they were together. To avoid this problem, the writers shunt her off into unrelated side stories. First, she’s stuck in a cabin watching as Hopper transforms from an insightful investigator into a possessive jerkass. Then she peaces out to Chicago for an entire episode. Anything to keep her away from problems that could be easily solved by her psychic powers.
It didn’t have to be this way. If the writers had followed through on their mystery, we could have had a story where Eleven is still stuck in the Upside Down, only occasionally able to influence the real world so Millie Bobby Brown could still be in the show. Maybe she can even breach the dimensional barrier long enough to grab the waffles Hopper leaves out, but not long enough to bring herself back. That would have been a great mystery for the kids to investigate, and no one needed to visit Chicago.
4. A Memory Called Empire
In Arkady Martine’s Hugo-winning space-opera novel, protagonist Mahit is dispatched as Lsel Station’s new ambassador to the Teixcalaanli Empire. Oh boy, does she have a lot on her plate. Not only must she maintain Lsel’s independence in the face of Teixcalaan’s expansion, but she also has to solve her predecessor’s murder. Fantastic setup, but wait, there’s more! We also have hints of cosmic-horror-type aliens lurking beyond the borders of settled space. That’s very cool; I can’t wait for Mahit to learn more about that and…
She’s not going to learn more about the Cthulhu aliens, is she? I should have known. Instead, Mahit spends most of the book working on political intrigue and the aforementioned murder investigation. The Cthulhu aliens are still around, though, in the form of my greatest literary nemesis: interludes.* Occasionally, the main story will pause so Martine can add some exposition about how these Cthulhu aliens are still out there and will totally do something bad soon; just you wait.
Eventually, the Cthulhu aliens finally join Mahit’s story in the most awkward way possible: she gets a message from her boss that explains the aliens to her and then instructs her to use them as leverage to secure Lsel’s independence. This is actually two problems bumping into each other. The first is Martine spoiling the Cthulhu-alien mystery. The second is that Mahit doesn’t have any credible way to secure Lsel’s independence, so she has to get a deus-ex-alien message from home instead.
I run into this issue with clients all the time: they want something in their novel, but it doesn’t have anything to do with their story. There’s no connection between Mahit’s plot and the Cthulhu aliens, but Martine still wants the aliens around, presumably for book two. The only way the book can tell us about the aliens is with narrative-breaking interludes, and I can only assume their inclusion in the political climax was an attempt to give those interludes some payoff.
For the Cthulhu aliens to work, they would need to be part of Mahit’s story, and that’s a tall order. Mahit already has a lot going on, and she can’t really leave the Teixcalaanli capital due to her other plot commitments. The best revision I can suggest is for one of the imperial political players to already know about the Cthulhu aliens, and for that knowledge to be tied up in the murder of Mahit’s predecessor. That way, she’d at least have a reason to investigate both at the same time. Of course, it would be easier to cut the aliens entirely, but I know how attached authors can get to their cosmic-horror darlings.
Marvel’s latest IP launch earns itself a special place on this list, as it spoils not one but two important mysteries. First, there’s the mystery of what Arishem and the Celestials are even doing on Earth in the first place. It’s pretty clear that they must be up to something; they wouldn’t send a team of superheroes just to fight a bunch of generic CGI monsters. Indeed, Arishem’s plan is to use the Earth as an incubator for a baby Celestial, with the tiny little side effect of destroying the Earth in the process.
Figuring that out seems like a pretty cool conflict, and it could have been if Arishem hadn’t immediately spilled the whole thing to protagonist Sersi. He literally pulls her aside for a moment and goes into full exposition mode, explaining the movie’s entire backstory and also how everyone on Earth is going to die. It’s not clear why he tells her this, since it doesn’t take an expert in human psychology to guess that Sersi wouldn’t be on board with the death of billions.
With this mystery spoiled, most of the movie has to fall back on gathering together its unusually large cast. To be fair, getting the team together can make for a good story, but it doesn’t really work in Eternals because there are just too many of them. This means there’s no time for any real conflict in each recruitment. The characters show up, the new team member doesn’t want to join, and then they very quickly change their mind. If the filmmakers weren’t interested in a mystery about Arishem’s goals, the characters should have just started out knowing them; that would at least have saved some time.
The second mystery is what happened to Ajak, the heroes’ former leader. At the beginning, we’re told she was killed by a monster, but that seems pretty suspicious. And indeed, it’s actually one of the heroes who killed her: a Superman-wannabe named Ikaris. How do we find this out? A flashback where we see Ikaris kill Ajak. Oh boy.
In fairness, this kind of plot doesn’t have to be a mystery at all. Instead, stories can use the dramatic irony to build tension: we know Ikaris is a murderer, but the other characters don’t, so they might give him the chance to strike again! Eternals doesn’t do that, though. Ikaris has no plans to kill anyone else, at least not by surprise.
Instead, the reveal-flashback seems to exist primarily to obscure how little evidence there actually is that Ikaris killed Ajak. When the other characters accuse him, all they know is that Ajak confided in Ikaris more than he initially let on. This dubious leap of logic would be more obvious if we hadn’t already seen the murder happen.
Eternals is a mess from many angles, but the self-spoilers manage to stand out because of how awkward they are and because there are two of them. I wouldn’t even know where to start fixing them, since the root cause is too much story crammed into a short run time.
Not every story needs a mystery, but it’s disappointing when there’s potential for one that goes to waste. If a writer isn’t interested in adding mystery to their plot, then the best option is to not write mysterious things. That way, no one’s disappointed when a giant cosmic entity pulls the hero aside for a bit of Marvel wiki-diving.
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