Hello, Jake again! One thing that I struggle with in my stories is creating satisfying mystery payoffs. It’s easy enough to create a mystery—why do practitioners of warped magic go insane and make foreshadowing predictions, what are the motives of the Order of the Gear, where do golems come from—etc. But I can never invent a satisfying enough payoff, and when I do invent the payoff, then the mystery, it always seems accidental.
How do I create intriguing mysteries that follow through on the payoff? Thanks!
Hey Jake, great to hear from you again!
In most stories, there isn’t a ton of difference between a mystery payoff and any other kind of payoff, as mysteries work like any other plot. You need the same three elements:
- A problem that must be solved.
- A turning point in solving the problem.
- A resolution that shows the problem is solved or unsolvable.
For mystery stories, the problem might be that there’s a murderer on the loose, that an innocent victim will be blamed if the real perpetrator isn’t caught, or that there’s an unknown eldritch horror terrorizing the city. The satisfaction comes from solving the problem in the turning point, and then showing how it’s solved (or is unsolvable if it’s a sad story) in the resolution. The murderer is caught before they can kill again, the innocent victim is saved from jail, or the eldritch horror is defeated.
However, there is a kind of mystery story that presents a new wrinkle: they have a turning point that depends on putting the clues together. This might be the climax, when the detective has to identify the killer so the police can arrest them, or it might be a turning point to a smaller conflict. Either way, this kind of turning point is very difficult. If you give the protagonist all the clues they need, it’s very hard to stop the answer from being obvious.
That’s why a lot of mystery stories either hide information from readers (even though the protagonist knows it) or have the protagonist make largely unfounded leaps of logic, which don’t feel satisfying. Unsurprisingly, we don’t recommend either of those options, at least not in prose stories. TV and film characters can get away with hiding information that the protagonist knows much better than novels can.
So I won’t say it’s impossible to create a mystery where the hero gets all the clues and then has to put it together as the climax, but it is very difficult. Fortunately, it’s not your only option! You can also have a great mystery where the hero doesn’t have all the information they need, and the main action is them searching for more info. Then, the climax can either be getting the final clue, or it can be defeating the enemy once they’re unmasked.
We also have a few posts you might find helpful:
- Seven Tips for a Satisfying Mystery
- Six Ways to Add Stakes to a Mystery
- Five Steps to a Great Plot Twist
- Turning Points: The Secret to Satisfying Conflicts
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your writing!