I’m writing a queer YA fantasy romance about a witch and a bandit from different ostracized cultures within the same kingdom, alternating frequently between their POVs. The story starts with the girls’ initial meeting as circumstantial enemies before they are forced to start working together for survival, gradually building to a romance.
Both characters have a fair bit of backstory that is relevant to early events, but I don’t intend to fully reveal until further into the book as the two get to know each other better, open up more, and delve deeper into those plotlines.
My question is: At what point do exposition pacing and not making the audience read the same backstory twice cross the line into meta mystery?
Thank you for all your great content,Christie W
Hey Christie, thanks for writing in!
I’ve actually edited a few stories with a similar premise of two POV characters who start out hostile and slowly fall in love, so hopefully my experience can be of some help here. Making one a mage and the other a bandit is a new combination though. Sounds neat!
The definition of a meta mystery is fairly simple: When the author withholds character knowledge that readers need to understand the character’s emotional context or what’s happening. In most cases, this is pretty obvious. If your bandit thinks that she doesn’t want to date the mage because of the incident, and the narration doesn’t elaborate, that’s clearly a meta mystery. There’s a specific event that the character knows about, which is influencing her decision, but the readers aren’t given the details.
In other cases, readers may not know that there’s a meta mystery going on. It’s possible to go the entire book without giving any hints that the mage knows the villain’s secret identity, only to reveal that knowledge in the last scene. Either way, readers will be unhappy. If they know a meta mystery is going on, then it’s frustrating that the story won’t just tell them what they need to know. If they don’t know about the meta mystery, the final reveal will be super contrived.
The caveat to meta mysteries is that it’s impossible to immediately fill the readers in on every single detail they need to know. That would just be overwhelming, so you need to pace that information out over the story’s early pages. Sometimes, you can leave out details or context to fill in later, but the most important information should be communicated early. For example, if the mage’s parents were killed in a magical explosion, we should probably know that soon, but you can save sensory details like what the explosion looked like for when the characters open up to each other later. If you find that there’s just too much information to communicate and think your only option is to keep some of that vital info back, it’s probably time to look at simplifying the backstory.
In stories with a dual POV set up like this one, the most common mistake I see is the author trying to use the shifting POVs to hide important information. For example, the story might cut away from the bandit just before she thinks about the incident to the mage who doesn’t know anything about it. Later, the POV switches back to the bandit when the main villain is mentioned, so we don’t get the mage narrating that she knows the villain’s name.
While this strategy is tempting, it’s not a good idea. Readers will still notice that information is being kept from them, and they’ll get frustrated, just like with a normal mystery. The purpose of giving a character their own viewpoint is so readers can get to know them, which can’t happen if they’re also supposed to be mysterious. For authors who want a mysterious love interest, it’s best to stick solely in the protagonist’s POV. That way, the readers and character can learn about the love interest together.
Hope that answers your question, and good luck with your story!
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Comments on What Makes a Meta Mystery?
If you are interested in a case study, I think Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo is a great example of the pitfalls of the meta-mystery.
A key element of the protagonist’s backstory is hidden by the narration switching between two characters in two different time periods. Once it is revealed about halfway through, the motivations of the protagonist become so much more understandable and she becomes a lot more enjoyable as a character because her personality seems a lot less repressed once we know her full backstory. It also feels like we can finally get on with the plot of the novel now that the various backstory elements have been resolved.
Hi Oren! Thanks for the response!
I guess my question was more about managing reveals in relation to where the audience is versus where the characters are in their understanding of events. In particular regards to a two-POV story, I’m concerned about how revealing the full scope of the skeleton in one character’s closet in their POV sections too far in advance of the other character learning it could frustrate the audience, much like having to watch a detective bumble around continuing to collect clues to a murder if the audience got to plainly witness the entire crime at the beginning of the movie.
For my example, my witch is actually a magical clone of her mother, who is the leader of their cult. The witch knows this already, and it is a major aspect of her motivations and identity from the very beginning of the story, but her bandit partner doesn’t learn it until the midpoint. In the meantime, I establish from the start that she feels immense pressure to live up to her mother’s expectations as her heir, and gradually reveal more and more degrees of just how controlling and manipulative that relationship is, building to the clone reveal.
My witch’s internal character arc is primarily about her becoming disillusioned with the cult and deprogramming herself of her mother’s control, in large part through her relationship with the bandit giving her new perspective. My concern then is that the bandit learning the clone thing too early forces the issue too soon, but keeping the bandit in the dark about it while the audience knows the full scope of the witch’s situation for too long would become frustrating.
In this example, is being clear from early on about the broader stroke of being the heir to a manipulative and controlling parent enough to avoid the later reveal of the full depth of the cloning aspect coming off as a meta mystery?
Unfortunately, probably not. Being a clone is a pretty big jump from feeling pressure to live up to one’s parents, so readers are still likely to view the reveal as contrived. It’s just not really compatible for a character to have a mysterious backstory (that they know about) and a POV in the same story. The most straight forward solution here would be for either the witch to not have a POV, or for her to not know she’s a clone. She can still feel enormous pressure to live up to her mother’s expectations without knowing she’s a clone.
I think the audience having access to information that one of the POV characters doesn’t yet know can be an excellent opportunity for some dramatic tension. It can be boring to watch a character try to piece together things you already know and there are no consequences to this delay, but it can also be a source of great dramatic tension. For example, in a murder mystery where the audience gets to find out who did it before the detective, it might remove the tension from the mystery itself, but if the audience knows that the helpful witness who is slowly forming a bond with the detective is actually the murderer, it becomes a whole new sense of tension wondering if the detective is going to figure it out before the witness turns on them.
In your case, it could be a source of relationship conflict between the bandit and the witch. If the bandit says for instance, “You’re not just a copy of your mother,” it sounds like a nice thing to tell someone struggling with parental expectations, but to the witch and the audience it’s rubbing salt in the wound that she is, in fact, a copy of her mother. It can come off as contrived conflict if overdone, but in small doses it can be very effective.