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!

Keep the answer engine fueled by becoming a patron today. Want to ask something? Submit your question here.