Mythcreants has long been on a quest to rid the world of meta mysteries – the trope where audiences are made to wonder what the protagonist knows – even before Chris published an in-depth article on it. We always knew this would be an uphill battle, as authors love this trope. Today I’ve set my sights on Brandon Sanderson’s 383,389-word doorstopper, The Way of Kings (WoK). Of the four POV characters, three are steeped in meta mysteries and the fourth is so minor that he barely matters.* Is this a problem? I’ll let you decide… but the answer is yes.
The Narration Is Contrived
The first problem WoK encounters with its meta mysteries is the way they clash with its narration style. The book is written in close limited, meaning that the POV character’s thoughts effectively are the narration. The POV character changes depending on the scene or chapter, but Sanderson always sticks to his chosen character for a given section.
This is an excellent narration style and one we often recommend. It immerses readers in the story by putting them in the protagonist’s shoes, which is great for building both tension and attachment. But as a side effect, close limited also creates the expectation that readers will see the protagonist’s important thoughts as they happen. If the POV character sees a snarling wolf, readers expect to know it. If the character thinks about their departed loved ones, that should be on the page.
This doesn’t work with meta mysteries, since the protagonist already knows the answer. If that information were added to the narration like the character’s other important thoughts, it would give away the mystery. Instead, authors create weird breaks where the character’s train of thought is suddenly absent before starting up again.
All three characters have this problem. We’re supposed to wonder how Kaladin became a slave, so when people ask him about him about it, he somehow changes the subject inside his own mind. Something mysterious happened to Dalinar’s wife, but his thoughts always jump over that and consider troop deployments instead. When the death of Shallan’s father comes up, she literally thinks, “Don’t think about that,” and then the narration moves on. Because, as we all know, trying not to think about something is a great way to avoid thinking about it.*
These deliberate omissions leave us feeling like the characters are deliberately hiding information from us, as if they know this is a book that we’re reading. Alternatively, it can feel like the author is reaching out and sectioning off certain information for later. Either way, it’s a frustrating experience. Just let us enjoy the story!
The Story Is Confusing
By definition, a meta mystery requires withholding information from the reader. Sometimes, the information is so important that without it, we can’t figure out what’s going on. When we first see Kaladin, he’s commanding soldiers in a battle, being a total badass. There’s no indication of anything going wrong or even that the battle is close to ending.
The next time we see Kaladin, it’s eight months later and he’s a slave. This is really disorienting, and the book does nothing to help us understand how we got here. It can’t, you see, because how Kaladin became a slave is one of his many meta mysteries. The closest it gives us to an explanation is when a minor villain calls Kaladin a “deserter,” but it’s obvious from Kaladin’s internal thoughts that he isn’t one.
Eventually, you can figure out that WoK has thrown a meta mystery your way and that you’ll probably get an explanation later. But in the moment, it leaves you scrambling back to Kaladin’s previous section, thinking you might have missed something. Something similar happens with Dalinar, when the narration casually mentions he can’t remember anything about his wife. Wait, what? How could he forget his wife? Once again, you’re left to scan through previous pages* to make sure you didn’t miss something, since that’s the kind of thing a story would usually explain.
Of all the feelings that storytellers want to instill in readers, confusion isn’t even on the list. It’s probably the worst experience a reader can get, with boredom being the only close competitor. In fact, the two are closely linked! If a story is confusing, readers often get bored because it’s hard to get invested if you don’t know what’s happening.
Plot Holes Are Obscured
A common problem with reveals is that once they’re made, a character’s previous actions no longer make sense. Why was the villain destroying everyone’s mana crystals if their secret evil plan was to harness everyone’s mana crystals? While inconsistencies can happen anywhere, this type is especially pervasive because it’s easy for storytellers to ignore that a character is acting against their own goals when those goals are still a secret.
The good news is that in a closely narrated story, protagonists don’t usually have this problem. Their motivation should be clear from the first page, so authors are less likely to make this mistake. If nothing else, it’ll get pointed out sooner or later in beta reading. That is, unless the story has a meta mystery.
For most of the book, Shallan’s big motivation is to get money for her family. They’re so badly in debt that they’ll likely be killed if they can’t pay it back, so she concocts a dangerous plan to steal a valuable magic artifact. Her family will have it even worse if she’s caught, but that’s how desperate they are.
The problem is that Shallan’s story also contains numerous hints that she possesses something called a Shardblade: an incredibly rare and powerful weapon. These blades are so sought after that powerful nobles will often trade entire cities to acquire them. So… why not try selling the Shardblade? Seems like it would be less risky than the plan Shallan actually goes with.
This issue isn’t impossible to explain,* but without any acknowledgment in the story, it feels like a mistake. Sanderson is normally pretty good at avoiding plot goofs like this, and it really seems like he didn’t realize there was a problem in this case because technically, the narration never explicitly states that Shallan has a shardblade.
Characters Can’t Be Understood
To invest in a character’s journey, readers need to understand them. That’s how attachment forms, and it’s an area where prose stories have a big advantage over movies and TV. Visual stories have to rely on things like dialogue, background music, and an actor’s performance to bring across who a character is, while novels can simply use narration to convey that information in real time.
A meta mystery takes that advantage and tosses it out the window, something Sanderson does with all three of WoK’s important POV characters, though some have it worse than others. Kaladin actually gets off relatively easy here: at one point, he bitterly disputes the idea that aristocrats will actually let a commoner keep a Shardblade that’s won on the battlefield. This would mean a lot more if we knew that Kaladin once tried to do that very thing and was severely punished for it. We can’t know that though, ’cause Sanderson is saving it for a “reveal.”
Dalinar’s main issue is the confusion surrounding why he can’t remember his wife. Eventually, it’s revealed that he knows why this happened: a curse was put on him by something called the Nightwatcher. That only raises more questions, though. Was this done to Dalinar against his will or as part of a trade? If a trade, did Dalinar know the price he’d be paying? And what did he get out of it? These are fundamental questions about what kind of person Dalinar is, but despite his character arc being super important for about a third of the book, they mostly go unanswered.
Shallan has it even worse. At the beginning of the story, we’re told that her father has recently died, which is part of why the family finances are in such bad shape. For the rest of the book, we’re given occasional hints that there’s something unusual about the death, but that’s it. Then, near the end, it’s revealed that Shallan actually killed her father. Huh. Shallan really doesn’t seem like a person who recently took her own father’s life. She mostly seems upset at the theft she’s planning to commit, not at a months-old patricide.
Of course, maybe she’s not more upset because she hated her father and only killed him in self-defense. Or maybe she’s walled off her grief and it only breaks through once every few weeks, when she has to fight off a panic attack for the whole evening. Heck, he might already have been dead and the thing she killed was just a demon wearing his flesh. We don’t know, so it feels like we don’t know Shallan either.
Reveals Are Underwhelming
If critical character information is withheld in the name of meta mystery, you get a character who’s difficult to understand. But when authors take the opposite approach, withholding information that’s not particularly important, it creates an entirely different problem: the “so what” reveal.
For most of the book, Kaladin’s biggest meta mystery is about what happened to his younger brother Tien. We know Tien was an inexperienced soldier who died in a battle, but the exact circumstances are conspicuously kept from us again and again. This goes on for the entire book, which, I’ll remind you, is 383,389 words. Even accounting for two-thirds of that not being in Kaladin’s POV, it’s still almost a Return of the King’s worth of buildup.
So after all that, what’s the big reveal? That Tien died in a regular battle because he was inexperienced and didn’t know how to fight very well. That’s it. The most mundane explanation there could possibly be, providing the most underwhelming payoff since that time we spent 15 years waiting for a painfully average Duke Nukem game. Tien’s death is still tragic, but it was already tragic because we already knew Tien had died.
This isn’t to say that only meta-mystery reveals are underwhelming. Underwhelming reveals come in all shapes and sizes. But it’s an especially common problem with meta mysteries because if authors conceal something that’s actually important, characters become difficult to understand, as we saw with Shallan. To avoid that problem, authors often hide inconsequential details. Grief over Tien’s death is a huge part of Kaladin’s character, and not telling readers about it would have been a disaster. Instead, Sanderson withholds the exact manner of Tien’s death, which builds a false expectation that it will be important.
Are There Any Benefits?
So if meta mysteries cause such problems, why do Sanderson and so many other authors use them? The most obvious answer is that authors love reveals, but good reveals are hard. If an author isn’t aware of the consequences, meta mysteries can seem like an easy way to pack their story with reveals. But in WoK’s case, Sanderson seems to be using his meta mysteries for two main purposes: adding more backstory and substituting for actual drama.
While I can’t know for certain without rewriting WoK from scratch, the three main characters have so much backstory that introducing it all at once would likely be overwhelming, especially for Shallan and Kaladin. Shallan has a really complicated history with her family, and Kaladin has so many events in his past that I simply don’t believe the book when it tells me he’s 20 years old.* By hiding some of this backstory, Sanderson can delay needing to explain it.
Meanwhile, Shallan’s plot is easily the least exciting of the three, as she spends most of it waiting for a chance to steal the artifact she’s after. In that context, a meta mystery about her father’s death at least gives the appearance that something is happening.
If you’ve made it this far, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that neither of these benefits is a worthwhile trade. When characters have too much backstory, that’s a sign that either the backstory needs to be simplified or the author should arrange the story so that readers don’t need to know everything right away. That’s easier said than done, and as someone who loves to write characters with lots of history, I sympathize. But no one ever said this writing business was easy.
Using meta mysteries as a substitute for drama is just a trap. Shallan’s third of the story is still the least engaging part, regardless of contrived backstory. Meanwhile, Kaladin’s meta mystery is an active detriment, as Sanderson often takes us away from exciting sequences in the present so we can watch a less interesting flashback instead. If part of the story isn’t holding readers’ attention, then it needs to have more happening in the present. And if a section is working well, then you don’t need to distract from it.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?