Storytelling

Why We Have to Let Go of Meta Mysteries

A house with glowing dust coming from the windows, beneath a starry sky on the cover of Agents of Dreamland

Agents of Dreamland forgoes tension to make readers ask what the protagonist is trying to do.

If you want to set a trap for a storyteller, just dig a big hole, put some sharp spikes in it (don’t bother concealing them), and add a sign that says “stepping in this hole is immensely clever.” We will walk right in. Even if we know it’s a bad idea, even if the hole is filled with the broken bodies of other storytellers, we will assure ourselves it will be different this time. For storytellers, seemingly clever ideas are tough to resist, even if they do little good and lots of harm. And that’s why we keep using meta mysteries.

What’s a Meta Mystery?

Several police officers in facemasks and creative dress HBO’s Watchmen obscures much of its story in favor of making the audience ask how the world works and what’s going on.

In a normal mystery, the protagonist is faced with a perplexing puzzle they must solve before it’s too late. Maybe a murderer has been killing doctors and the protagonist must identify the culprit. Maybe the protagonist was given a strange orb and now everyone’s trying to kidnap them. Maybe buildings keep disappearing from their hometown but no one else remembers those buildings were ever there. If the protagonist doesn’t find the answers, they won’t be able to prevent bad things from happening.

In a meta mystery, the audience is trying to puzzle out what’s happening in the story. The next scene shows the same characters at a different location, but is it the next day, ten years in the future, or twenty years in the past? The protagonist is chasing down the villain because of something that happened between them, but what was it? All the characters are planning to gather for some event called the “the reckoning,” but is that a religious ceremony, trial by combat, or a gaming convention? If the audience doesn’t find the answers, they will probably look for a less confusing story to keep them entertained.

The difference is that a normal mystery is something the protagonist hasn’t already figured out. They want answers, and the audience is along for the ride. In a meta mystery, the protagonist has all the information, but the storyteller is denying it to the audience. It’s not a mystery in the story, it’s a mystery about the story.

Why Storytellers Use Them

a woman wears steampunk goggles on the cover of Boneshaker In Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, readers don’t know why a viewpoint character feels so guilty until a reveal at the end of the book.

When we want to impress our audience with how clever we are, we reach for a reveal. Everyone remembers a time we were reading or watching a story and a reveal blew our mind. In that one moment, we recalled all the careful hints the storyteller had placed so far, previously unbeknownst to us, and finally recognized the craftsmanship that created this memorable experience. Not only that, but reveals can be used to create plot twists, which also make us storytellers look impressive. We imagine that once we deliver our beautiful reveal unto the audience, they shall sing our praises, declare us the next Shakespeare, and [insert other storyteller wet dreams here].

There’s just one problem: good reveals are hard. All those carefully placed hints have to be carefully placed. What’s more, story events should be believable whether the audience knows the reveal or not, which requires everything to be carefully balanced so it can support multiple interpretations. For twists, the plot needs another direction to go in. This is why even the most perfectly crafted stories can only pull off so many reveals before they tumble into the depths of an all-consuming plot hole.

But what if we didn’t have to do all that careful planning or tie our stories into knots to get our reveals? What if instead of giving the story many plausible outcomes, we just chose some information the audience wants to know and hid it? Then when we want to blow their minds, all we have to do is tell them. Since it doesn’t change the story, we don’t have to think about it so hard.

Plus, we can use this to glorify our hero. Sure, heroes are supposed to be sympathetic people facing real problems, but that gets in the way of making the hero badass and perfect in every way. So what if we create tension by hiding the hero’s flawless plan, thereby making it look like they were in trouble, only to reveal they had it covered the whole time? And if we hide who they are, what their backstory is, and what their goals are, that will make them look cool and mysterious, right?

Why They Fall Flat

Jaskier the bard opens his arms wide as Geralt ignores him If you pay really close attention to Netflix’s The Witcher and piece together all the timelines, you will be rewarded by knowing what you would already have known in most other TV shows.

There’s more to a good mystery than curiosity. Curiosity is a nice bonus, but as human feeling and motivation goes, it’s not that compelling. To be compelling, mysteries need tension. There must be negative consequences if the mystery is never solved. When the answer is uncovered, the protagonist should be better equipped to avoid problems and avert disaster. Otherwise, none of it matters.

Meta mysteries don’t matter. The protagonist already has the answer to the mystery and is operating based on that knowledge, so when the audience learns the answer, nothing in the story has changed. The only thing to draw them in is curiosity, which is usually mild to nonexistent. And if the audience has no interest in puzzling through the story or can’t figure it out, it isn’t gripping, just frustrating.

This doesn’t mean no one in the audience will enjoy piecing together what’s happening or receiving meta reveals. But these positive reactions can be incredibly misleading. Since most audience members aren’t storytelling experts, they only know what they enjoyed and what they didn’t. They have trouble simply understanding why they did or didn’t like something. They definitely don’t know how they would have felt if the story had been told differently – even if they think they do.

There’s no upper limit to how fantastic a story can be. Even if the audience enjoyed it, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been better. And the issue with meta mysteries is not only that they aren’t compelling, but that they subtly crack the foundation the story is built on.

How They Sabotage Stories

In Carnival Row, Philo the Victorian detective hold ups a lantern as he walks next to the fairy Vignette Carnival Row sabotaged the first three episodes of its eight-episode season just to pull off a meta reveal. Read my detailed breakdown.

First, remember that for every audience member who feels accomplished because they pieced together your scattered scenes into a coherent storyline, another probably just wants to relax. Raising the effort it takes to consume your story will inevitably reduce your audience. But even if an audience member is bent on figuring it all out, if their attention is focused on meta questions, that means it isn’t focused on the story itself.

Meta mysteries destroy immersion. The audience cannot be fully in the protagonist’s shoes, engaged with the struggles they’re facing, if they’re wondering what the protagonist wants, where in the timeline they are, or why they’re doing what they’re doing. By their very nature, meta mysteries keep the audience outside the story looking in.

Stories evoke emotion not by telling the audience what the protagonist is feeling, but by showing the audience everything that makes the protagonist feel the way they do. When the audience is robbed of this information, the story loses its emotional power, and sympathy for the protagonist is reduced. In turn, that lowers the story’s tension, because the audience has to be emotionally invested for tension to work.

The most sure sign that a meta mystery has done damage is when audiences enjoy the meta reveal. If they like it, that means the information matters to the story, and simply telling them would have made them more engaged earlier. While you may know how many people said they liked your reveal, you’ll never know how many extra people would have stuck around if you hadn’t robbed the story of emotion. The supposed benefit is obvious, but the damage is nearly invisible. That’s what makes meta mysteries so insidious.

On top of all this, meta mysteries often come off as contrived and even manipulative. In many cases, the characters would quickly reveal the answer if left to their own devices, so the storyteller has to make them dance around the issue to keep the audience ignorant. Many audience members will pick up on this, and once again, it will break immersion.

Do They Ever Work Out?

Lipwig carries a bag of mail in Going Postal Terry Pratchett occasionally liked to use a hidden plan turning point in books such as Going Postal (movie shown above). Since Sir Pratchett wrote in omniscient, it never felt contrived, but the climaxes where he used it aren’t as riveting.

I currently know of no story situation in which I would recommend confusing audiences about the story’s timeline, hiding protagonist backstory only to reveal it later, or otherwise being obtuse about what’s happening in the story. However, there is one technique that uses a meta reveal but not a meta mystery, and it has limited use.

This technique is what we call the hidden plan turning point. A staple of heist movies, this is where the protagonist appears to be in deep trouble before they reveal that actually, everything has gone according to their secret plan. When done well, the audience never knows they are missing information, so they aren’t confused. To accomplish this, the storyteller must provide an alternate version of events for the audience to buy into, much like a regular reveal.

However, there’s a reason this is associated with heist movies. Much of the storytelling power of narration comes from being in the protagonist’s head, but movies can’t do that anyway. Instead, every heist protagonist is an incredible actor, perfectly mimicking being in distress when they’re doing just fine. That’s all well and good for visual stories, but why would the protagonist fake distress inside their own head, where most narration resides?

While you can use a perspective like omniscient to stay out of the character’s head, that only takes care of the believability problem. It doesn’t fix the other big issue: being outside the protagonist’s head is less immersive, so it results in less tension.

Don’t get me wrong – a hidden plan turning point is much better than no turning point. But since they can’t produce as much tension, in novels they’re best used for smaller conflicts, not the climax. The shorter the amount of time you have to keep the audience from understanding what the protagonist is really up to, the better. That also means they aren’t a silver bullet for fixing a candied protagonist.


The protagonist is the audience’s window into the story. If you widen the divide between the protagonist and the audience, you’re not creating an intriguing mystery; you’re closing the curtains.

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Comments

  1. Dave L

    Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery used a meta mystery to good effect

    All the characters knew what the lottery was, but we didn’t until the end

    Of course, the story is so famous that you most likely know what the reveal is even if you had never read the story

    • S.T. Ockenner

      I have never once heard of that story, so I don’t know the reveal.

    • Marcus Pitcaithly

      It’s also a short story whose premise wouldn’t work at novel length.

    • StyxD

      I still don’t think The Lottery is a example worth following, even as a short story.

      I don’t remember the details of the story, but I remember that once I realized something was up, it was easy to guess the twist by asking myself “what’s the most edgy thing you could do with this title”.

      And without the twist the story has nothing.

    • Laura Ess

      Ha, I remember seeing that film in High School in the 70s. Other films they showed in that class were FAHRENHEIT 451, and STEPFORD WIVES.

  2. Raillery

    Brilliant article and one of the most entertaining opening paragraphs you’ve written.

    Memento is a remarkable film because it actually uses meta-mystery within its unique premise to increase immersion and put the audience firmly in the protagonist’s shoes. However, like many innovative works, imitators borrowed the clever trick without understanding what made it work so well in the original work.

    • Chris Winkle

      Thanks!

      Actually, Memento is not using a meta mystery. Meta mysteries are things the protagonist knows. When the protagonist doesn’t know their backstory because they have amnesia, their backstory is a real mystery, not a meta one. This is why storytellers give protagonists amnesia so often.

      In fact, Memento’s trick of moving backwards in time is effectively doing the opposite, because since the protagonist can’t form new memories, that way the audience is as ignorant about what just happened as he is.

      • Raillery

        Thanks for clarification about the amnesia exception.

      • Laura Ess

        I heard that there was a “fan cut” of the film where the scenes were put into chronological order!

        • Nowan

          I’m pretty sure this “fan cut” was official and included in the deluxe dvd or something…
          And pretty much despised, as watchers realized that without the gimmick the movie was contrived and boring.

  3. Gwen

    I love various short stories, especially speculative fiction and most of those have the reveal of the world or a character be the whole point of the story and I feel in a short story context that can work, especially when designed that way or bringing a point home.

  4. HMJ

    I’m keen to know, how are texts with flashbacks (which ideally recontextualise a story) different from meta mysteries? To me, a meta mystery and a text with a flashback both hide the protagonist’s knowledge up until some point, and they both try to create satisfaction by recontextualising the outcome of past events. Evidently it is possible to use flashbacks in a good way, so they can’t fully overlap.

    Is a flashback just a convenient vessel for meta mysteries? Is the difference between the meta mystery and a better text using flashback simply that the meta mystery has the audience scratching their head before the flashback, whereas a better text presents a perfectly believable story trajectory before the recontextualising turning point shows an even more satisfying trajectory?

    Thank you for the article!

    • Chris Winkle

      First, let me quickly clarify for others that visual works may have meta mysteries briefly out of necessity, simply because it is too impractical to dump all the information the audience should know immediately. Then they often have to use a flashback because narrated exposition isn’t a possibility. So it’s different there, they’re doing the best they can to provide the information in a palatable way.

      In a narrated work as you mentioned, here are the possibilities for flashback reveals: 1) They are meta reveals, and the writer sacrificed engagement earlier in the story to give you that satisfaction 2) the protagonist has amnesia, in which case it is a regular reveal and works great 3) some kind of magic or tech is used to provide a flashback that is not part of the protagonist’s life, revealing history they didn’t know about. This is either a regular reveal or if more minor, a clue.

      • Marcus Pitcaithly

        Another possibility: they reveal information which the audience/readership has not previously needed to know, at the point when it becomes relevant to the story.

        • Chris Winkle

          That’s a possibility, though it’s less likely for this information to justify a full flashback, and it wouldn’t usually be called a reveal.

        • Chris Winkle

          But you have a good point – since writers sometimes use flashbacks when they should just use exposition, when readers encounter a flashback, that could indeed be what’s happening.

          • SunlessNick

            Show don’t tell is one of the most consistently hammered of all pieces of storytelling advice – I wonder if that might be a reason for using flashbacks when you should use expostion (it’s possible to over-take any advice, no matter how good).

      • HMJ

        Thank you!

      • Laura Ess

        Hmm, thinking of the start of Lynch’s DUNE!

  5. APerspiringWriter

    I had a comment that I wrote, but it hasn’t shown up yet; it had a link, so maybe it just got caught in moderation.

  6. sai

    I can think of exactly one story where this has been done well, but it’s really not a success you can generalize. In Umineko no Naku Koro Ni, the entire premise of the story is solving a meta-mystery, but the meta-mystery is embedded inside a frame story and the protagonist outside of the frame story is trying to solve it. You could argue that it doesn’t function as a meta-mystery then because it’s recognized in the narrative and is the primary source of the protagonist’s conflict.

  7. anonymous

    I mostly agree with this, with some qualifiers: I don’t think it should be necessary for the protagonist/viewpoint character to reveal every aspect of their backstory straight away. It’s fine to have some element of mystery to the protagonist, even for critical plot details, as long as the protagonist is currently facing a clear conflict the audience can understand (eg: if the protagonist is struggling to stop the apocalypse, you don’t have to tell the audience straight away that the burn scars on her body came from her traumatic childhood in an cult. Even if those cult members are later revealed to be the ones behind the apocalypse). But the protagonist shouldn’t know everything the audience is asking. That’s probably an indication that you should use another protagonist.

    Also, unreliable narrators are a thing. I’m not sure how they fit into this. But they are a tried and true literary technique, rather than the way series nowadays tend to use the meta-mystery as a gimmick.

    Lastly, other than heist movies, I think that there’s another place where the meta mystery can actually work: video games. The disconnect between protagonist and audience is not an issue there, because good gameplay can keep the player immersed on its own even when the story is unclear. And because the protagonist is only really capable of what the player is capable, there is no loss of tension. Some of the most acclaimed game plotlines and their twists can be described as meta mysteries with meta twists. Postmodernism in games often means exploring the relationship between player and player character, usually in ways that are inadvisable if not impossible in a non-interactive narrative.

  8. Eli

    There may be something wrong with this page (tech issues).

    For one, the side bar is no where to be found even though, when checking previous articles it was there, the tab labeled ‘editing’ is half obscured and the art work thing at the top isn’t there. This could be some kind of coding issue, is anyone else seeing this?

    • Chris Winkle

      Sorry about that. It’s a bug that happens occasionally, it should go away when you reload the page. It’s an old site, but version 2.0 is around the the corner.

  9. LiamM

    Speaking as someone who hadn’t played the games or read the books, I really enjoyed the Witcher’s different timelines, it was fun realising what was happening and noticing the clues that helped put them in order.

    OFC I did need to look online briefly to see the exact span of years and the exact placement of each event in the three timelines.

    I’m not sure how you could have told those three stories without doing them in overlapping timelines, and the only way to make it not a ‘meta mystery’ is to label each new scene with a year I guess.

  10. Laura Ess

    With text it’s a bit of a cheat, especially if the meta reveal is the POINT of the story. With TV and Film I’m not so sure.

    Before I viewed the WATCHMEN mini series I was told by several friends that it was :absolute crap:. Then I cam across this as a library DVD set and watched it all. Certainly a lot of the story was obscured before the final two episodes, so much so that initially it was hard to see just what connection, if any it had with either the graphic novel or the film version. But as I persisted I got rewarded with the insights that I was meant to see a bit at a time., and I found it much better than reported by my friends. And it certainly is MUCH BETTER than the “official sequel” DOOMSDAY CLOCK published by DC a while bac, which used Doctor Manhattan as the excuse that their universe had been so screwed up by over-revision.

    I think the same thing happened to a degree with STAR TREK: DISCOVERY. I didn’t have (affordable) access to NETFLIX so I waited, once again until it turned up on a library DVD set. Now back in the the day I’d seen SO MANY POSTS and VIDEOS outraged with “what they’d done to Star Trek!” and mostly I deliberately ignored reading watching any of those because I knew it would spoil a first viewing for me. Most of the complaints were about Captain Lorca and how he was ignoring prime directives all the time. Well, if you hadn’t seen the whole season you wouldn’t know just WHY that was the case! For me that worked, but I was also used to shows that had season long arcs, which until Discovery (was rare.

    When it comes to film, some movies would exist without a meta reveal in them. The first one I recall like that was THE MATRIX. When I’ first watched that in the cinema the advertising for it had all been “But what is the Matrix?!” so there was meant to be a bit of mystery to the film. That reveal comes about a quarter into the film, and it worked because the overall arc was Thomas Anderson becoming Neo/The One. theatrical version of DARK CITY which came out about the same time and covered similar territory (Reality is not what you thnk) was rather the opposite to that, partly because of the voice-over at the start, spoiling any revelation about the theme, and the fact that John Murdock – an everybody else – wasn’t who they thought they were!

    Imagine if MEMENTO had each of its scenes in chronological order. Nothing to see here – time to go home!

    • Chris Winkle

      If the main character doesn’t know it, it isn’t a meta reveal, it’s a regular reveal. The Matrix does not have meta reveals, nor does Memento. I cannot think of any in Star Trek: Discovery.

  11. SunlessNick

    The worst meta mystery I can bring to mind is the novel The Hunt For Red October – in which the protagonist’s theory that a Soviet submarine commander is trying to defect is kept secret from the reader – even when he discusses it with other characters, lines of dialogue and summary are chosen to obfuscate it.

  12. Julia M.

    Hidden Plans can work if you reveal a hidden plan, then add an unforeseen variable in it. Like in the second book of the story thieves series.

    • Tyler Hill

      Exactly!
      I think that is a big part of why the Artemis Fowl climaxes work well, despite involving hidden plans of some sort. The original plan almost never proceeds exactly as planned, so the protagonists have to think on their feet to address the sudden development. That, plus the omniscient voice, perhaps.

  13. Cay Reet

    I’m a big fan of revealing information when it becomes important, especially character backstory and worldbuilding parts. Like that, the reader gets the information when it’s necessary and, as it’s necessary, it’s usually not too hard to bring into the story by dialogue or action.

    Both as a writer and as a reader, I prefer getting information when and if it is necessary – although as a writer, I know the pain of having all that detailed information about characters and world and not bringing it to the forefront because it never becomes necessary.

  14. Lance

    This was so validating to read, and helps me articulate my problems with the popular mysteries I’ve read lately (e.g. Lucy Foley, Ruth Ware). I love mysteries, but I find it contrived and irritating when the mystery is “figure out my main character’s deal!” It’s so alienating to read close POV narration that is obviously tying itself in knots to conceal things the main character knows. The first 75-90% of the book feels like pointless time wasting completely devoid of stakes or investment because you know the author is holding everything back for the twist. Usually when it’s revealed I’m not like “ohhhh cooooool” I’m like “ffs if I’d known that sooner i might have cared instead of just being bored/confused.” Even if I guess the twist correctly early on and therefore theoretically have enough information to grasp the stakes, I can’t really get emotionally invested because I’m still reading everything with both interpretations in mind – with and without knowledge of the twist. It’s impossible to be immersed when you’re always playing meta games.

  15. Dave L

    The Twilight Zone used this on occasion. ” Eye of the Beholder” is a particularly famous example

  16. WNat

    I love the meta mysteries in the Saw series because it becomes so absurd. Making sense isn’t really the point.

    They used the twist of the B story taking place after the A story while implying they were simultaneous twice now.

  17. Sam

    I think this take is merely an opinion without any sort of actual narrative reasoning. It’s okay if *you* don’t like meta-mysteries, but the examples you used are actually some of the more decent television out there.

    Watchmen was highly engaging and critically acclaimed, Witcher was really popular and entertaining enough that if someone didn’t get the timeline, they generally enjoyed it.

    That’s not to say some people were confused by the Witcher and didn’t like it, that’s okay. That’s their personal preference rather than an indictment on the show. Books like the Malazan Books of the Fallen rely heavily on the audience not knowing what the character knows while rewarding the reader for figuring it out. (I am not usually that person, but it’s fun to see where it goes) the Westworld TV series does it a lot and is highly convoluted and it’s enjoyable to rewatch to see who knew what when.

    You even mention in your article that for every person who feels accomplished figuring it out, another person wants to relax. Reverse that; for every person who wants to relax, another person enjoys feeling accomplished figuring it out.

    I agree there are stories where I lose interest because not enough was explained, your “The Reckoning” example is spot on. When a story contains too much of that kind of obvious, unknown, but not important information. Again, really just a matter of opinion, perhaps you felt The Witcher, The Watchmen, etc fell into that trap of obvious, unimportant info, while I did not. To me, it’s a failure of general storytelling, worldbuilding or flow than the idea of a “meta-mystery”

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