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Who Knows What, and When? Mystery, Suspense, and Dramatic Irony

This post is part of the Write With Me series. For more like this, check out the writing your novel page.

Though our approaches to keeping readers engaged may vary, doing so is likely a goal that we as writers share. We have many tools at our disposal to achieve this, but in this post we’ll focus on invoking senses of mystery, suspense, or dramatic irony, and—perhaps more importantly—how to balance all three effectively.

Mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony are essentially about the relationship between two things:

  • Information
  • Relationship between reader and perspective character

To evaluate which tool we are putting to use, we have to ask ourselves who has what information and when do they have it relative to the other party? The two parties in question here are, of course, the reader and perspective character(s).

If we’re to answer those questions, however, we’ll first have to know which tool is which. With that in mind, let’s explore each one and how we can put it to use.

Mystery

MYSTERY
Character to reader: “I know something you don’t know.”

A sense of mystery is created when characters have information that is withheld from readers, which leads readers to suspect there’s something afoot. This imbalance of access to information can last anywhere from a sentence to the entirety of a manuscript (though be careful about pulling the proverbial rug out from under your reader by waiting until the last minute to reveal IT WAS ALL A DREAM).

One (admittedly very cliché) way to generate a sense of mystery would be to have our perspective character receive a letter or phone call to end a scene. As our character is reading the letter or has their ear pressed to the receiver, the reader’s only access to the contents of that letter or call is when our character pales and says, “Oh my God.”

And that’s where the scene ends.

This example provides readers with two certainties: 1) the character in question has received some sort of news, and 2) that whatever it is, it isn’t good. Alternatively, if our character had responded with a message of congratulations or an expression of joy, we’d know that they received good news. Still, readers don’t know exactly what the news is, and they’re therefore (hopefully) compelled to read onward as a result of the mystery created.

The one caveat to using this (again, rather cliché) example is that it’s a clear gimmick to get a reader to hop into the next scene. A sense of mystery need not be used in such overtly gimmicky ways, however.

Consider something like the parentage of Jon Snow in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. Going all the way back to the first book, we readers know that Ned Stark knows who Jon’s mother is, but several books later we still don’t have official confirmation of who that woman might be. That‘s a mystery that readers can get behind, one that’s not hastily thrown into scene-ending after scene-ending in an attempt to lure readers to turn the page. It is, however, an example of mystery being put to use to effectively keep readers interested in an impactful way.

Now that we’ve examined mystery, let’s move on to suspense.

Suspense

Mystery and suspense differ in that the latter requires readers to be on the metaphorical same page as the perspective character. That is to say, suspense exists when the character and reader find themselves with (or without) access to the same information at the same time.

Let’s work with the letter-opening example from the mystery section above, but tweak it so that both the reader and character receive the same information. In our new version of the scene, our reader sees our character open a letter that reads, “On the nineteenth at dawn, we end with the fawn.”

What does that mean, exactly? If neither the reader nor character know, then we have a mystery to solve, but it will be solved with a sense of suspense surrounding it. See the difference? Again, we’re focusing on the relationship between information and the character-reader bond to evaluate this.

For further clarification, remember we’re looking exclusively at information—who has access to it, who doesn’t, and when. If reader and character have the same information (or lack thereof) at the same time, we’re working with a sense of suspense. If only the character has it, we’re working with a sense of mystery.

Let’s return again to our example from A Song of Ice and Fire. When it comes to Jon Snow’s parentage, we readers may have a relationship of mystery between ourselves and Ned, but when we have chapters from the perspective of Jon Snow, we have a relationship based on suspense—we only know what he knows where his parentage is concerned.

See the difference?

If not, all of this may be put in perspective best after exploring our third tool: namely, dramatic irony.

Dramatic Irony

DRAMATIC IRONY
Waiting for Alanis Morissette to burst through my browser shrieking about rain on my wedding day…

This varies from mystery and suspense in that dramatic irony requires readers to have access to information that a character does not.

Let’s consider again either Game of Thrones as a show or the A Song of Ice and Fire series. With the ability to see scenes happening on either side of The Narrow Sea and across Westeros, viewers and readers sometimes know who is plotting against whom. When this occurs, readers and viewers have a dramatic irony relationship with the “whom” (as we can anticipate a forthcoming plot that a character cannot), but a relationship of suspense with the “who” (since we know what the “who” is up to–e.g. Will this plot or attack succeed?).

For those less familiar with Game of Thrones or A Song of Ice and Fire, a further example of dramatic irony would be something like the below.

Let’s say we’ve got an opening scene where a boy in New York City is writing in his journal at the end of the day. He gives us some generalities about the goings-on at school as well as family life, but mentions he’s really excited about his field trip to “the big buildings downtown” tomorrow.

As he’s about to close his journal, he realizes he’s forgotten to date his entry. The final words he scrawls at the end of the manuscript’s chapter one are: Monday, September 10th, 2001.

Is that setting off an alarm? It should. If this kid’s in NYC on September 10th, 2001, and headed to some big buildings downtown for a field trip the next day, we know things are going to be, well, terrible in some form or fashion whether he’s headed to the World Trade Center or not.

In this scenario, you as the reader know something that the main character doesn’t. This is dramatic irony, and it’s just another example of how it can be used with the reveal of information to keep readers turning the page.

Now what?

Now that we have an understanding of which tool is which, we can begin making more effective use of them in our own manuscripts. When evaluating your work, you might even realize you were already putting these to use without actually having a name for them!

If you’re anything like me, though, you’ll find that being aware of each and how to use them presents greater opportunities to heighten the tension on the page in diverse ways. And that’s the key here: when putting these tools to use, don’t rely on one of them exclusively, but rather a balance of all three.

If readers are constantly in the dark because characters always seem to have information that they don’t (mystery), that could become frustrating. If readers always know what’s going to happen and our characters don’t (dramatic irony), that can make things stale in a hurry. If readers and characters are in the same boat at every bend in the river—metaphorically or literally—well, you can actually get away with that sense of suspense quite effectively. But, you know, I’d still encourage the use of mystery and dramatic irony where possible, too.

So how will you put these to use in your own work? Let me know on Twitter or through my contact page. I’d love to hear from you.

 

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