Editing Tip: Keep the Mystery Alive

This is titled as an editing tip, but it may be more of a writing tip. However, it doesn’t really matter whether you handle this at the beginning of your writing process or during an editing phase: it is essential that you keep some things from the reader.

“What?” you’re screaming right now. “But I’m supposed to show, not tell!”

Yeah, you are. But don’t show the reader everything. They don’t really want to know everything. Mystery is one of the reasons people read stories; trying to figure out the plot of the puzzle.

I’ve seen this from many beginning authors. They get so excited about the story, the world, they’ve built in their imaginations, they just share all of it. Because it’s just SO awesome, right?

But what ends up happening is the plot gets weighed down by unnecessary, irrelevant details, the reader gets bored, and the story overall doesn’t feel very good.

Take Harry Potter, for example, all the books. JK Rowling is known for having developed a deep complexity to her world, with pages and pages and pages of notes and plans for each character. But the first book does not, say, cover every year of Harry’s life from birth until he gets picked up at Hogwarts. Nor, when he arrives, does she take the time for a luxurious tour of the castle: all we the reader get is a bit about the exterior, the Great Hall with the floating candles, some moving staircases, and a rough sketch of the tower for the Gryffindors.

Basically, she only introduces the rooms that Harry directly interacts with–and then only includes the relevant ones (no bathroom breaks in Hogwarts). And yet Hogwarts is a lush and beautiful scene that doesn’t feel at all shortchanged by these exclusions.

So, why should you leave things out of your story?

  • To get to the good stuff. Unless you’re writing an architecture book, your readers probably don’t care about all those luscious details you’ve got planned out. They want to know what’s going to happen next, not the color of the chandeliers!
  • To avoid an info-dump. It’s much more exciting to figure out the shape of a story little by little than to suddenly be told everything. If I wanted to know everything in one go, I’d read the Cliff’s Notes.
  • To protect you when/if you change your mind. Oh, you want the windows to be curved? Sorry buddy, you wrote that they were rectangular four books ago. If your book becomes popular (as you hope it will!), you’ll have everyone poring over every detail, trying to make them fit together. Just ask GRR Martin how that goes.
  • To leave room for more stories. This is actually the BEST reason: if you leave folks wanting more, you’ll have the opportunity to write (and sell) more. But that can’t happen if you spill everything in the first go! Keep some details under your hat, and you’ll continue to find more to develop.

It’s a tricky balance for sure: how do you balance juicy descriptions with holding a bit back? I can’t tell you the how or the what, unfortunately–just the why. But trust me: when you figure it out, your book will be the better for it.

Have you read anything that just over-described and gave too much away? What did it tell you about good writing?


Filed under Editing, writing

4 responses to “Editing Tip: Keep the Mystery Alive

  1. Sam

    Thank you for sharing! This is very true and your reference to Rowling helped me understand your point. I’ll keep this in mind when I’m writing.

  2. Peter Johnstone

    Eric Van Lustbader wrote a Jason Bourne novel that opens in a nightclub. Some bloke walks across the club. It took him 300 words to describe the lighting.

    I stopped reading there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s