How NOT to be MYSTERIOUS

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I'm sure you've all read stories where the MC obviously knows something you don't, and they keep referring to it and annoying the HELL out of you. Usually this "juicy" secret is something really important that happened in their past that continues to affect them to this day.

This is bad writing.

The whole point of being in the character's head is to KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON IN THEIR HEAD. Don't have your pov character throwing around vague pronouns or vaguely referring to past events/people/places without giving you enough information to understand what happened/is going on.

When your MC goes out of their way to hide information from the readers, it gets really annoying really fast. It's gimmicky and a weak and stupid way to build mystery around the character. If your MC knows about it, the reader should know about it (if it's a plot relevant thing).

I admittedly did this in Stray (though I mean to change it), so I'll use it as an example. The parents of the MC, Annie, died in a car crash years before the start of the story, and she's still messed up about it, especially when this guy starts asking what happened. In one chapter, Annie vaguely refers to her "skeletons in the closet" the fact that the other guy knows loss in the same way she does. But she does this without outright saying what happened to her in the past, and that's annoying to the readers.

If the MC knows something plot relevant, don't have them play the Pronoun Game and withold the important details so we readers stay in the dark. That doesn't build intrigue or mystery. It builds annoying and melodrama.

A lot of the time, when readers catch onto the fact that the Pronoun Game is being played, they deduce what they're reading will be explained later, so they can skip this scene. It won't make any sense until the "big reveal" later anyway, so no point in wasting time reading it.

Your readers should never feel like they can skip even a single sentence in your writings. Not even a single word! If they can skip something, that's a cue to you to either rewrite it so it IS vital, or cut it out entirely.

We're in the character's head. We should know everything they know. If another character is witholding information to be mysterious, that's fine. But don't have the pov character doing it.

On the flip side, your character isn't going to go around explaining in detail everything that happened to them--it won't sound natural. That's why this is so tricky. We have to make their thought process sound logical without infodumping.

One way to help ease the knowledge to your readers without sounding too infodumpy is to relate the past event to something that's currently happening, so they think about it or try to see it in a different light based on what's happening to them in the present. You don't have to give away every detail, but the readers should have a basic idea of what's going on, otherwise they'll be lost.

For example, in my story Guardian Redemption, Cleon watched his mother get stabbed to death when he was a little kid, and he tries to hide this. It would be annoying if the readers didn't even know his mother was killed and Cleon just kept referring to some horrible event of his past without the readers knowing what that was. Instead, he just doesn't think about it, or he yells at anyone who tries to mention it. "Don't you dare talk about my ma." The readers are grounded--they know his mother is dead--and the mystery in how and why she died. 

We find out more when Cleon's friend is laying in the street, dying, and he's crouched over her body. His mother's dying figure flashes before his eyes, replacing his friend, and he starts screaming. So that's relating the past to the present. Then later, he opens up to another character exactly how his mother died, so we get the full picture.

The readers need some ground or base in what's going on. The Pronoun Game taken too far will only confuse the readers rather than add mystery and intrigue. You never want your readers to be confused. Make sure they have at least some idea of what's going on, the "main idea". Don't be vague about the event from the very start so it's like "She wouldn't be able to handle if that happened again. If he returned in her life and ruined everything... like before...." This is what I mean by the Pronoun Game. We have no idea what she's talking about. I see statements like that too often in stories, and they're 100% avoidable.


Side note: I figured this out while reviewing my critique partner's novel and tried to figure out why I was getting so annoyed at the characters. Reviewing other works and offering constructive criticism is so, so, so important to growing as writers yourselves. I can't stress this enough! If you're reading a novel and find yourself not connecting with the characters or finding them annoying, getting confused at the plot, or not feeling immersed in the scene, etc., try to analyze why. You'll be surprised how much you can piece together, and then you can apply those concepts to your writing so you don't make the same mistakes.

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