“Mystery.” Is That a Prompt?

What should I write about? Something about that question always gets under my skin. It’s an irritation that gets worse when the answer is a list of prompts or some discussion about using prompts. I’ve never used prompts. In fact, my attitude toward them is that if you need a prompt from somewhere outside yourself, then maybe you’re not meant to be a  writer. My brain is always overflowing with ideas because the world is overflowing with ideas. How can you be serious about being a writer — or wanting to be a writer — if you can’t figure out for yourself what to write about?

To be fair, my attitude is somewhat narrow-minded. I think about prompts in terms of lists made up by someone or other and offered as a form of inspiration. But what is that world out there, with its endless flow of subjects and ideas, but a never-ending source of prompts? What prompted this insight was one word from a post I read this morning, on a writing blog. The post was about an essential requirement for any novel or story: mystery. Any genre. Mysteries aren’t the only books that need a mystery or mysteries to keep the reader hooked.

And there, seemingly out of nowhere was a new, important detail about one of my in-progress novels. I wasn’t thinking about the novel at the time. In fact, I hadn’t thought about it at all this morning, and I’m not currently working on it. Like all my WIPs, though, it’s always simmering in the back of my mind, and there’s nothing unusual about some element being added or a problem solved, out of the blue, when I’m reading something completely unrelated. (I’ve mentioned this before.)

Why did the word mystery bring up this particular WIP and provide the answer to a question that I hadn’t even consciously formed yet? That’s a mystery in itself. Someone who appears at the beginning of the book to be an important character just fades away and disappears. I knew why he disappeared, and also knew that he will eventually come back, and why. I didn’t know when or under what circumstances, and hadn’t given that much thought. I thought I knew, but it turned out I didn’t. Because my original concept of his return was kind of boring. It wasn’t until I collided with ‘mystery’ that I even realized I needed a dramatic setting for his return, and that I had already set it up.

Oddly, ‘mystery’ isn’t a prompt in any way that we’d normally recognize. I won’t be writing about a mystery, which would be the normal outcome. Instead, what I think happened is that the word unlocked my awareness of an unstated but important problem that has been working away at an unconscious level of my mind. If that isn’t a prompt, I don’t know what is.

I’m a pretty literal-minded person, which might explain why I’ve viewed prompts in such a limited way. Maybe it’s appropriate that ‘mystery’ is the word that offered me a different perspective. It’s also appropriate that it’s still a mystery why that happened, and why it happened to one particular WIP.

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6 thoughts on ““Mystery.” Is That a Prompt?

  1. I think, not of mystery, but of suspense and tension. ‘Mystery’ almost implies a crime or detective story, to me (my first, still unpublished, novel is a mystery), but I work daily with The Fire in Fiction (Donald Maass) at my right hand, and have a questionnaire I go through that covers all the areas where it is possible, with a little work, to add more suspense/tension/interest to a scene, and I make sure, before I even write the scene, that there is something being built in from every one of those 14 areas.

    There has to be a reason a reader keeps reading, and I like to have a few answered questions in every scene – and set up more. I used to list the questions deliberately, but now I just do a quick mental check – and they seem to get covered by making sure there’s that tension Maass talks about in every place I can possibly put it. And I’m writing a mainstream love story!

    I respect my readers – and want to give them something interesting to read, not just the bare bones. Some get it, others think I write too long.

    1. We need to avoid letting genres define or limit the meaning of words. After all, words can have more than one specific meaning, and they can be used in many different contexts. ‘Mystery’ is just as useful (and legitimate as ‘suspense’ or ‘tension’ in describing one aspect of writing. I’d also question the necessity of having tension in every single scene. Judging from the reviews on Amazon, I might buy a used copy of Maass’s book, for whatever insights it might offer (I can’t imagine any book by someone with experience in writing and publishing being totally useless), but I suspect it isn’t one I’d want to adhere to too closely.

      1. Several perfectly good words have been ruined already.

        I like making each scene like a short story – and always like my scenes better when they have a compelling quality. Personal preference, of course.

        I make scenes justify their existence a lot, and build as much as I can into them, because otherwise I’d be writing the Encyclopedia Britannica. I think that’s why some people find them too long – a lot of thinking demanded. I figure there’s plenty of light entertainment, and refrigerator novels (you’re having some milk from the fridge at 3am with some cookies when you realize the plot has significant holes/makes no sense).

        Somebody has to write the kind I like!

        I like chapter 3 and chapter 8 out of the Maass book; the others were worth reading (if you don’t have a lot of his other books – there is a fair amount of recycling). He suits me in some ways. Others, meh.

        1. Okay, you hooked me. Just ordered a used paperback. One thing my writing definitely lacks is fire. Whether Maass can actually help me figure out how to add it — well, it isn’t too expensive to give him a chance.

          I like “refrigerator” novels. I find my holes other times and places. They’re usually groaners — how the heck could I not have see that before?

          1. I wasn’t trying to get you to try it! Just to tell you what I did. I don’t like giving advice – I’m such an odd duck writer – but I do like to read a book on writing periodically (though the urge seems to be dropping).

            Hope you enjoy it – he has some good ideas, and other times I wonder what he’s thinking! And remember, above all, that he’s an agent, and the head of a literary agency.

            1. Don’t worry. I know you weren’t trying to sell me on it. And I have no doubt that there’s a certain amount of bias toward the type of book that agents are willing to take on. My shelf of books on writing is very short, and most of them don’t do much for me. But, like you, I do dip in once in a while.

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