Again, sorry for the ambiguous title for this post. I'm not going to talk about writing mystery, whodunnit novels. I really like throwing you off, don't I? But in my defense, I want to talk about every kind of story is a mystery for the reader to figure out, and how writing an story with that mindset might lead to better, tighter writing.
I can't take credit for this idea. My YA novel professor is the one who taught me this idea. Here it is: basically, a story is a mystery to the reader. They are reading to figure out what happens at the end and how it gets that way. So, any genre from science fiction to romance is a mystery when the reader first opens the book or pops in the DVD. What this means for writers is this: dispense information like you would in a mystery.
It's hard to start writing a story, especially a sci-fi/fantasy, without feeling the need to start out with a bunch of exposition about the world and the characters. And while that kind of thing is necessary, to some degree, after a while the reader just wants to move on to the main action. So how does writing like a it's a mystery help this? Think about mysteries: do they tell you everything at the start? No! They leave parts out, imply bits, and have the hero find out details as they become important. Exposition to set up the flow of the story comes at the beginning, but readers don't have to know everything from the beginning. They can pick up on the fact that one character is kind and another cruel by how those characters act. The details in setting and plot may also reveal better to a reader things that might have also been said in early exposition, but in a far more entertaining way.
Another thing, I think, that writing as if the story is a mystery helps is how the writer sees the story. The reader solves the puzzle, yes, but only after the writer does. Personally, I feel more like a detective than a creator when I write. I come up with specific characters with values, strengths, and weaknesses, and I have to solve how they end up where they are. This means using what I've already written to solve problems, instead of inventing a new way out of trouble for my hero. I feel like I've been handed a bag of clues - details revealed in earlier writing - and I need to puzzle out how they come together to solve the problem.
For example, this week I was writing and hit a snag. I have two characters, teenage boys, who are working very hard to lie to each other about who they are and where they come from. They're guys; they're not going to confront each other unless it's life or death. So, here's what I had:
Alder: half-human, half-elf, but doesn't know it. Determined, defiant to the point of stupidity, and curious. From Earth, but is hiding that. Has panic attacks when his life will be threatened in the next couple of hours. Also, heals extraordinarily fast. Doesn't trust Berzen.
Berzen/Zed: fireperson with enhanced powers (large wings and the rogue ability to burn things with a touch), but hiding that. Wears gloves and a long coat. Street-smart, knows the history of Cartha where Alder doesn't. Good liar. Has redemption issues over an accident his powers caused.
So, here's what I came up with to reveal to both characters the identity of the other: Alder and Berzen (or, really, Zed) arrive in a town. Alder has a panic attack, but dismisses it. They get a room in an inn. Berzen takes off his coat and goes to bed before Alder comes in. Alder, seeing Berzen asleep, wonders about his companion and why he's always wearing gloves. He sneaks over and takes off Berzen's gloves, seeing a large scar on one hand. Berzen rolls over, and his bare hand sets the bed on fire. Alder freaks out, and Berzen jumps out of bed. His wings are out and obvious. The fire spreads. Because Berzen wants redemption for things in his past, he goes to save the other people in the inn. Alder, feeling like the whole thing is his fault, goes with him. Alder acts heroically and is burned while saving a life. After everyone escapes, Berzen tries to get Alder some medical help and the burns are completely healed.
Both boys have explaining to do.
Okay, so this example is kind of bare-boned and rough. But the point is, I didn't need to invent any more than what I already had. Everything already there about my characters and their situation allowed me to create a scene where Alder and Berzen's true identities are revealed. I held all the clues, and a little creative thinking allowed me to solve this mystery.