I am currently reading the novel 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. The book is an extremely slow burn (I’m just over 300 pages in and the story feels like it’s just getting started) but it’s kept my attention. The reason it’s been able to do that is because Murakami is so good at leaving the reader with little mysteries and cliffhangers that makes them want to keep reading. Even when I’m not exactly compelled with the story, there are enough threads and motivations and secrets within the world of the story that I want to see how it all plays out.
There is an important lesson there: Mystery is what a story is all about. At its core, a story is constantly propelled by the question, “What’s going to happen?” Will the hero get the girl/save the world/stop the MacGuffin? Will our protagonist live or die? Who is at the center of the conspiracy that’s been dictating events throughout the entire story?
Not that they have to be that big. In the case of 1Q84 there is normally a little mystery at the end of each chapter. For example, there is palpable sexual tension between two characters in the story and one chapter ends with the woman, Fuka-Eri, telling the man, Tengo, that she’s going to be sleeping at his apartment that night. There are a million reasons why the “will they or won’t they” made me want to keep reading, but the chapter ends on her declaration and the next chapter is from a separate characters point of view. That means I have another chapter to read before I get to find out what happens between Fuka-Eri and Tengo. Which means I have to keep reading to find out. Murakami’s done his job.
This applies directly to my writing. Now that I’ve finished a rough draft of my latest script, I’ve decided to switch gears and focus solely on my novel The Manifest Destiny. I wrote about 40,000 words last year for the story, but I think I am going to throw most of it out. I realized that the reason I felt lukewarm about what I had written last November was because each chapter, by design, was its own little story. I sucked the mystery, the tension, and the pacing right out of the bigger story. After each chapter the reader would have no reason to keep going unless they were completely invested in the world. Hopefully that will be the case, and I’m confident enough in the overall arc of my story that I think they would keep reading regardless, but I’m not sure. I want to be sure. The only way to do that is to get my reader invested in the characters I’m introducing and then to keep pushing them forward with little mysteries that continually pay off.
I liked the idea of a fix-up novel similar to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles or a grand history of the starship ala Isaac Asimov’s planet in Foundation but there was always something that felt off. Foundation, while interesting, was never compelling for me. The Martian Chronicles is the work of a master I can’t hope to touch in terms of imagination and skill. Not only that, but neither of those take place in contained worlds, whereas my story does. My characters will be constantly interacting and influencing one another, so a novel that is more intertwined makes more sense.
Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind again.