For some time I’ve been curious about the idea so prevalent in modern Western literature that a central conflict is indispensable to effective storytelling. In my own writing, sure there’s conflict, and when I read, clearly it abounds. But is conflict really the core of it? Is conflict really what’s making the story engaging?
I wrote on an earlier Sunday about this question, exploring the East Asian story structure of Kishōtenketsu in which the basis for reader engagement comes more from the reconciliation of disparate story elements than from direct conflict.
Today, I ask whether there’s something deeper than both of these, something that links the Western conflict-focused narrative and Kishōtenketsu. I’m going to suggest that there is: mystery.
What is mystery, really?
I think the base idea of mystery must simply be a desire in the reader to discover the unknown. Mystery is unanswered questions about a text, and to the writer falls the task of 1) inspiring those questions and 2) providing at the right moment (or choosing not to provide) satisfactory answers.
Within the specific genre of mystery novels, this idea takes on explicit form: characters themselves within the text are working to answer key questions, and the reader follows along, becoming a detective in their own right. Many non-genre stories contain a similar element, although it is perhaps less strong a focal point of the plot–Harry Potter, A Tale of Two Cities, Heart of Darkness: these and countless more contain an explicit investigation of mystery as part of their plots.
Yet mystery need not be explicitly plumbed by characters to be central to a story. The reader-as-investigator element, I would argue, is almost always or perhaps indeed always present, and I think it is this that forms the basis of reader engagement. Writers create a situation that makes the reader ask, “What will happen next?” And to discover, we read on.
Let’s investigate this link between mystery and reader engagement a bit more fully:
Why mystery might be central
When I am teaching literature classes to high school students, we frequently discuss how each choice by an author has a specific effect on the reader. A metaphor, a particular tense, point of view, pacing, an individual word–all these myriad choices by writers serve to impact readers’ experiences of a text. When I ask students to hypothesize about these effects, when I ask them, for example, “What effect does this choice of how to begin the novel have on you?” the invariable answer is, it makes me want to keep reading.
Although for deeper analysis we push beyond that, to seek to answer why a particular element makes us want to keep reading, in the end, this is perhaps the key idea. The choices we make as writers, as much as they may have other goals (to express an idea, to evoke a feeling), none of these goals will reach fruition if the reader puts the book down.
As an example, let’s take a look at the opening to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818 edition). The novel opens not with Dr. Frankenstein at all; rather with four letters from the polar explorer Captain Walton:
To Mrs. Saville, England.
St. Petersburgh, Dec. 11th, 17—.
You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. I arrived here yesterday; and my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare, and increasing confidence in the success of my undertaking.
I am already far north of London; and as I walk in the streets of Petersburgh, I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves, and fills me with delight. Do you understand this feeling? This breeze, which has travelled from the regions towards which I am advancing, gives me a foretaste of those icy climes. Inspirited by this wind of promise, my day dreams become more fervent and vivid. I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There, Margaret, the sun is for ever visible; its broad disk just skirting the horizon, and diffusing a perpetual splendour. There — for with your leave, my sister, I will put some trust in preceding navigators — there snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe. Its productions and features may be without example, as the phaenomena of the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes. What may not be expected in a country of eternal light? I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle; and may regulate a thousand celestial observations, that require only this voyage to render their seeming eccentricities consistent for ever. I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man. These are my enticements, and they are sufficient to conquer all fear of danger or death, and to induce me to commence this laborious voyage with the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday mates, on an expedition of discovery up his native river.
We can absolutely look at Frankenstein in terms of conflict. The novel as a whole pits Victor against the Creature, the Creature against nature, the Creature against society, the DeLacey family against Safie’s father, Victor against established science, Victor against morality, and certainly there are more. There’s a lot of conflict in this story. Even in this brief passage quoted above, we can see the germs of conflict: there’s clearly a disagreement between Captain Walton and Mrs. Saville about the advisability of this polar voyage, and there’s an obvious potential conflict of Captain Walton against nature as he attempts to reach the north pole.
However, I would argue that none of these are the primary reason the novel, or this passage, work (or, as many of my students insist, do not work). I think it’s in the mystery. Let’s look at the above passage more closely. How is Shelley creating a sense of mystery? How is she getting the reader to ask questions?
|“To Mrs. Saville, England.|
St. Petersburgh, Dec. 11th, 17—.”
|– Why is someone in St. Petersburg writing to someone in England?|
– What year is it?
– Why is the author concealing the precise year from us?
– What is the relationship between the letter-writer and Mrs. Saville?
– What was St. Petersburg like in the 1700s?
|“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”||– What is this enterprise? What is this letter-writer doing in St. Petersburg?|
– Why is the enterprise considered “evil”?
– Why was Mrs. Saville worried?
– What is going to happen to the narrator? Is this, perhaps, the last we’ll ever hear of him, because this is a letter and so it’s his last ever written communication before his terrible, deadly voyage?
|“I feel a cold northern breeze play upon my cheeks, which braces my nerves, and fills me with delight. Do you understand this feeling?”||– Why would someone delight in cold?|
– What is the expedition? We still don’t know.
– Do I [the reader] understand the feeling he’s describing? Is the feeling important?
– If the letter-writer is having this odd feeling, who is he? What is special about him?
|“This breeze, which has travelled from the regions towards which I am advancing, gives me a foretaste of those icy climes. Inspirited by this wind of promise, my day dreams become more fervent and vivid.”||– Where is the narrator going? Is he going to the north pole?|
– What will he find at the north pole? What is it actually like?
|“there snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe. Its productions and features may be without example, as the phaenomena of the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes. What may not be expected in a country of eternal light? I may there discover the wondrous power which attracts the needle; and may regulate a thousand celestial observations, that require only this voyage to render their seeming eccentricities consistent for ever. I shall satiate my ardent curiosity with the sight of a part of the world never before visited, and may tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man.”||– Deepening the question: What will he find at the north pole?|
– NOTE: this is a moment where the reader of 1818 and of 2019 differ significantly; obviously today we have a general idea of what is at the north pole (ice), but in 1818 no explorers had yet successfully reached it. Shelley is inviting readers’ imaginations to run, and she invokes some of the (as of the time of writing not wholly implausible) theories of what explorers might eventually find there. Some more info about this, if you’re interested, is here.
|“with the joy a child feels when he embarks in a little boat, with his holiday mates, on an expedition of discovery up his native river.”||– Did I ever go on an expedition like this? What do I remember?|
I find the amount of questions, as well as their variety and depth, compelling. There is mystery here both explicitly in Walton’s theorizing about the pole and implicitly as the reader connects their own experiences to Walton’s, as we wonder what he will find and what perils he will face. Some of this is undoubtedly related to conflict. Yet I think this runs deeper. Conflict, in a way, is one method Shelley employs to get us to ask questions. Conflict is a tool, like the many other tools we use as writers; mystery is the prize.
Questions and answers: a model for reader engagement
There’s more going on in Shelley’s opening to Frankenstein than simply the asking of questions. At the same time as our questions proliferate, some of them find answers. Let’s see how this works:
|Text:||Questions & Answers|
|“To Mrs. Saville, England.|
St. Petersburgh, Dec. 11th, 17—.”
|Question: What is the relationship between the letter-writer and Mrs. Saville?|
|“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings. I arrived here yesterday; and my first task is to assure my dear sister of my welfare”||Question: What is this enterprise, and why is it “evil”?|
Answer: Mrs. Saville and the narrator are siblings.
|“This breeze, which has travelled from the regions towards which I am advancing, gives me a foretaste of those icy climes.”||Answer: The narrator is going north.|
Question[3a]: Why is he going north?
Question[3b]: Where precisely is he going? The north pole?
|“I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation”||Answer[3b]: Yes, he’s going to the north pole.|
Question: What is the north pole actually like? Isn’t it just “frost and desolation”? What else could be there?
|“we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe.”||Answer[3a]: He’s going north because he believes there may be an awe-inspiring, beautiful mystery there.|
Question: What is the mystery???
Notice how the passage is so constructed as to create more questions as soon as (or even before) it answers the previous ones. Even as certain basic questions are answered, larger, more essential questions remain unanswered or are given only partial answers that, helpfully, lead to more questions.
This passage analysis is at the micro-level, but a similar process happens in the broader structure of narratives. In compelling stories, we are drawn to ask what will happen next (sometimes because of conflicts, sometimes because we care about characters), and as soon as we are told an answer, another question hangs. This pulls us through the whole story as the writer carefully reveals information, drops clues or foreshadowing, and constructs the story’s world.
When we write, we can work to put ourselves in the position of the reader: “What is the reader wondering now?” we might ask. Or, “How can I get the reader to care enough about this element so that they are curious for more?”
I want to emphasize, before moving on, the importance here of providing those answers along the way. A story teaches its readers how it should be read, and piling up the questions without the payoff of any answer sets a frustrating expectation. In the text as a whole, loose subplots and untied endings can quickly cause a reader disappointment or frustration. When we encourage our readers to ask a question, we are promising an answer, and if we break that promise, we must have good reasons for doing so.
Conflict and character in the service of mystery
We are sometimes taught to construct our characters, scenes, and situations in such a way that conflict is heightened. Characters, we are told, should be ready to fight for something. Romances should involve a chase. Every scene should start with action.
Let’s step back from that. It’s not that these elements can’t make for an engaging story. They clearly, absolutely can. But what if we’re looking at it the wrong way around? What if it isn’t that characters should have traits that put them in conflict with others? What if it’s that character and conflict themselves are both ingredients that can be used to create mystery?
Conflict, which pits two forces against one another in a sustained struggle, is like a mystery-bomb. It rapidly gets us asking those questions: who will prevail? What will happen? What will the characters lose along the way? It jump-starts the mystery process outlined above, and therefore functions as a very useful tool. Similarly, round, well-developed, relatable characters inspire mystery, because the reader doesn’t just ask the questions but cares about the answers. We aren’t interested in reading about characters we can’t sympathize with perhaps not because questions aren’t asked but because we have little incentive to learn the answer.
The reason all of this matters is that it opens up to us new possibilities for engaging the reader. Is it possible to get a reader to ask questions without conflict as the primary motivator? I’d argue an emphatic yes. Shelley’s example above is a case in point: not that it is devoid of conflict, certainly, but the primary questions arise out of other elements, including anticipation of an adventure, historical resonance, and scientific curiosity. In the Kishōtenketsu story framework, readers ask questions about how the disparate elements will synthesize. In philosophical fiction, readers might ask about ideas more than a conflict. In science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative genres, worldbuilding gives ample room for question-asking [I think here most poignantly of the central story of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the mysteries of both of whose worlds captivated me far beyond the individual conflicts of their characters].
Counterpoint: “A White Heron”
As I’ve been writing this post, exploring along with you, a particular story, a favorite for me, has stuck out. I’m not sure it fits. I beg you one digression, in hopes that it will help us refine this idea, see the extent of its application, and where there might be need for a more expansive theory yet.
Sarah Orne Jewett’s 1886 short story “A White Heron” opens in what, to my memory, are a singularly un-mysterious and un-conflictual couple of paragraphs:
The woods were already filled with shadows one June evening, just before eight o'clock, though a bright sunset still glimmered faintly among the trunks of the trees. A little girl was driving home her cow, a plodding, dilatory, provoking creature in her behavior, but a valued companion for all that. They were going away from whatever light there was, and striking deep into the woods, but their feet were familiar with the path, and it was no matter whether their eyes could see it or not.
There was hardly a night the summer through when the old cow could be found waiting at the pasture bars; on the contrary, it was her greatest pleasure to hide herself away among the huckleberry bushes, and though she wore a loud bell she had made the discovery that if one stood perfectly still it would not ring. So Sylvia had to hunt for her until she found her, and call Co' ! Co' ! with never an answering Moo, until her childish patience was quite spent. If the creature had not given good milk and plenty of it, the case would have seemed very different to her owners. Besides, Sylvia had all the time there was, and very little use to make of it. Sometimes in pleasant weather it was a consolation to look upon the cow's pranks as an intelligent attempt to play hide and seek, and as the child had no playmates she lent herself to this amusement with a good deal of zest. Though this chase had been so long that the wary animal herself had given an unusual signal of her whereabouts, Sylvia had only laughed when she came upon Mistress Moolly at the swamp-side, and urged her affectionately homeward with a twig of birch leaves. The old cow was not inclined to wander farther, she even turned in the right direction for once as they left the pasture, and stepped along the road at a good pace. She was quite ready to be milked now, and seldom stopped to browse. Sylvia wondered what her grandmother would say because they were so late. It was a great while since she had left home at half-past five o'clock, but everybody knew the difficulty of making this errand a short one. Mrs. Tilley had chased the hornéd torment too many summer evenings herself to blame any one else for lingering, and was only thankful as she waited that she had Sylvia, nowadays, to give such valuable assistance. The good woman suspected that Sylvia loitered occasionally on her own account; there never was such a child for straying about out-of-doors since the world was made! Everybody said that it was a good change for a little maid who had tried to grow for eight years in a crowded manufacturing town, but, as for Sylvia herself, it seemed as if she never had been alive at all before she came to live at the farm. She thought often with wistful compassion of a wretched geranium that belonged to a town neighbor.
As I read these paragraphs, they seem to resist conflict–the cow is misbehaving, but it is “a valued companion” nonetheless. They are walking through a dark wood, but “it was no matter whether their eyes could see it or not.” The cow’s antics in the second paragraph, annoying as they are, prove more a game than a real conflict, and she gives “good milk and plenty of it,” after all, so there is really no harm. It is true that Sylvia has no playmates, but this place is far better for her than her previous abode in the busy city: indeed, “she never had been alive at all before she came to live at the farm.”
This opening description similarly bucks the question-answer structure described above. It is near the end of the second paragraph when I finally feel the need to ask a question: why did Sylvia leave the city? The tone is quiet, calm, contented, and wholly unmysterious. So why does it keep us (or at least me) reading?
I think it’s that very element: its beauty, its calmness. I want to go there, to that meadow and wood. I want to play hide-and-seek with Mistress Moolly. “A White Heron” does contain mystery and conflict as the story progresses. Perhaps it’s only this opening that doesn’t fit the bill. Yet in the story as a whole, it’s this beauty I most remember. That’s what I hold in my mind.
As a note, this, too, is what snares me in My Neighbor Totoro, in My Family and Other Animals, in The Little Prince. Full as these stories ultimately are of mystery and, at times, conflict, I think it is more the beauty of them that grabs me. Maybe this is something else. I’ll leave it for another day.
Am I onto something? Have I missed the boat? How do you understand the function of mystery in storytelling? How does it relate to conflict, character, theme, and other elements? Do you have an example of a story whose engagement seems to rely on something other than mystery? How do you use mystery in your own stories?
Best wishes for Easter, for Passover, for this week, for spring. Thanks for stopping by.