The Seduction of Mystery

by Jordan Dane

No matter what genre, a book can always seduce a reader with the titillation of mystery. A suspense or thriller plot can race towards the end with its escalating stakes, but the lure of an underline mystery teases the reader and holds them tight as the storyline unfolds to reveal its fleshy curves and tantalizing secrets. The seduction is made more complete and satisfying.

Alfred Hitchcock knew this.

Hitchcock believed suspense didn’t have much to do with fear, but was more the anticipation of something about to happen. When I read this, it was a huge epiphany for me. The idea changed how I thought about scenes and chapter endings, but I was recently reminded of the importance of anticipation in other ways when someone in my local writers’ group asked me when and how to use back story. In a seduction, back story is the equivalent of smoking a cigarette after. At some point, you want it to happen, but it’s anticipation that drives you to turn those pages all night long.

There’s no faking that.

If you’re a writer, anticipation doesn’t have to ONLY be about big plot movements. Don’t forget the voyeur in all of us, readers and writers alike. Relationships need a story arc too. Conflict and tension make them more delectable. Our main characters are tested, tortured, pushed to the limits to justify their starring role in our books. And when a man and woman are involved in a personal relationship, a writer makes them pay for wanting to be together. That’s how a writer knows when they have the right balance of emotion to suspense. If the emotional human story can be stripped out and the book no longer makes sense, then the right balance is achieved. One is integral to the other.

A high octane Bruce Willis movie—with its special stunts and computer generated action sequences—may not stick in moviegoers heads if there weren’t the emotional elements, the drama of his estranged wife in danger. Only his love for her puts him in harm’s way from the beginning and keeps him taking risks for her. It’s not just about saving her life. It becomes—will they get back together? A suspense/thriller plot escalates the stakes and ramps up tension as the pages turn, but something as simple as unanswered questions or a mounting attraction between two characters that you care about—while they are on a perilous journey—adds palpable heat that can sustain the rush to a gratifying end.

On my current project, I had a choice to make. I could have unfolded the story by relying on the suspense plot to be the main driver—or I could present my characters by their actions, without explaining the reason for their behavior until I absolutely had to. I chose to make my character’s back stories a strong mystery component where the plot will eventually force them into revealing themselves to each other and the reader. I’m orchestrating a seduction, one garment at a time, like a voyeur. With some elements, for key secondary characters, I layer the mystery without even knowing the answers myself. What an incredible rush! I can’t wait to see what happens.

Please share a book that seduced you completely with the right heady balance of compelling characters to intriguing plot—that unforgettable read that has stayed with you—maybe a guilty pleasure that you’ve read more than once.

18 thoughts on “The Seduction of Mystery

  1. Wow, Jordan, you hit it right on the head for me with this post.

    In Water For Elephants I cared about Jacob and Marlena and it took me into the world of a circus written by Sara Gruen that would not have worked for me otherwise.

    The anticipation of Matthew and Diana getting together in A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, regardless of what was going on around them, made that book for me.

    As I was writing Careful What You Wish For…it wasn’t the serial killer, or the mobsters actions that made the story fun to write – it was the underlying anticipation of “Will Nick & Evie get to be together, and How?” that heightened the suspense in that book.

    Building suspense is an art that makes a story great. A HUGE epiphany, Jordan.


  2. Good morning, Paula. Loved your insights. I’m excited that you experienced an epiphany on this topic too. The concept can manifest in many different ways too–from character journeys to plot development–but the goal is to find ways to keep the reader turning pages without your book reading as formulaic. Thanks for your comment, your recommendations, and best wishes for your writing in 2012.

  3. Jordan, one of the reasons that I’m having trouble watching a lot of the action/thriller films is the over-reliance on explosions and karate at the expense of story, plot, and character development. One important exception in the past couple of years has been RANSOM. It included car chases, explosions, and a high body count, but what drove the movie was the quest of a father attempting to rescue his teenage daughter. It’s a film you can watch again and again.

    As far as books go…I just finished THE JAGUAR, the new novel by T. Jefferson Parker. It features a great deal of action and edge-of-seat suspense, but it is the characters and the interaction among them which keep the pages turning, seemingly of their own volition.

  4. Fun question.

    I turn back to Raymond Chandler pretty often for fun, engrossing reading, but The Long Goodbye sticks with me the most. The tragic relationship between Philip Marlowe and Terry Lennox, as well as every other character who surfaces through the novel, is so vivid and memorable. The mystery works as far as mysteries go, but the fact that it’s a mystery involving these people makes it last.

  5. Absolutely, Joe. Great observation. Completely agree. Author Joe Finder said at Tfest one year that action is boring. He shocked people in the audience when he said it, but he clarified that unless the plot includes a compelling human story, it won’t be memorable.

    Thanks for hte TJP recommendation. I’ve been meaning to try his books.

    RANSOM sounds interesting too. Liam Neeson’s TAKEN is like that. Intense action, but the movie starts where he’s estranged from his family and his wife has married “up” & it looks as if his daughter’s affections for her new daddy are being bought by the step dad’s money and his ex-wife rubs it in. He’s former CIA. When the wrong people abduct his teen daughter while she’s in Europe, after she lied about her itinerary and the mom kept it secret from him, Liam’s character must act and use his skills to find her within hours before she’s traffic’d. Intense, brutal, FUN!

  6. I’ve been reading The Hunger Games trilogy. You want an author who does it all very well, try that series.

    And Joe, wasn’t the kid in RANSOM a son? Mel Gibson and Gary Sinese?

  7. I’ve been reading Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon books. The stories are brilliantly plotted, but so are his non-Allon books. It’s Allon and the other Israeli operatives that make me care.

  8. John, as always you have my back, which I appreciate. The movie I was speaking of is titled TAKEN and not RANSOM, though my comments would apply to RANSOM as well. Mea culpa.

  9. Time Traveler’s Wife. Great mystery, wonderful characters that make you care about them, and a compelling relationship. Not to mention the really cool time traveling aspect.

  10. John–I loved Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins did a great job and the movie that’s coming should be fantastic given the talented cast and the popularity of the trilogy.

    Another YA trilogy turned into a movie that’s coming is Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series. I’m really hoping the movie is half as good as the strong world building and characterizations in that series.

    Thanks for the recommendation.

  11. Eileen–Thx for the book recommendation. Silva is another author I’ve been meaning to try.

    Michelle–Time Traveler’s wife is a great book. The premise is captivating, especially given the compelling love story. Classic. Great recommendation.

  12. Glad to see John Perich mention one of my all time faves, The Long Goodbye. There is this deeper, more personal level running through that book that takes it to another place in the Chandler canon.

    If there’s any one competitor for that crown, it’s Michael Connelly. What he has done with Bosch over the course of all those books is nothing short of astounding.

  13. I LOVE Bosch, Jim. Great example of a long well-developed story arc that’s never boring.

    I love Robert Crais for his Elvis Cole series and his eventual spin off of his friend, Joe Pike. The relationship of these two characters has grown richer from the start of this series until now. They’re closer than brothers.

    Thanks, Jim.

  14. Thanks, Daniel. I’ve loved Hitchcock for years on film. Never thought he would influence my writing too, but he’s been an amazing inspiration.

  15. I’m late chiming in here, Jordan. WHAT A GREAT POST! You’re new WIP sounds excellent. Can’t wait to read it.

    To this day, no book manipulated me as badly as, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. My reaction, however, was not one of reading it over. Instead, I threw the book across the room, never to read it again. Talk about being emotionaaly seduced and then betrayed by the author!

  16. I felt that strongly about the Butch & Sundance movie. To this day, I’ve never seen it more than once. Have a great weekend. Kathleen. Happy writing!

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