I’ve been re-reading one of my favorite mystery writers lately–Rex Stout. Stout began writing his 1/7 ton, orchid-loving gourmand genius detective Nero Wolfe in the thirties (just after the end of Prohibition, Wolfe’s first recorded words are, “Where’s the beer?”). But the stories are lively and readable for today’s audiences, thanks to entertaining narrator Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s feet, eyes and ears on New York–and ours, too.
I admit that I was worried that I wouldn’t enjoy reading Stout as much, since my author training means I see the puppet strings and the puppeteer behind the words.
But no. I actually enjoy Archie and Nero more, because Stout’s such a freaking great writer. There’s an impact seeing a genius use the tools of writing that a teacher’s telling (even with examples) doesn’t have. Don’t believe me? Think of any occupation where you’ve seen someone who blows you away. For me it’s Brett Favre, whatever you might think about his career. I see anyone throw a football and it’s caught and I think yay, amazing, because frankly I can’t throw a ball a foot to a receiver dressed in two-sided tape. But Favre…when he threw the ball, the receiver didn’t catch it so much as Favre seemed to place the ball directly into the receiver’s hands. Artistry, poetry in motion.
Anyway, the point to all this is that Stout made me reconsider one aspect of writing that has plagued me my whole career. What makes something mysterious? Frankly, I always thought you had to write vague unsettling creepy stuff.
Here’s what I now think is true, and this is what I need you to confirm or not: The way to be mysterious is to be crystal clear about your mystery.
Example: Which is more mysterious?
- Jen thought she saw a shadowy figure in the dark bushes.
- Jen saw the bushes stir. Not a cat-size stirring, but man-size.
- The victim wrote something in her own blood before dying.
- The victim wrote “rache” in her own blood before dying.
So which is more mysterious to you? First or second point in each example? Please let me know!!