How to Make Sure Your Mystery is Satisfying

How the Lost School of Storytelling Blurred the Line Between Intriguing and Confusing

I love writing mysteries with vast casts, layered subplots, and dozens of twists. My favorite mysteries contain elements of science fiction, horror, and fantasy. They’re the everything and the kitchen sink approach to storytelling. The TV show Lost inspired much of my love, and apprehension, for this facet of the mystery genre.

Lost has taught me a lot about what to do and what not to do when writing mysteries. It featured emotionally involving character arcs with themes like regret, the wages of sin, and crisises of faith. It set up intriguing plot lines about psychological manipulation, international conspiracies, and time travel. Lost successfully followed through on its character arcs, but fell short of bringing its plot lines to completion.

In the end Lost had little to do with psychological experiments, quantum physics, or philosophy. It was really just Stephen King’s The Stand on an Island. Candidates endorsed by a Christ figure, Jacob, had to defeat others endorsed by a Satanic stand in, the man in black.

For those of us who wanted the Sci Fi elements to factor into the big reveals we were sorely disappointed, especially when the production ended in a church.

The Island’s unique electro magnetic properties, its ability to travel through time, and the motive behind the Dharma Initiative’s experiments were never explained. We were left to tie those dangling plot threads off on our own. The show runners were more interested in pairing off the characters for an afterlife of monogamous bliss.

I remain a Lost apologist, but I don’t believe a compelling journey excuses a disappointing destination. If the destination rewarded us for paying attention the mysteries throughout the journey would feel like they meant something, not just tricks to string us along. This is why I understand people who came away from Lost with viewers’ remorse.

If you’re interested in writing a complex mystery, like Lost, here are some tips to make sure both the journey and its end are rewarding.

Answer Some of Your Mysteries Early On

If your question to answer ratio is skewed towards too many questions readers will start to wonder if you bothered coming up with any answers.

If you foreshadow an event in the first chapter and it happens before the end of act one you build trust with your audience. When these hints payoff early you train your readers to look for more of them.

It’s like the first screen of Super Mario Bros. World 1 stage 1. The screen tells you everything you need to know about the game. You learn that there are mushroom creatures that can kill you. You can flatten them by stomping on their heads. You can hit random bricks to collect coins or power ups. The screen is designed to teach you the right way to play.

If page one of your mystery sets up a reveal that happens by the end of that chapter your readers will search for more to come. They’ll trust you know what you’re doing. One of the most unsatisfying things about getting invested in a mystery is being half way through the book and having no idea if you enjoy what you’re reading. The audience’s opinion shouldn’t depending on an epic ending.

2. Ah-Ha

Make Sure Your Philosophical References Benefit Your Theme

People want to be enlightened while they’re entertained, so long as the philosophy writers pepper in has an impact on the proceedings.

If you’re writing a story where reality is not what it seems you’d do well to reference Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. This is a parable about two slaves born into bondage. The slaves spend their lives facing a cavern wall watching the shadows of the miners working there. They believe these dancing silhouettes are the inhabitants of the world. If you’re writing a story about clones separated at birth that allegory doesn’t fit. It will only confuse readers into searching for meaning where there is none.

I once used the ethical question of the trolly dilemma in a story where it didn’t fit. In the trolly dilemma a trolly is careening down a hill. A madman has tied five people to the track. You have the power to switch the track. The only problem is the trolly will hit an innocent bystander if you do. Is it morally right to willfully sacrifice one life to save five others, or is taking action wrong?

This conflict between rational and emotional thinking had nothing to do with my story’s broader themes. My story was about how we can conquer our fears by embracing our imagination. I’d just read about the trolly dilemma and thought it’s inclusion in my story would make my mysteries seem more important. The dilemma was the wrong fit for my theme.

Deep references don’t belong if you’re only using them as intellectual window dressing.

Spirituality Doesn’t Automatically Make Your Mystery More Intriguing

I’ve noticed a trend in mystery thrillers, like Lost, to evoke spiritual themes to give themselves an ominous flavor. The same rules apply here. If you quote a bible story as a metaphor for what’s happening to your characters it must factor into your broader themes. If you reference the book of Job one of your characters better go through a crisis of faith.

Spiritual themes need to pay off. Audience members of faith don’t like to see their beliefs used as esoteric gibberish to make stories seem more mysterious. Audience members without faith need to see spiritual concepts play out in tangible ways. Lost blurred this line by using religious references as metaphors for moral dilemmas that applied to everyone.

Still, Lost was at its best when the concepts of science and faith were part of a narrative debate. When the show revealed that it was coming down on the side of faith in the final season, a chunk of the audience felt shortchanged.

3. Big Eye

Why Wouldn’t Your Characters Share What They’ve Learned?

Conflict is the heart of drama. Goals are the heart of conflict. If two characters’ goals are the same then conflict arises from poor communication. Back when I was watching Lost my friends would always yell at the screen, “Just tell him what you saw already!”

So many of Lost’s filler episodes would’ve been unnecessary if the characters had pooled their knowledge of the island’s mysteries. The show-runner’s justified the characters’ tight lips in a number of ways some more effective than others.

When the Others, the cult-like natives of the island, kidnapped Michael’s son, Michael had good cause not to share what he knew with his fellow castaways. Leverage is a good reason for characters to stay mum.

If your hero fears rejection they might not share information they learned while researching the person they have a crush on. If there are incriminating photos of your hero they’re not going to feel compelled to tell their pals they’re being blackmailed. If your hero is afraid people will think they’re crazy they’ll be less inclined to share their dead father’s prophecy.

One of the tricks the show-runners of Lost used to keep miscommunication going was a sense of urgency. There was never any time to explain, even though slowing down to do so would save everyone in the long run. This got aggravating, because most of the time characters were trekking across an island. Even if there was an urgent matter the characters had nothing but time to explain on the way to their destination.

If your heroes are always in too much of a hurry to share what they’ve learned you’re using urgency too often.

1. Shadow Glass

Closing Thoughts

Long form mysteries demand more structure than other genres. For writers, like myself, who enjoy discovering the story as we go, we need to have a good memory for the questions we’ve raised. A mystery is a check we are writing to the audience. We should let them know that our credit is good by cashing a few checks early on.

A lack of communication between characters shouldn’t be the only thing keeping our long form mysteries going.

A clear theme can keep the audience invested when they’re not entirely sure what they’re reading. Our philosophical, psychological, and spiritual references should support that theme.

As I mentioned, I am a Lost apologist. I own all six seasons and part of me still thinks show-runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse hung the moon. My fantasy version of Lost’s ending has our heroes facing the bright light in the sky from the inside of an airplane, not a church. Still for all its narrative sins Lost’s imitators commit so many more. Lost was able to sustain an even tone and a level of intrigue until the very end. I found the character endings satisfying even if the plot fell short of my expectations.

If you can’t tie up each of your dangling plot threads at least make sure that your characters’ aren’t left hanging.


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18 thoughts on “How to Make Sure Your Mystery is Satisfying”

  1. This line expresses exactly how I feel: “I remain a Lost apologist, but I don’t believe a compelling journey excuses an disappointing destination.” Sigh. Thanks for a great post, Drew!

    1. Thanks for reading it.

      I feel this way about a lot of serialized entertainment. In some instances a series that didn’t hinge on a mystery can be soiled by a terrible ending (that’s how I felt walking away from Dexter and True Blood). Lost’s ending flew circles around those shows.

  2. These are some great tips to keep in mind, thanks for sharing. Lost was such a perfect example. I loved that show. I was perfectly fine with the way it ended… I’ve never been one for needing an answer for everything. At first I was annoyed that so many people were disappointed with the ending. But as I thought about the show, as much as I enjoyed the journey I found it isn’t a story with a lot of rewatchability. The points you bring up against it are exactly right; and the urgency causing people to not explain themselves gets old rather quick!

    1. I keep adding to Lost’s ending in my head. In my version the magic whirlpool Jack reignites gave him the Godlike ability to create a pocket dimension to reconnect with all of his friends, but that universe started collapsing when he realized where it came from.

      In my imagination the Dharma were on the island looking for that whirlpool, a vortex that could help them master time and space. I’ve heard some theories that Jacob drew the Dharma initiative to the island to try to eradicate the man in black. I guess we’ll never know. I could have also use an explanation for why the Others so blindly believed in what they were doing.

      The series could’ve used one more episode that tied all of these elements together.

  3. This is a perceptive piece. I’ve heard so much about ‘Lost’ but never watched it. My daughter did – from beginning to end. Like you, she felt short-changed at the end. So I’m going to heed your advice about sprinkling some answers in early and developing consistent themes. Many thanks.

    1. I’d still say the series is worth watching as long as you go in with the expectation that the character stories are the only mysteries that are going to get resolved.

      Lost is funny, dramatic, and intriguing. There are a lot of love able characters and brilliant character turns. The mythos doesn’t get resolved, but the show leaves you with an understanding of what happened to everyone in the end.

  4. I only got through the first season of Lost as was totally flummoxed most of the time!
    I wonder if the mythos isn’t resolved in the same way the characters are (bearing in mind I haven’t seen it ) deliberately. What I mean by that is if there’s a spiritual angle maybe it’s mirroring the idea of life as one big mystery. I dunno, just a thought.
    But anyway, great post, and some food for thought for my book as, although it’s fantasy, there is more of a mystery element with many questions raised in Act 2 particularly which I need to keep track of and resolve 🙂

    1. I remember reading that Battlestar Galactica show runner, Ronald D. Moore, had a sign posted in his writing space that read: IT’S ABOUT THE CHARACTERS STUPID. It’s funny, because I have the same mixed feelings about Battlestar Galactica’s ending as I do Lost.

      In my current WIP I raise a lot of questions in Act 2 and 3. I’ve done my best to resolve most of them, but I imagine some readers will have a hard time seeing some of the explanations as definitive. This is something that happens when you write a mystery with supernatural fantasy elements.

      I’m pretty sure I’m going to have a lot of pruning to do when it comes time to edit.

  5. I’ve never watched a minute of Lost, but I must say – the derby and haircut in your photos becomes you (yes, enjoy that non sequitur).

    I found that your suggestions, Drew, apply to much more in life than just mystery writing (e.g., public speaking, advertising, etc.). I tied some unexpected thoughts together in new ways. Love that. Thanks.

    Drew (et al), Sean Carlin (who often pops in here to comment) had a really interesting post on the post-narrative switch happening in storytelling, where, in short, the destination is the main point, and the ending is negligible (on purpose). Here’s the link, if you want to check it out: THE LINK

    1. That’s right, Erik (and thanks for the plug!): Lost is part of the emerging “postnarrative” storytelling movement which, unlike the Aristotelian arc that becomes more closed-ended as it goes along, only grows more open. Examples of this narrative model include Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Once Upon a Time, The Sopranos, Last Man on Earth, Orphan Black, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To quote media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s book on the subject, Present Shock, these stories are “not about creating satisfying resolutions, but rather about keeping the adventure alive and as many threads going as possible. There is plot — there are many plots — but there is no overarching story, no end. There are so many plots, in fact, that an ending tying everything up seems inconceivable, even beside the point.”

      The mistake Damon Lindelof made (and I’m a Lost apologist, as well) — one that novelist George R. R. Martin is now unwittingly making — wasn’t his perceived failure to adequately resolve the series’ myriad plotlines, for that would have been both impossible and ultimately irrelevant, but rather his repeatedly publicly reinforcing the viewership’s mistaken notion that all of the mysteries and motifs were building to a grand, meaningful climax in which questions would be answered and some spectacular catharsis awarded to the legions of faithful obsessives, who had unconsciously ascribed classical-narrative expectations — i.e., a value assignment, or moral — to a series designed to exist in presentist perpetuity only. Traditional narratives are about how it ends; postnarrativity is only about what is happening right now: Why is there a polar bear on the beach? Where does this hatch in the ground lead? Why do we have to type this specific sequence of numbers into a computer every 72 minutes? Every question simply leads to another question rather than an answer, as these particular narratives are by (often unconscious) design “less about what will happen next, or how the story will end, than about figuring out what is actually going on right now — and enjoying the world of the fiction, itself.” For that reason, postnarrativity can’t be judged by the same metric as stories that follow Joseph Campbell’s monomyth schema. As Erik was kind enough to point out, I’ve written about this subject at length for those interested in further exploration/discussion of the matter.

    2. The term “post narrative world” really hits the nail on the head. As much as I love these expanded universes and serialized films I wish more of them followed the Star Wars model. In Episode 4: A New Hope our heroes win a battle, but the war is far from over. Still, the film doesn’t end on a cliffhanger. It’s a complete experience.

      For the most part Marvel’s films have been pretty good at maintaining a narrative structure. You can watch each of them out of sequence and pick up on what is happening.

      I think Sean is right. Damon Lindelof and George R.R. Martin have built up their audience’s expectations. With Lost the rabid fanbase was lead to believe deep insights were coming, but the answers led to more abstractions.

      1. And I should point out that the traditional arc versus postnarrativity isn’t the difference between episodic and serialized. In a traditional narrative, the story grows more closed as it builds to a “moral,” as it were, whereas postnarrative stories are about recognizing an endless series of patterns and analogs and “Easter eggs” — the ending is irrelevant, as there is no moral to the story.

        Take Law & Order and CSI, for instance, which are both episodic procedurals. In L&O, there’s a value at stake each week: justice. And the entire episode is about restoring the balance that’s been disrupted — restoring “law and order.” And at the end of each show, justice is achieved and the story gives us catharsis in its closure. L&O is a classically structured narrative that assigns a value to the conclusion of each installment.

        CSI, on the other hand, isn’t about getting justice — it’s about solving puzzles: “If I can match this carpet fiber to that sneaker, I’ll know who the killer is.” The fact that a criminal is brought to justice in the end is entirely incidental; CSI is purely an exercise in pattern recognition (even the show’s title, Crime Scene Investigation, reflects that clinical agenda). There’s still closure at the end, but that’s just a happy by-product of all the puzzle-solving — and entirely beside the point, anyway.

        Both shows are structured, you’ll note, they just have different organizational patterns and different takeaways. Where Lindelof and Martin got into trouble was failing to fundamentally understand that they were authoring postnarrative works. And I often wonder if the Star Wars brain trust fully grasp the story mechanics they are tinkering with: The new filmmakers are taking a saga that was consciously designed as a closed-ended hero’s journey in the Joseph Campbell mode and retroactively reverse-engineering it to serve as the basis for an open-ended exercise in postnarrativity. It isn’t as simple as, “We want a shared cinematic universe, too!” Storytellers really need to make sure they understand the different forms and functions of the Aristotelian arc and the emerging postnarrative approach, or they risk disappointing a fan base that has been conditioned with an altogether incompatible set of expectations.

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