Every Story is a Mystery

Last July, I attended a talk by Hank Phillippi Ryan in Cleveland. She told the audience she was once asked, “Could you write a romance without a mystery?” Interesting question, huh?

Hank’s response: “I suppose, but what would they do?”

It got me to thinking. Doesn’t all of the best fiction have a little mystery?

If you look up the dictionary definition of “mystery,” there are several – but they all have one thing in common: the element of the unknown. In that vast genre of crime fiction (encompassing traditional mystery, thriller, and suspense), the unknown is a Mystery. It’s a problem to be solved, a “whodunit.” Mystery readers are very familiar with that concept. Who stole/killed/committed some crime and will the hero find the answer? Who is behind the impending world-wide disaster, and can the heroine stop it in time? These are Mysteries (big M).

But consider these:

  • Will Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy overcome their mutual prejudices to find love?
  • Will Frodo complete his quest to destroy the One Ring?
  • Will Harry defeat Voldemort once and for all?

Aren’t these mysteries too? These are all unknowns. The reader doesn’t know how it’s going to turn out. Isn’t that what keeps us turning the pages, finding out whether love will triumph in the end, whether the quest will be fulfilled, and whether our favorite characters find their own Happily Ever After?

I argue that it does. I mean, one of the most common complains about fiction is “I saw that coming,” or “I knew that was going to happen.” Why read to the end of a 90,000 word novel if you know the ending at the end of Chapter One?

By that definition, every story ever written is a mystery at some level. What a wonderful idea, right?

This holds true of my middle-grade fantasy series, Hero’s Sword. In each book, there is a mini-mystery, some puzzle that must be solved. In Power Play, the first installment, the question is “Who is behind banditry plaguing travelers on the High Road?” In Storm Clouds, I turn to a different type of crime – who stole a valuable gem and why is he (or she) framing Lady Starla of Mallory?

In this way, I just can’t escape from my crime fiction roots. The world of Hero’s Sword is fantastical (being transported into a video game is a big fantasy for a lot of people), but the problems are something that would not seem out of place to Holmes or Poirot.

But there’s another level of mystery, too. When the mini-mysteries of each book are connected, the question becomes, “Who is trying to overthrow the Empire, and can Lyla stop him/her in time?” Once again, the world (the Empire of the Hero’s Sword game), is fantastic – but the race to stop the villain could come out of any adult thriller.

And then there is what I’ve come to think of as the “meta-mystery,” the thread that runs through the series in the so-called “real world.” Will Jaycee find the skills, confidence, and strength she needs to carve out her place in the middle-school world, without betraying the things she believes in? And that’s a mystery anybody can relate to, especially kids. Who am I? Where do I fit in? What do I believe in? These are all personal mysteries we have to solve for ourselves.

We don’t know the answers to these questions. But that’s what keeps me writing – and reading. That little bit of mystery. The finding out is what makes it fun.

What about you? Do you find a little bit of mystery in your favorite stories? I’ll give an e-copy of Storm Clouds (Amazon or Nook) to three lucky commentors!


Mary Sutton has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other pstormcloudseople’s stories, for as long as she can remember. After ten years, she decided that making things up was far more satisfying than writing software manuals, and took the jump into fiction.

She writes the Hero’s Sword middle-grade fantasy series as M.E. Sutton, and finds a lot of inspiration in the lives of her own kids. A lifelong mystery fan, she also writes crime fiction, including The Laurel Highlands Mysteries, under the pen name Liz Milliron.


Author: Liz Milliron

Liz Milliron has been making up stories, and creating her own endings for other people's stories, for as long as she can remember. She survived growing up through reading, cutting her mystery teeth on Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark and, of course, Nancy Drew. As an adult, she finds escape from the world of software documentation through creating her own fictional murder and mayhem. She lives near Pittsburgh with her husband and two teenage children, and fantasizes about owning a dog again - one of these days.

8 thoughts on “Every Story is a Mystery”

  1. Completely agree. I see mystery everywhere too! I wonder if it’s because fiction relies on conflict, which always has the “what will happen” factor? *pondering*

    Enjoyed this post, thanks!


  2. Love your cover, Mary!

    While I see all books as having conflict, I view the solving of a puzzle a mystery. Conflict definitely drives plot forward regardless of genre, but I do enjoy having clues scattered throughout a book and piecing them together.

    Best of luck with your series!


  3. Cynthia, that’s kind of my thought. There’s always a factor of “unknown,” something that will be revealed at the end. Makes it fun, doesn’t it?

    Diane, thanks. I do like my covers. So, for you, it’s the puzzle aspect that really defines the “mystery” as a genre?


  4. I was thinking something very similar just the other day, when I was talking about chick lit with a friend. She was down on chick lit because she found it sappy and pointless; so I told her she needs to read the kind of chick lit that incorporates a mystery. Everything can be improved by adding a little mystery!


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