Subtlety and mystery have always been tools I’ve been fascinated with. The best books I’ve ever read have always employed mystery as a tool to draw me in, and allude to a hazy web of implications and connections. What’s fascinated me about these is that, rather than enthrall the reader with detailed, multi-faceted characters, lush settings, or skilled prose, a skilled writer can capture the audience by not showing. It seems antithetical. We’re taught in workshops that we need to fill every aspect of our writing with detail. Why, then, does a lack of information become so enthralling?

I realized the answer when we work shopped Limbo Beach. The poem was an exercise in syntax, not mystery, but I had still been intentionally vague. I realized that simply leaving out detail wouldn’t have that same effect as mystery; it was too vague, too subtle, nobody knew what the hell was happening. I knew what it was about because I had that mental image in my head, and simply hadn’t explained it. That’s because mystery needs subtlety in final purpose and intention, not setting, detail, characterization, or basic premise. The end result of Limbo Beach was brief vignette that felt cut short, not compelling. Mystery should inspire awe and intrigue, not confusion. We’re hard wired to seek out everything we can’t know about, but if it looks like there’s nothing there in the first place, we won’t search for it. Time to edit.


One Reply to “Intrigue”

  1. Nick,

    First, I’d like to say that the self-awareness and humility you have when approaching craft is so admirable. Workshop, revision often bring up truths which are difficult to swallow.

    In your post, you make a great point about the role of mystery in writing. Personally, I’ve always thought about this in terms of trust — how much can I, how much should I trust a reader. If everything is said outright, narratives fall flat, but when too much is obscured, this can also be alienating.

    Thank you for this reminder. Going forward, I’ll be more cognizant of the psychic distance I create in my own narratives!

    Best of luck with editing!


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