Hiding the truth from the reader - what makes a good mystery?

Where do you draw the line between a good mystery and the annoyance at the vagueness?

In my multi-pov story, one of the characters is doing something behind everyone’s backs, turning into a sort of an antagonist.

Currently, I leave it very vague. By about chapter 10 or so the reader will get the first direct hints that she’s up to something, but she never directly thinks what it is.

It’s only by the end of the book that you’d get the big reveal, everything will be explained.

So as I’m writing this book, the further down I go, the harder it is to hide what she’s doing.
And I wonder if I should reveal more glimpses of the grand plan so readers would know her goal and what’s at stake. Or is it going to spoil the mystery?

I didn’t write her to be an unreliable narrator. Since this is in third person, it’s quite easy to hide what she’s doing without lying about it - I simply don’t show it.
There are negative consequences to each of her acts, and I show her reactions to that, I show her stress and fear of being caught.

I’m growing frustrated with her pov though, and I wonder if the reader will become frustrated as well.

Alternatively, I could completely cut her pov. The problem with that is that this is a second book in a series, and in the first, she’s gained a few fans. Those readers would be disappointed. Also, in this book, she’s the only female pov (out of four) so I’m even more reluctant to cut her.

What’s your opinion about hiding what a pov character is doing?


Misdirection. Make sure they think the character is doing something else, and as long as it’s far less shocking than the real deal, you still preserve the mystery.

Too vague and you get the impression that the people are oblivious or idiots. That’s why I have a hard time keeping things back, myself. As it is, someone always guesses right. There needs to be a strong false trail or two, some of that evidence possibly being coincidence, if you’re going for confusing the reader.

And then all that is hard to balance against streamlining a story.

Just some thoughts.


If the win is that people can be more attached to her and her agenda, I would go for it without worrying about spoiling the mystery. Thrillers allow for you to know what’s going on. In the end, attachment to character is the biggest goal.


Good point.

I thought I planted a good red herring but as I continued writing, it sort of fizzled out. Maybe I should go back and focus more on that again, find where I lost it?

I thought this red herring was a good distraction (she’s learning how to influence people so they’d obey her). It’s a good conflict inducer.

I don’t want to “confuse” the reader, but I do want to mislead the other characters, make it plausible that they wouldn’t figure out what she’s up to until it’s too late and all hell breaks loose thanks to her little project.


That does confuse some readers. Lol


This type of misdirection has been done well in some of my favourite books, usually by supporting characters.

The suspect character’s actions are covered in enough detail for readers to question what they’re doing, but not enough detail to suspect them as a traitor…at least not until it’s too late…

Some good books with this setup are Black Ops and Warlord by Chris Ryan, and Exit Music by Ian Rankin. I recommend these authors’ other works too. In Warlord, Danny Black (the main character) is sent to America’s southern border to stop a cartel operation, and he discovers one of his SAS team is working for the cartel (but he doesn’t know which one). In Black Ops, Danny Black is sent to Syria to find a rogue MI-6 operative believed responsible for the murder of several SAS soldiers (who trained the operative), but Danny’s team is betrayed and killed by the real assassin.

Oh, check out season four of the TV series Strike Back. The character Kamali is an excellent example of gradually revealed misdirection.


That is an angle. I’ve read more mysteries than thrillers, though.

Good point. She’s on quite a journey and her intentions are good (she just wants a happy family). It would be great if the readers were rooting for her because then the readers would be conflicted and that’s pretty cool.

Of course, this is all awesome in theory but to pull it off…

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Thanks for the recommendations. I’ll check it out when I have a chance.

You’re right, this is a common trope in action stories (basically every Bond movie).

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Breadcrumbs… Of various size.

My story namesake had a massive secret that was only revealed during the catastrophe at the end that the namesake caused. I left straight forward breadcrumbs from peoples convos and from strange facts about the person that generated a curiosity in the reader.

Point to it with breadcrumbs :wink:


This is so true. I have a hard time discerning which ‘secrets’ need divulging, and what should be kept hidden until a later time. Especially if I’m portraying my MC as smart, and they can’t figure out a simple puzzle the reader figured out back in chapter one. It’s surely difficult finding a balance. :slight_smile:


Just commenting so I get alerts I have nothing to add.

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Lurkers are allowed. :sweat_smile:

After giving it some thought, I realized that I didn’t handle some early scenes right. I think I sabotaged the red herring that I planned. When I go back to edit, I’ll rewrite those scenes.

I’m going to have to focus on giving this character something to do. I can only hide the clues if there’s another action going on. When there isn’t enough going on, that’s when I end up saying too much.


I realized I don’t have the time go write a good mystery and decided to write something lighter.

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I had a similar epiphany yesterday.

I thought I was writing a caper but the mystery element doesn’t work with capers. :joy: Facepalm. I’m not writing a caper.

I think I finally figured out what I need to do. It will require revisions, but I’m happy because I finally see a way to get the effect I want.

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