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Creating Mystery

Let’s imagine that you have successfully written an opening sentence which at the very least doesn’t push the reader away. Perhaps you’ve managed to hold on to your reader for a paragraph or two. What should you do within about five minutes of reading time from the beginning?

To answer that question, it’s important first to note a key mechanical fact: most readers read at the pace of about one page every two minutes. Some are faster, of course, and some slower, but my experience suggests that two minutes per page is about average. So, three minutes probably takes your reader somewhere onto page two. Those first pages are where something vital needs to happen if you are going to continue to keep the reader’s attention.

Firstly, you need to convert your worthwhile insight, whether you’re writing an essay or a fiction work, into a single concise statement of your thesis or theme, which will then guide and shape the rest of your work.

A statement of the main theme of your work should typically appear near the end of the introduction or first page.

Unless you have a compelling reason to place it somewhere else, put it exactly there. Why? This is another example of the secret reading patterns which I mention elsewhere: whether we like it or not, whether we intellectually agree or not, readers anticipate and read closely, and they want to find a statement of the main theme of your work there. It’s as simple as that. If no clear indication of what your book, story or essay is really about appears within the first three minutes of reading, you risk losing your reader.

Express, therefore in one concise sentence or with one clear example, the point and purpose of your work. State it imaginatively or foreshadow it or give an example, but make sure you do it: at this point you take the reader’s “hand” in your own.

If you’re writing an essay, this statement must be an arguable assertion. To test whether your assertion is arguable, ask whether it’s possible to argue tûhe opposite. Though you may be arguing one way, it has to be possible to argue the other way or why write an essay about it? Similarly, you might be writing a story about a hero triumphing over the odds, but if it isn’t possible for the hero to also lose, then there’s no story -or a very dull one.

For example:

Not Arguable: "Children grow into adults."

Arguable: "Heavy demands on children may cause them to miss out on the best in childhood."

The first statement is just a fact; the second is something which could be disagreed with or argued each way.

Be specific when making this assertion or putting forward this theme. Remember, your reader is actively looking (whether consciously or not) for a clear idea of what your theme or central idea is at that exact point.

If you need convincing, find five books right now and look at the first couple of pages. What evidence does the author provide of his or her overall theme within those first pages? Are there any exceptions -that is, have you found a book in which it is still unclear what the theme is going to be after page three?

Right. So now we come to the next point where you could lose your readers, who, remember, usually want to read on, and, unless you’re making it very difficult, will do so. You have hold of their hands now -do this next step and you reduce the risk of them letting go.

Less is more -narrow your focus more to give greater depth to fewer ideas.

Suppose you had seventeen reasons for something, or eight episodes through which you’re developing a character. Instead of trying to cover so much ground, try covering two or three points instead. Long drawn out examples or episodes result in inferior work because the reader’s attention can drift. Even if you're writing a longer work, and really need to cover this much ground, avoixd this -restrain your scope and give more detail.

Look at Jane Austen: she lived through the Napoleonic Wars, some of the most tumultuous years in European and English history -yet, apart from a few soldiers showing up for a dance at appropriate moments, there’s no mention of any of that in her novels. She focusses on what she knows and goes into great depth, revealing thereby an immense understanding of her fellow human beings and entertaining millions, generation after generation.

Get the reader's attention: the first goal in your initial passages is to grab readers’ attention. Generate some interest without pushing readers away. And keep a grip by giving them what they want.


Try presenting a surprising piece of information. Open with a paradox or a fascinating piece of dialogue; give a short, enticing narrative, relate an anecdote that perhanps has significance later, or ask an unusual or rhetorical question.

Basically, don’t waffle -intrigue by creating mystery.

There's much. much more to this, to be explored in future articles. But practise this now:

Write an opening sentence which creates intrigue by suggesting mystery, missing things, a paradox.

It's a good beginning.

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