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Here are a few examples of mysteries (I just came up with them now):

A. A woman finds out that a lost ancient city still exists.

B. A man finds out that her death wife is actually alive.

C. The TV of a guy keeps turning on at night even though it's not connected.

Would readers care about all of them? If so, what would make them care more about, say, A than B, or B than C?

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    Wouldn't this depend on the reader? Not everyone likes the same stuff. Aug 24 '15 at 16:43
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    Good storytelling and good writing is what makes the reader care. There are many well-written stories and scripts involving all three, with plenty of readers caring about them. And many poorly written ones that with those that nobody cares about. I'm sure you have some specific ones you like. Figure out what makes you care about them, and you have your answer.
    – Misha R
    Aug 24 '15 at 18:15
  • I think this is a question asking what to write, which is off-topic here. But asking about the accessibility and draw of these kinds of plots (mysticism and horror, I think) would be a better question. Or maybe you could ask about challenges in planning them? Aug 24 '15 at 19:03
  • For a classic example of a story employing theme A which became very popular among readers, check out Lovecraft's The Nameless City.
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 27 '15 at 13:23
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I think what makes anything matter to readers is:

  • it matters to a character that readers care about
  • it matters to the character for reasons readers can identify with
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  • This is good advice, but how does it relate to mystery/horror? Aug 25 '15 at 0:48
  • It relates very much when you're talking about something like James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series. With each new book, the reader cares more and more about the character, and over time a very large readership is built up.
    – ewormuth
    Aug 26 '15 at 2:35
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All people have a natural curiosity.

The mystery genre usually preys on that curiosity, giving people a hypothesis and asking them one or several questions based on that hypothesis. This is the 'mystery'.

Then they try to solve the said mystery in their minds and this involves them in the story a great deal. Because it makes the story personal for them. They want to see if they got it right.

If they did, and if it was not too easy (because then it's boring), then they have a sense of satisfaction, feeling smart about it.

If they don't (and they usually don't because most stories withhold information from the reader or, better, cover it very good as to not raise a hint) then they are left in a sense of awe at the right answer.

So you can't go wrong with the mystery genre.

However, when creating a mystery, you can go wrong with writing it. Make it too easy and the story can become cliche or uninteresting. If I can spot the real killer from the beginning, I'll dismiss it as a dumb story. Making it too hard, usually doesn't go wrong, but in my experience you can never make it hard enough without outright withholding information from the reader (which is a bad idea, since they'll feel cheated) or employing techniques like the 'Deus ex machina', that readers usually hate.

You have to find a balance, and have the character in charge of solving the mystery keep pace with the reader's own judgements.

I must add the "solving the mystery in one's mind" must not necessarily be a conscious act (you don't have to make notes of events and characters and deliberately try to solve it). It often happens subconsciously and it's the reason we gain interest in the mystery. Your brain is subconsciously trying to find an answer, given the hypothesis, and it is this very thing that makes you react with interest toward the said plot.

Now, as for what mystery pique's a reader's interest, well, it depends on the reader.

From the three choices you enumerated, I'd definitely go with C.

A doesn't interest me because I don't have a fascination with lost cities and the plot itself does not raise interesting questions for me (question's like what might we found there). Also if you plan to make a plot out of it, I advise you to build up the legend of the lost city as to make it interesting to the reader. Make them wonder about it. Make them want to go there to explore. And only then reveal it's continued existence. If you don't build it beforehand, the reveal will fall flat and won't pique the reader's interest.

Same with B. Make the dead wife known to us. Either through flashbacks or her being a character before hand. Have her disappearance or death be somewhat of a mystery for us. If readers don't know who she is, they won't care that she's still alive. Make most of the reveal to hook the readers further with your story.

With C, the mystery index is rather high. First it's something we can all relate to (at least we who have a TV). Then it has a dose of unexplained, pointing toward supernatural phenomena, which has always piqued the human mind's interest, because we seek to make sense of the unknown.

The first two are circumstantial mysteries, which depend on further elaborating the mystery around them to make them good. The third is a mystery in itself.

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  • great answer, i will just add that there is also a cultural element that can make readers lean toward one type rather than the other. i;e; citizens of country X may prefer mystery Y, while citizens of Z tend to like mystery W. Aug 25 '15 at 23:21
  • @Reed Not only cultural but individual, as Mr. Shiny said in the very first comment on the question: it depends on what the individual reader finds interesting. As a concrete example: in contrast to Rex here, I find the notion of C entirely uninteresting and A quite intriguing. If you handed me a book and all you gave me was a one-sentence description of what it's about, if you described it as C, I'd thank you politely for the gift and then toss it out. If you described A, I'd almost certainly give the book a chance. Sounds like Rex is the opposite. Individual tastes vary.
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 27 '15 at 11:54
  • It certainly depends on individual taste as well. A long time ago the cultural element had a much stronger sway over individual interests, but since the age of technology and us being connected through the internet it sure took a hit in favor for individual self development. As for myself, I'd give each story a chance and all of them have potential of being great. I just chose C because of my own personal interest in paranormal and the unexplained.
    – Rex Feral
    Aug 27 '15 at 13:01
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That absolutely depends on your story. If it's important for the story, readers will be curious. But then, don't disappoint them ;-)

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    I'm going to suggest this advice would be better offered as a comment rather than an answer.
    – Dan Bron
    Aug 27 '15 at 11:55

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