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I'm working on the finishing touches of a story that has as part of the plot a possibly-supernatural mystery. I'm feeling rather nervous about the whole thing though because said mystery isn't the focus of the story- the focus the characters who get involved, their relationships with one another, and where their decisions lead them in the story; the mystery is really just a way to explore the characters and their arcs (but is still necessary to the story thematically and plot-wise). Because of that, despite seeing the characters working on solving the mystery, I'm not inclined to actually answer the question of 'whodunit'- it isn't relevant to the larger story or the characters' individual journeys.

I'm afraid that readers will interpret this as a lack of resolution though and end up frustrated with the story, which isn't what I'm going for. What are your thoughts? Should the story end with the mystery solved? Or is it okay to leave it unfinished if the characters' arcs have been resolved?

  • If you're going to do something clever, like many of the answerers suggests, nevertheless there should BE a solution to the mystery. In order to keep red herrings, hearsay, and real clues straight and consistent, you, the author, need to know the solution. Any sidestepping of focusing on the resolution of 'whodunit' does not excuse you from having worked the truth out yourself. (Just in case you hadn't.) – Jedediah Jun 7 at 16:43
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Mystery readers strongly expect the mystery to be resolved.

If the mystery isn't the focus of the story, you can avoid rousing (and dashing) mystery readers' expectations of resolution by marketing it as something other than a mystery.

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One way to utilize an unsolved mystery in a non-mystery genre story, is to give each of your main characters a conflicting theory of "who done it". Then let their investigations overlap in ways that challenge and later prove the strength of their friendship, antipathy or love. In such a scenario, the original mystery can remain unsolved as long as each of the main character's theories are completely dis-proven. In the wake of the dispute and with each would-be detective humbled and self-abasing, the story can resolve around the characters rather than around some elaborate and logically-provable reveal.

The important part of pursuing such an approach is that the mystery must be integral to the story. The characters' relationship to the event or their efforts to solve it, must play a part in their growth and in their emotional journey. If it is just an unimportant background element, then it should be removed before it causes your readers confusion or frustration. If the mystery remains, (like everything else in the final draft of your story), it must serve a purpose and provide progress towards the story's conclusion.

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A story should finish what it starts.

You control what, exactly, you choose to start. If you're not going to be finishing a murder mystery with a solution, you need to be careful not to set the story up in a way that the story will be unsatisfying without a solution.

Let's imagine you've got a mystery you don't want to solve. A few examples:

  • The point is that the detective is obsessed, and the real climax is that he should just let it go.
  • Or the point is that some mysteries are unsolvable, and we must all live with uncertainty.
  • Or that the characters are wrong to be investigating this mystery; they've misunderstood everything and they're barking up the wrong tree.

Each of these is an example of a story, where the solution to the mystery is unimportant. That's why these stories probably shouldn't start out by establishing the mystery to be solved; instead, they should start out by establishing the problem that needs to reach resolution.

Don't begin with a dead body and questions to be answered; instead, consider:

  • Beginning with the obsessed detective, showing how focused he is, and how oblivious (and destructive) he is during his pursuit of the case
  • Beginning with the dread of uncertainty, showing how the characters are aching to find meaning and order in the world.
  • If the characters are going to misunderstand what's important -- maybe start with what is important, and you'll be portraying your characters as being drawn away from that.

These are simply examples to illustrate the premise: your first, outermost story is what readers will be expecting you to resolve. That's what establishes what the story is about. That's the promise you're making.

Within that supporting framework, "inner" plot threads can already have resolutions like "the solution is, there is no solution." What makes that work is, these resolutions will be meaningful for the higher-level story arc. They'll be delivering on your bigger promise.


That being said, it's not clear to me that you want to resolve your mystery thread at all. You see it as a vehicle to get your characters moving; once it does that, it sounds like you don't see the benefit of actually resolving it at all.

To which I would say: a story should finish what it starts.

If you used a mystery to grab the reader's attention, you don't get to let that mystery drift off just because it's not useful to you any longer. The reader's attention is still on it. The reader is still expecting some form of payoff for it, and will feel cheated if they don't get it.

So: keep close track of what promises you're making the reader. Keep promises that you can; don't make promises that you can't. And if you feel like you need to make a promise that you can't really keep, that's a good sign that there's something important there that will have a payoff, and what you need to do is tweak the promise so it matches what you're actually going to provide.

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There's a concept that I'm rather fond of regarding story resolution called "promises to the reader"

The idea is that every story promises things to the readers, and failing to fulfill those promises will leave the readers unsatisfied. These promises come from a variety of places - the title, the genre, the events of the book, etc, and while readers may not consciously know what they are expexting, recognizing what promises you make is the key to making your ending satisfying.

For example, the final battle in Lord of the Rings was mostly superfluous from the perspective of defeating Sauron - it was merely a distraction, and it was never made clear if it was a needed one. But from a plotting perspective, it was critical because a war epic like Lord of the Rings promises an epic battle as part of the resolution. Similarly, the character drama regarding whether Gollum deserved mercy promised the reader that he would make a final appearance to resolve the question. Finally, the descriptions of the Ring's power made a promise of a final test of will at the peak of Mt Doom.

How you fulfill these promises is left undefined. In fact, fulfilling them in unexpected ways is a good way to make your ending engaging (see above for Frodo's test of will at Mt Doom). But you do need to fulfill them.

Circling back to your question about mysteries, the answer is that if you promise your readers an answer to the mystery, then they will be unsatisfied if you fail to give them one. In Return of the Jedi, viewers would have been unsatisfied had nothing been said about Darth Vader's history. On the flip side, nobody minded that we learned nothing about Yoda. One history was promised, and the other was not.

Now, I have unfortunately little advice on how to avoid promising an answer to the mystery. But as others have said, that promise is generally implicit to the mystery genre, so the more you distance yourself from that the better off you'll be. Also, beta reader feedback is excellent for identifying promises.

I also recommend the Writing Excuses podcast from which I blatantly stole this concept.

  • There's a great discussion of "promises to the reader" in Orson Scott Card's Character and Viewpoint, where he lists different common story "types" in what he calls the MICE Quotient. His central point is that from your story's start, you're making promises about what kind of story this is. e.g, a Character story ("How does Character X cope with the loss of his father") won't be resolved by an Idea ("Who was the murderer") or an Event ("The murderer is brought to justice"). Highly recommended :-D – Standback Dec 29 '17 at 12:26
  • (The Writing Excuses panelists refer to Card's MICE Quotient frequently, so you might well be referring to exactly the same thing :-) ) – Standback Dec 29 '17 at 12:28
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    @Standback - I happen to know that one of the Writing Excuses panelists is Mary Robinette Kowal, who used to be a regular visitor to Card's web forums, so it seems quite likely. – Jules Dec 31 '17 at 12:49
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As @HenryTaylor says, resolve the character arcs in a very satisfying way as related to the mystery. As for the mystery itself, it can be resolved without being solved, if that makes sense. Choose one of the following:

  • Render the mystery meaningless, to the point where we really don't care "whodunit", since the answer won't change anything and doesn't matter to the characters or reader anymore in the end
  • Render the mystery unsolvable, letting this fact that they'll never know the answer resolve their arcs
  • Leave it solvable for the reader if they want to really pursue the mystery

For unsolved mysteries, I'm reminded of the visual novels "Higurashi When They Cry" and "Umineko When They Cry". The mystery of the first book isn't resolved until MUCH later, and it isn't really for the reader to solve. The focus was on the characters and their realizations of the people around them.

For the last option, the book that most readily comes to mind is "And Then There Were None" by Agatha Christie. She solves the mystery in the epilogue, but without it, I think it could be solvable, and it would have been a satisfactory end, leaving the theorists in your audience to figure it out for themselves, like a game within the book.

Other pieces of writing, art, film, and TV shows have posited mysteries for the audience to chase. If you have an answer, leave clues and let them chase it! That's part of the fun!

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In principle, you can have an open-ended story, where you leave the mystery unresolved and present it as, Mr Reader, what do you think the solution is?

But in my humble opinion, this is hard to pull off in a satisfying way.

Your post reminds me of a movie I saw years ago, "Unidentified", that was about a group of reporters investigating a UFO sighting. The story was presented as, One reporter is convinced it's all a hoax, another thinks it's aliens, and the third thinks it's something supernatural. And when they got to the end -- WARNING, SPOILER -- nothing was resolved. We were just left with the three competing theories. If this had been a documentary, I would have been impressed with how they treated all three competing ideas fairly and gave each a chance to present their case. Maybe the goal of the producers was to present these conflicting ideas, I don't know. But as a drama, it just ... had no ending. People argued about competing opinions, and then the movie just stopped in the middle of the discussion with no resolution.

Without knowing more about your particular story, I can't say if you can make this work or not. If the story is about character development, and the mystery is just a side issue along the way, maybe when the hero learns his valuable lesson or whatever the reader won't care about the resolution of the mystery. It's served it's purpose, now we forget it and move on. Or if the whole point is that this is a mystery that will not be easily solved, having the story end with the characters talking about how this mystery will not be easily solved might be a sort of paradoxical resolution, i.e. the solution is that there is no solution. Another trick is to have an ambiguous ending: to have the characters think they've solved the mystery but then there's a final scene where something is revealed that calls the solution into doubt, and the reader is supposed to go away thinking, "So was it really X or not?"

But frankly, I think leaving a mystery unresolved and still having a satisfying story is hard. Not impossible, writers have done it. But it's hard. You can't build up a mystery and then just drop it and leave it unresolved. You have to have an ending that, in some sense, explains why it is unresolved.

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The audience of mystery novels expect some kind of resolution. For supernatural mysteries it is fine to omit a conclusive resolution.

Your story focusses on the characters and their relationships with each other. This does not necessarily means you cannot have a resolution to the mystery at hand. If you choose not to include a resolution the reader might feel some negative feelings such as frustration. It can work, but you have to think about the thoughts and feelings it will induce to the reader.

If you would like to have an open end to your novel, omitting a resolution can have a strong effect of having the audience contemplate the meaning behind your story. This can work especially well with central themes such as love and death, because they are both elusive concepts which are hard to define. More specifically, a supernatural mystery could discuss existentialism: what it means to be alive, where do we come from, are we both dead and alive at the same time, does time really goes forward, aren't we dead already, aren't we living between two worlds, are we living in multiple worlds, are we victims in this world and killers in an other world. These kind of philosophical thoughts can really be a good mind fuck, and some people might love it. Try reading Nietschze and Nishida.

For ideas you might want to read "Cloud Atlas" written by David Mitchell. It contains six stories beautifully put together and each story lacks a resolution, but together they will really make the reader think.

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A simple answer for a simple question.

Yes, at the end. That's how mysteries work.

Edit: I'll elaborate. Mystery, as a genre, revolves around building suspense around an unknown factor, and the plot is about uncovering said unknown factor through ingenuity/conflict. Resolving the mystery is paramount to the payoff.

I thought this was self-explanatory, but apparently not.

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    Your answer is in the "Low Quality" queue. Can you elaborate a bit on why that's how mysteries work? It's very clear to you, but it isn't clear to the OP, otherwise they wouldn't have asked the question. And if it isn't clear to them, "that's how it works" explains nothing. – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jun 7 at 10:19
  • @Galastel Done and done – Matthew Dave Jun 7 at 10:30

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