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Usually, at the end of a crime, thriller, horror, fantasy, science fiction, or other action genre novel, the identity of the antagonist is uncovered and the riddle that drives the plot is resolved: the murderer gets caught as the detective understands why he committed the deed; the secret agency wards off the danger to their country, as they identify which foreign government is behind it and what their motives are; the monster is revealed, its origin understood, and its threat overcome; and so on.

But that is not how things turn out in reality. Many murders remain unsolved, many conspiracies unexposed, many mysterious events are never fully understood. Yet, in fiction, such a lack of resolution will leave most readers frustrated and unsatisfied.

I recently finished a novel, in which an innocent bystander is accidentally caught up in what appears to be some mysterious criminal undertaking, forced by the turn of events to commit a murder, and eventually left behind, without ever learning who he was fighting against and what their intention was. I thought I wrote this well, but my test readers all complained vehemently. Apparently the lack of explanation made the story appear random, and the unresolved end left readers feeling betrayed by, I guess, the implicit promise of genre conventions.

Of course I could now come up with who did it and why, but since the basic idea of my novel was to leave the riddle unresolved, I am now wondering:

How can I leave the identity of the antagonist(s) and the purpose of their activities a mystery, without frustrating the reader and leaving them dissatisfied at the end?

Your answer will be especially helpful, if you provide evidence in the form of a published novel or film in which what you propose has been successfully employed.

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    Related: writers.stackexchange.com/questions/32169/… – Standback Jan 21 '18 at 12:21
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    State the contract with the readers, and do not mis-state the contract. (I have a few places where I unintentionally signal that something will be a part of my story when to me it was just an extra layer in a chapter, and so the reader sees it as a contract when it isn't.) It's all about telling them what they will get, in the set up. – DPT Jan 21 '18 at 16:46
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    For some reason this question makes me think of Twin Peaks (the original 1980s TV show). Although it did eventually more or less resolve the mystery, that resolution wasn't really important to the story at all. It very much started out with all the trappings of a traditional murder mystery, including a dead body and a detective, but in the end it was really a character-driven story about life in a small town. I'm not quite sure how this was pulled off, but perhaps examining that story could give some ideas. – Nathaniel Jan 22 '18 at 0:56
  • @Nathaniel I felt the same way about Lost, and in fact the fundamental priniciple of many tv series is that they leave either the main or a few of the parallel story threads unresolved, to keep the viewers "addicted". But a (standalone) novel is not a tv series. So looking at how Twin Peaks or Lost work doesn't really help me with that. – user29032 Jan 22 '18 at 17:47
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    Some readers will be frustrated by this. Others will love it. You can't make everybody happy. You can either make what makes you happy and appreciate that some other people will also be pleased by it, or you can study what has the best chance of making you money and try to do that. – R.. Jan 22 '18 at 18:10

14 Answers 14

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The convention is usually that the resolution of the story is the resolution of the mystery, but if you want the mystery to remain unresolved, what is it that gets resolved at the end of the story? Why does the story end when it does?

You might have your protagonist coming to terms with what he's done and with the idea that he doesn't know what really happened. You could leave the protagonist banging his head against a padded wall unable to accept that he doesn't know what really happened (which is a resolution of a sort). I understand it's moving away from the premise above, but you could have an epilogue with the antagonist starting the process again with his next victim - a resolution for the antagonist that the reader knows but the protagonist doesn't. Whatever you do, there will have to be something the reader can point at to say "this is why the story ends here".

Additionally, you could drop hints to the reader earlier in the book that what they were reading wasn't standard genre fiction - emphasising the protagonist's journey so this is more prominent than finding clues. You could also play with the idea of an unreliable narrator (several good examples listed on that page).

Whichever way you go, something will need to be resolved at the end of the book. If it isn't the riddle, the emphasis should be on what it is.

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    I like the suggestion of providing a resolution for the reader, but not necessarily for the protagonist. That's a great way to solve the problem. – freginold Jan 21 '18 at 11:58
  • Typing — in the post editor will insert an em-dash; but not in comments! Alas! – jpaugh Jan 24 '18 at 4:52
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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.

You say that not having a clean resolution is "the basic idea of the novel." Here are a few possible ways to interpret that idea:

  • The point is that the detective is obsessed, and the real conclusion the reader should draw 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.

  • Crossposted, with slight tweaks, from writers.stackexchange.com/a/32227/1046 -- a similar-but-not-identical question – Standback Jan 21 '18 at 12:26
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    “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” – Bradd Szonye Jan 23 '18 at 21:44
  • As a somewhat macabre recent work: this plays well with the first Saw movie, where we learn only at the end that <spoiler> – Adam Smith Jan 24 '18 at 0:44
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This concerns me:

Of course I could now come up with who did it and why

If you're writing a mystery, you need to know the answer yourself even if your protagonist does not.

Without an overarching "thing" that is happening there is nothing to tie the plot together and all sorts of strange inconsistencies can emerge. It is fine to have the protagonist caught in the cogs of a machine that they do not understand, but unless you as a writer understand it then you have no idea what cogs are going where.

I'm not saying that you need to know everything in ultimate detail, but without at least some idea of what is behind the mystery all sorts of strange inconsistencies creep in and your novel just becomes a sequence of unexplained deus ex machina.

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    It is concerning, but sometimes it's actually interesting when there is no single consistent explanation for everything. – R.. Jan 22 '18 at 18:12
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    @R.. Maybe, if it's done right. More often it's just a confusing mess leaving all the readers thinking the writer is lazy or unprepared. – Tim B Jan 22 '18 at 20:02
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    Very much so, planned inconsistencies are hard to do well but can be effective. Accidental ones are just sloppy. Even when doing the first it is hard not to be seen as doing the second. – Tim B Jan 22 '18 at 21:28
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    I can understand wanting to avoid coming up with a fixed plot, as you might end up accidentally giving too much away. But if you don't have a clear concept of what happened, it's going to be much more difficult to come up with a plot that makes sense without seeming like random stuff. In that case, I would go the "Clue" route, and like the movie, build out a full sequence of events and motive for each suspect character as if they were guilty. Why would they all have done it, what clues would they have left, etc. Then you can pick and choose from each to create the ambiguity. – Jonathan Jan 22 '18 at 23:00
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    @Jonathan: Clue did have issues. It superficially portrayed itself as a "fair play" mystery, which it clearly wasn't. Indeed, I would argue that you simply can't do this if you want a "fair play" mystery, because it has to have a single solution, not three. So then, this is really down to genre and reader expectations. If you don't want to resolve the mystery, don't write a mystery. Write a comedy (like Clue was) or something else entirely, that just happens to involve an investigation. – Kevin Jan 23 '18 at 6:34
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This IS possible, although it may not (make that will not) appeal to everyone. Dhalgren (Delany), Wind Up Bird Chronicles (Murakami) and New York Trilogy (Auster) are three very successful and influential books that end with substantial unanswered questions about the book's core mysteries.

I think the key is to make sure the story feels "emotionally complete," which is to say, that the character goes through a completed story arc, even if the mystery remains open.

You may also need to understand that your book may be a rarified taste for a niche audience comfortable with lack of closure --and your test readers might not be in that audience. My personal top favorite movie is Children of Men, which ends in complete ambiguity. To me, it's a perfect ending, but many people hated it.

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    I forgot about Dhalgren. It's been such a long time. Thank you for reminding me. – user29032 Jan 22 '18 at 20:22
  • I like how this answer reaches to other works for examples. I also thought of Murakami. The only work in which he even approaches "solving the mystery" is Hardboiled Wonderland. – Marc L. Jan 23 '18 at 14:33
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The problem here is that your readers thought they were reading a conventional mystery novel, when what you (might have) intended to write was something in a completely different genre.

You need to identify what that genre is and do some re-writes so that it's clear from the beginning and at every point along the way that the point of the novel is to experience something other than the mystery's solution being revealed. That way, when it doesn't happen, readers will understand what it was you did want them to experience and not feel (as) deprived of the reveal.

It sounds to me like an existential novel. Nobody's angry that Godot never came, right? Or a tragic one - nobody's angry that the fishermen didn't escape the Perfect Storm, right? Or a psychological thriller - nobody's mad that Hannibal Lecter keeps not getting caught, right? Or a fable - don't fools always get what's coming to them?

All of those types of fiction are written in a different way than the whodunit is, and they all succeed at not leading the reader to expect it to end a certain way.

So, figure out what IS the point of reading your novel, if not a mystery to solve. Once you figure that out, you can study and practice that type of writing.

If you were to treat the entire novel as a statement of this theme (quoted from your original question) and its consequences:

"how things turn out in reality. Many murders remain unsolved, many conspiracies unexposed, many mysterious events are never fully understood."

...and go back to the beginning of it and do some re-writing, I'll bet you can figure out how to subtly alter the tone, flavor and imagery, the scent and feeling of your writing, so that even without changing the plot it becomes something which doesn't set readers up to expect a whodunit, but something else which will satisfy in a different way.

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The only way I can think of solving this puzzle is if the protagonist was never really interested in foiling a plot in the first place, but gets their revenge, and from their point of view justice gets done against those that wronged them, and they "won" somehow (are made whole or richer) without actually uncovering the motivations of the villain.

I don't have good examples, most producers/publishers would feel the same as your friend; there is a good reason nearly all books and movies have happy endings.

But the first "Taken" movie might nearly qualify: A secret agent's daughter is kidnapped while on vacation overseas, to be sold as a sex slave. His only goal is to rescue his daughter by killing a few dozen people, which he does. It is an "inventive murder" film, all covert battle action by our hero, motivated (for the audience) by regular scenes of frightening brutality of the villains treating girls like disposable meat. In the end the secret agent doesn't take down the whole foreign sex trade (implausible anyway, there are millions of girls in sexual slavery), he follows a trail to rescue his daughter and finally does, just before she is to be raped by a 'customer' (also killed).

Then the movie is over; our secret agent "wins" even though he leaves behind rampant injustice and the kidnapping will continue. (and sets up the revenge sequel, since he killed the son of a powerful slaver.) He got what he wanted, his daughter back unraped, and just about everybody directly involved killed.

The mystery doesn't have to be solved if your protagonist doesn't care about it, give your protagonist a compelling smaller goal to achieve. However, you cannot have it both ways, IMO that will not be published. By 'both ways' I mean you cannot focus on this mystery throughout the story, and investigating this mystery, and people dying trying to discover the answer, and then not reveal it! If what is driving readers to turn pages is wanting to know how the riddle is resolved, you must resolve it.

That said, you can have a plot-driving riddle the protagonist is not trying to solve. Instead, some fallout of this plot is threatening the protagonist or those he loves, and his goal is to eliminate the threat, not necessarily thwart the villain. Or his goal is to prevent one small part of the villain's goal.

So you can focus on the protagonist's smaller goal and have a larger plot peripheral to it, or that incidentally caused his dilemma, moving actors around offstage to create obstacles in the protagonist's path. But if the villain's whole plot is the focus of the book throughout, if you are describing mysteries that really have nothing to do with the protagonist's dilemma or goal, then you must resolve the larger plot.

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Two suggestions:

1) Flag your intention as early as possible. Open your novel with a line like, "Some mysteries aren't meant be solved."

2) Be vague about the clues: what matters is how your characters respond to them, not what they are. By being vague, your readers can't try to solve them.

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I recently saw the film Reversal of Fortune. Of course, the answer spoils it, so don't read further if you want to avoid that. But, as the question sets, the mystery doesn't get resolved.

This film literally starts with the mystery, almost with a dead body. And the mystery is never solved, but the film is highly rated and usually considered to be good (having 94% at tomatoes and 7.3 at IMDb). The current top review at IMDb says:

[..] By the end of the movie, we don't really care whether or not Claus is guilty [..].

So, how did they achieve this?

First, there is a slight difference from your story - the mystery is not driving the plot. The plot is driven by consequences of the mystery. The main characters are not trying to find who and how did it - they are trying to prove that Claus didn't do it. Equally, you might focus your overarching goals to something that can be concluded. For example, your character might simply try to survive or get away from it all instead of trying to solve it.

Secondly, the film ends with revealing what one or another character thinks actually happened. Thus we are shown that no one knows the answer and there will be no solution. The mystery doesn't just remain unsolved, we even get explicitly told that the solution is unknown. The victim says at the end:

This is all you can know. All you can be told. When you get where I am, you will know the rest.

Lastly, it's just a good film. Of course, we wanted to know the solution. Of course, we were a bit unsatisfied after it ended. But it was a good enough film to just show the middle finger to our expectations of solution and just leave it like it actually happened (the real life mystery remains unsolved). I watched it with my SO and she said after the movie:

Yup, it seemed to be too good of a movie to simply reveal a true solution.

Thus implying that the "solution" or "happy-ending" is kind of a cheap way out, the common Hollywood style to satisfy the viewer. A good enough movie may do it otherwise, be it must be done good.

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This question reminded me of the Agatha Christie novel '... And Then There Were None'. The setup is that ten strangers are brought to an island retreat by someone not known to any of them; it is then revealed that each of them is considered by their 'host' to have gotten away with murder, and they are being brought to justice - i.e killed off one by one. By the end of the novel EVERYONE on the island is dead, and the local police (along with the reader) are presented with a baffling, apparently unsolvable mystery.

Then: Christie adds an epilogue in which the 'host' explains (in the cliched 'note found in a washed-up bottle') exactly how he did it.

  • Could you elaborate? I do not see how the answer relates to the question of how to perpetuate the mystery. – FFN Jan 27 '18 at 19:52
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Another answer links to a different question, which has an answer that says you can "give each of your main characters a conflicting theory of 'who done it'." The short story "In a Grove", upon which the film Rashomon was based, has a mystery which is not resolved, and has each of the three witnesses to the mystery giving precisely this kind of conflicting account — they each claim they are responsible for a death.

The difference between this and a conventional mystery is that these characters know what happened; they just give different accounts. If the mystery is a "riddle", then a smarter person is more likely to figure it out. Not figuring it out suggests a character is too stupid to accomplish an important task. Especially in mysteries, readers don't like stupid characters.

So, make sure that characters the reader cares about don't look stupid.

  • Or, not figuring it out suggests that the riddle is genuinely difficult to solve; or that not enough information is even available to solve it. If the reader can't solve it, then why would the character seem stupid for not solving it? – jpaugh Jan 24 '18 at 5:02
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A friend of mine once said, "Some stories don't end. They just stop."

It is, of course, true that in real life not all crimes are solved, not all hidden treasures are found, not all romances lead to the couple living happily ever after, etc. But a story is not real life. The reader expects the story to have a conclusion. It doesn't always have to be a happy ending, but it has to have an "end", a conclusion of some kind.

You say that the basic idea of your story was that the riddle is unsolved. That's fine. But you still need to have a conclusion. The story has to end by pointing out that the riddle is unsolved in some way that presents a satisfying conclusion. If, for example, the point of your story is to say, "hey, not all mysteries are solved in the end", then you need to end with, for example, a dialog where the characters discuss how some mysteries are never solved and talk about their frustration. Or some such.

You don't necessarily have to solve every crime that happens in the story. But you have to resolve something.

I've read stories that end with some open mystery. Usually it's a "big mystery", like is there life on other planets, or is there a God, etc.

I think that having a story that centers around a murder or some other crime, and then ends without that crime being "solved" in some sense -- maybe the brilliant detective catches the criminal, maybe it ends with the criminal exulting that he has escaped, etc -- I think you will have a hard time making a satisfying ending. Not impossible, but hard.

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One option is to give the reader more information than the character has, a la "little did he know..." etc. That way the reader can know what's going on, while the mystery remains unsolved for the character. I don't know if that's what you're going for here, but it's something to consider.

You can do it with direct author asides, explanatory footnotes, or (my preferred method) brief interludes from other characters perspectives. Done well, it actually increases suspense, and some writers use it as a method to add tension to scenes that are otherwise flat.

For example, nobody cares that bob is carefully considering whether to buy an apple or an orange, and it makes a pretty boring scene. But, if its preceded by an interlude where we see an apple-shaped bomb fall out of the assassins bag, suddenly bob's dilemma assumes a whole new weight.

Bob doesn't know why the grocery store suddenly explodes, but we the readers do - and that knowledge allows us to enjoy bobs confusion, without being bewildered ourselves.

  • I.e. an ironic approach. With all this, it is important that the format have a consistent and fascinating narrator: e.g. it could be a detective's casefile compiled decades later wherein he is finally deciding — maybe with him being an unreliable narrator — that the case is closed. The detective has access to more information than the protagonist, but not enough to properly identify the villains. – can-ned_food Mar 20 '18 at 19:44
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One could provide two completely different possible explanations of the mystery at the end. That reminds me of the novel K-PAX by Gene Brewer (which has also been turned into a motion picture), although it is somewhat different in setup than yours: in this novel, the two different possible explanations are repeatedly considered throughout the whole book (and it may remain slightly frustrating for the reader that the book leaves unanswered which possibility is true).

  • It's a good example and I'm giving it a vote, though you've tripped over one of my pet peeves. What about the original book? – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Jan 23 '18 at 8:30
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    Sorry, ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere, I should have been more considerate. I temporarily forgot that it was based upon the novel by Gene Brewer! – Hans Jan 24 '18 at 10:13
  • Not a problem, and it was a good film - I'm much worse when I think I'm talking about Andersen and others are talking Disney. But thanks for coming back and changing it. – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Jan 24 '18 at 10:32
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    @ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere (GCU, Eccentric) - that's Grimm. – Will Crawford Jan 25 '18 at 10:24
  • @WillCrawford - Good one. And kudos for spotting the inspiration for the name. – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Jan 25 '18 at 10:33
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Have a concrete answer for yourself, and let it influence the entire story, but never actually explicitly state the answer

Allow the reader to have their own theory, have something that gets resolved by the end, leave clues and red herrings, change something concrete that the character initially thought was true of the mystery, and the readers are far more likely to be satisfied.

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