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Is it too distracting to include a major mystery subplot(s) in a fantasy story? I mean a complete subplot or subplots that the character solves. Perhaps the examples below do not qualify as mystery subplots.

I realized that, among many other methods, George R. R. Martin utilized mystery subplots effectively in his books to help hook the readers. I do not know if these would be labeled traditional "mystery" subplots though or simply plot twists or subplots with an element of mystery.

Examples of Game of Thrones mysteries (spoilers):

  • The mystery of who pushes Bran Stark.
  • The mystery of the murder of the King's Hand.
  • The mystery of who poisoned the King.
  • The mystery in the show of who is holding Theon Greyjoy hostage.
  • There is the supernatural mystery element of the White Walkers and Children as well as the abilities of Bran Stark.

The characters and their arcs are generally thought to be the hook for Game of Thrones but we see where mystery reaches some readers another way.

Thoughts?

  • Thank you linksassin. Forgot the spoiler ability here. – Seanchaí Mar 12 at 5:33
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    This totally depends on the usage of words and suspense that you create to engage the readers. Excessive and elongated mystery may bore the reader, but if he/she feels that he/she is unraveling it piece by piece, he/she may stay hooked to know the rest. – Bella Swan Mar 12 at 6:22
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    The subplots that you listed are interwoven with the main plot. They contribute to it. Otherwise, your subplot can be a Red Herring that is leading nowhere. This is still Ok. It can be done to mystify the reader, or to perform some important tasks like character development. – Alexander Mar 12 at 9:11
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    The "subplots" you listed were key to the story.. But there were a lot of of pointless mysteries in the Game of Thrones... like which stark girl Brienne of Tarth was tracking for most of a book... only to find that it wasn't a stark girl at all.... And there was literally point to that whole subplot. – ashleylee Mar 12 at 21:30
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Are major mystery subplot(s) in a fantasy story distracting or make a story more appealing?

More appealing.

Here is an examination of the structures of Harry Potter that concludes the first four books, and the sixth, are all structured as mystery stories, wrapped in fantasy.

The first four books of the series are definitely the mystery stories he’s [another literary critic] referring to, the “who is up to no good and what are they trying to accomplish.” The mysteries are all neatly there in the titles. What is the Sorcerer’s [/Philosopher's] Stone and who wants to steal it and what for? What is the Chamber of Secrets, who would open it, and what might be inside it?

Also #3 The Prisoner of Azkaban, #4 The Goblet of Fire, and #6, The Half-Blood Prince, are structured as mysteries.

A mystery structure can keep readers engaged just to find the answer; gathering up the clues and trying to interpret them just like the characters are, getting excited by the sparks of understanding and figuring things out along the way.

A similar structure is being used currently in the TV Series The Magicians, which I follow, although the crew there is not as cohesive as the Harry Potter crew (in The Magicians singles or pairs go off on their own tangents, but eventually the whole crew always seems to get back together). But they are pretty much always trying to solve some mystery or another.

Solving a mystery is a great motivation (as it is in Harry Potter) for characters to wander and explore the setting, poke their nose in places where it does not belong, eavesdrop on conversations and search for secrets, get into trouble for all that, and even to become targets because others are trying to keep the secret, or beat them to the solution.

To keep them from being distracting, do like Harry Potter does, and use a lot of your fantasy elements and other imaginative inventions to distract the reader from the mystery. In other words, in Harry Potter, the kids are always discovering new things about the setting and other characters, they aren't only solving a mystery.

So you keep the clues, setbacks, and confusions of the mystery, but make sure that is not all the protagonists are learning and seeing and experiencing as they try to solve the mystery. The mystery cannot provide all the revelations and wonders of your world, even if the quest to solve the mystery is the reason these other revelations and wonders are encountered or experienced.

Every book has some book-driving problem for the protagonist to address, a mystery is just fine as such a problem. But, also be sure, like any other book-driving problem, the protagonists have a very strong reason to solve the mystery. It should be crucial to them to crack it, or it won't feel crucial to the reader, and then may seem like a distraction.

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The Unknown is essential

If we talk about mystery as in just something the reader doesn't know, and knows they don't know, then this is essential in fantasy and nearly any contemporary genre. If you know everything, what's the point of reading the book? There should always be something the reader is looking forward to learning, such as:

  • Who is the baddie?
  • How will the hero escape this time?
  • Will the girl get the guy in the end?
  • What is behind that big door nobody's allowed to touch?
  • Why is the old man always so grumpy?
  • What will happen next?

A lot of your Game of Thrones examples fit here, such as who the White Walkers are, what abilities does Bran have, who is holding Theon, etc.

Solvability defines a classic "mystery"

What defines what most people would consider a mystery is if it is solvable by the reader, or at least feels solvable. If there are clues that factor in to the exposition, and it's not just revealed by chance or circumstance, then this adds a more specific type of subplot that definitely appeals to a significant subset of fantasy fans. In your GOT examples, things like who poisoned the Hand might fit, because the reader feels like they could have deduced it after it's revealed, and in fact I'm sure some readers did.

This kind of mystery can add a lot of extra value to a reader even when they are not actually reading, as it gives them something to think about, ponder, reasons to re-read, etc. If done well, so that there are enough clues to engage an inquisitive reader with lots of free time, but a casual reader who just reads through once won't feel like they are missing too much, then this is definitely beneficial to add. I find that Patrick Rothfuss likely does a great job of this, with a rich backstory and lots of buried clues that still don't distract from the main story, and aren't required to enjoy the books.

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A number of works of Fantasy have been basically structured as classic mysteries. Randal Garret's "Lord Darcy" series, particularly the novel Too Many Magicians comes to mind. That is a murder mystery, in fact a Nero Wolfe parody, as well as a spy thriller, in a world where magic substitutes for significant aspects of technology, and a "Forensic Sorcerer" is an essential part of any police investigation. The novella "Penric's Fox" in Bujold's "Five Gods" series is another, more recent, mystery in a fantasy setting.

Other works, such as some of Lawrence Watt-Evans's "Ethshar" series, include significant mystery sub-plots, and they work well. sIn yet others, a mystery aspect would be merely distracting. For example, any attempt to add a mystery sub-plot to The Lord of the Rings or any similar fantasy would, in my view, be a serious mistake.

For a mystery sub-plot to add to, rather than distract from, a work of fantasy, it must be well-written in its own terms as a mystery. It must fit the fantasy setting. If the investigators sound like modern cops while the rest of the characters have a middle-ages mindset, there will be a jarring inconsistency. And the sub plot must fit reasonably well into the main plot, just as any sub-plot should.

In short, sometimes this is a good idea, if done well. Other times, not.

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