Keeping Your Mystery in its Proper Place

People love mysteries. They love to try and figure things out in well-structured clue placements and trying to navigate foreshadowing and red herrings. But often mysteries have a way of swallowing the story. Often, a mystery is judged more on its unpredictability rather than how well the story behind it is told. This is a problem.

For me, I always felt that a good story could be predictable. After all, any second reading will lack the unknown that the first read through had. If a mystery were only good enough for a single read through, then I’d argue it’s too reliant on its mystery.

Like any plot device, a mystery should serve the story. The unknown is one of the most powerful storytelling tools. Yet the best books demand to be revisited time and time again. More than anything, readers crave characters they want to spend time with resolving well-told conflicts. Mysteries can serve that end. But no matter how well structured your mystery is, you need your story to be strong enough to warrant repeat visits. That requires compelling characters and a vibrant world for them to reside in. If you’re aiming for a mystery genre, you certainly want to structure your elements properly. This isn’t an excuse to write a lazy mystery. On the contrary, by focusing on character and story first, you can better set the stakes for the mystery against something people will care about. Who wants to find out who killed a bunch of random people for some silly “twisty” reason? But what if this is your protagonist’s brother you have come to care about? Use what your characters know to make the mystery feel real.

One other thing to consider is you don’t want to over think the mystery too much. Overcomplicated mythology can bog down many a good story. And sometimes time spent on red herrings just feels like it was used to pad a thin conflict. You don’t readers coming away from your story feeling like they just navigated a complicated maze. If your readers at all feel “lets just get this over with” during your book, you might be leaning too heavy on dragging out the answers at the expense of your story’s overall appeal.

I myself have often used mystery sparingly. I often found the best “mysteries” revolved around what my characters would do next. In that sense, almost every kind of conflict is a kind of mystery. There’s no shortage of advice on crafting a mystery. But I hope this can serve as a little reminder that the unknown is never the end of a good story. The characters are. Their conflicts are. Let the mystery always support that end. And then whether readers can guess what’s going on or not, they’re more likely to feel rewarded for having embarked on the journey.

Want more writing advice? Check out other featured posts from several authors in the 2018 Writing Indie E-Conn.


Indie e-Con Scavenger Hunt 2018 – Stop 21 – Erika Mathews


As part of the 2018 Indie Econn for Writers, I am hosting a fellow author’s blog post on my blog today. Check out Erika Mathews and her work. And get to know her with her story told below.

Erika Mathews: Writing Adventures From Age Four

Erika Mathews is an author and editor who lives in the farm country of Minnesota with her husband, toddler daughter, and baby expected in June. She’s a homeschool graduate with a Bachelor’s in Communications, a Master’s in Biblical Ministries, and a passion for sharing Jesus Christ and His truth. When she’s writing, she enjoys letting God’s message shine through her, crafting pleasing sentences, and using the Oxford comma. When she’s not writing, she enjoys reading, outdoor activities, piano and violin, and organizing.

Age Five: Short Story Scribbles
My writing journey began the day I learned to read at age four. Much of my childhood was spent in the company of books. So when my parents gave me three thick spiral notebooks at age five (my childhood impression is that they were giant!), the next several years were spent filling the various sections with every kind of writing—Bible studies, nature studies, short stories, poems, drawings, drafts of ideas, scripture I was memorizing, made-up recipes, a violin lesson diary, sermon notes (and sermons I made up), and lists of all types. I titled one notebook “Stories of People and Animals Around the World” and filled it with short tales of Max the flying squirrel, adventures with my brother, ten-year-old Susan from India, and other flights of childish fancy.

Age Ten: Starting My First Book
When I was ten, my friend and I had the idea of each writing a book with “Lane” as the main character’s last name. Over the next four years I wrote the first draft of my contemporary children’s book Happy Days With the Lanes (which is currently set to be published as soon as illustrations are finalized).

Age Thirteen: Falling in Love With the Process
At age thirteen, God called me to write books that honor and glorify Him. Through high school essays and writing courses, I discovered how much I enjoyed both writing and grammar. One high school writing assignment ended up being the first draft of what I would later rewrite and publish as Gather ‘Round the Fables, a whimsical collection of fables rewritten in humorous styles: The Fox and the Grapes in the style of the King James Bible, The Tortoise and the Hare in politically correct style, and The Lion and the Mouse as narrative poetry.

Mid-Teens: Non-fiction
During this stage, I shifted my focus towards devotional writings and poetry, though I began multiple fiction works as well. Some of my devotional writings I posted on my blog at the time. Currently I’m editing these into a six-devotional series (Life in the Son!) and at least one—though probably more—poetry book (Overrun By His Love). I particularly enjoy writing poems based on Scripture passages that God opens up to me.

College: Spiritual Foundation
College degree work and Bible school attendance slowed my leisure writing for a few years. While working on my communications degree, I turned out essays, Scripture meditation commentaries, and writing assignments regularly. Then during my three years at IMI (small Bible school with an intense focus on relationship with God and intimate time with Him and in His Word), writing a commentary on the entire Bible was my major project. I also worked on my Master’s degree paper, which I have since turned into a book on spiritual rest (defining it, attaining it, remaining in it, its importance, and the balance between resting in the Lord and serving the Lord). It’s now on my desk for eventual publication.

Twenties: Kingdom Adventure Fiction
During my time at IMI, times of meditation, prayer, and listening to God yielded rich spiritual truths and laid a burden on my heart for some specific truths to communicate that are often deemphasized by many believers. I began planning how to weave the theme “prayer is the work” into a fiction novel.

In 2014, I finally had a free November in which to participate in National Novel Writing Month, and Promise’s Prayer, Book 1 in Truth from Taerna, was written: 66,000 words in thirty days. After over two years of editing, I released it in March 2017. Each November since then, I’ve written a sequel. At the moment, Victory’s Voice, Surrender’s Strength, and Sustainer’s Smile are in the editing process, with Books 5 and 6 scheduled to be written within the next year and a half.

My desire with this series is to demonstrate how the real, powerful, lifechanging truths of God’s kingdom (the spiritual realm hidden from our physical senses) could play out in a fictional setting. My goal is that God will use this series to reveal His kingdom to my readers. My reason for writing Christian fiction can be summed up in C.S. Lewis’ words: “By knowing Me here for a little, you may know Me better there.”

Present: Editing and Revising

One highlight of my writing journey at this stage is revisiting my childhood writings and polishing them for publication. Even though I didn’t dream of publishing those early scribbles, it has been a delight to recall my imaginations from that stage and recast them into something worth sharing with the world.

My writing philosophy is simple: life on earth is short and if our purpose is confined to this earth, everything our lives stand for will quickly pass away. My desire is to invest my life in something that will have eternal impact. As a Christian, Christ is my life—for me to live is Christ. Everything is all about Him; His desire is that He be known intimately. He’s given me a passion for communicating His truth through writing and speaking. My hope and prayer is that God’s kingdom on this earth will be advanced through my books and that those who read will be encouraged, challenged, or inspired to a deeper knowing of Him.

You can connect with Erika Mathews at

Clue graphic

Continue the Scavenger Hunt with the next stop, featuring a certain author you may be familiar with. Julie Gilbert is the next host and her blog is the next stop on the hunt. Head to her site: (And Don’t Forget to Keep Track of the Lettered Clues.) Stop by the first stop on the Hunt if you’ve lost track of the clues to start fresh.

Because of Austin – Now Available

My latest novel, Because of Austin, is available now. Take a look at what it’s about:

Austin and Conner thought they knew what it meant to be brothers. Only seven and ten-years-old, they’ve already carried each other through losing their father. The worst of their lives was supposed to be over. Then a confrontation with a bully goes horribly wrong. As Austin fights for his life, Conner must face his greatest fear: losing his brother. Meanwhile the bully responsible must deal with crippling grief and guilt of his own. When Austin’s condition deteriorates, all three boys will see their childhoods threatened with a very adult darkness. In the face of the unthinkable, their choices could leave all of their young lives cut short.


Go buy it:

The Superb Film of the Year Critics Got Wrong! The Book of Henry Film Review (Non-Spoiler)

The Superb Film of the Year Critics Got Wrong


The Book of Henry has cult Indie hit written all over it. It stars 2 beloved child stars who are known for a handful of critically acclaimed roles over blockbusters. It has a rather offbeat plot with a mixture of genres and decided lack of summertime cinematic flare. Yet, it does what few movies ever care to do: take dramatic risks.

I won’t be one of THOSE reviewers who spoil plot twists (at least not in THIS review. I may do a spoiler review because the film merits discussion), even though a pivotal twist midway through sets the tone for the remainder of the film. I give credit to the trailers for not giving this away and yet rewatching them it’s so apparent. That’s the mark of a good twist. And the moments themselves are just gut-wrenchingly well-done and moving.

Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent, Midnight Special) stars as the titular Henry while Jacob Tremblay (Room) is his younger brother, Peter. The two boys carry so much of the emotional weight of the film. They play one of the most real and lovable pair of brothers to grace the screen in ages. I like that they were able to show a healthy and loving brotherly relationship not mired in loudmouth conflicts. Naomi Watts effectively handles the role of their mother and takes the baton as film lead as we get further into the film. In the film, offbeat family moments slowly give way to a more intense vibe when Henry’s suspicions that the girl next door is being abused by her stepfather lead the family members to take more drastic steps to save her.

While I won’t spoil the big moments, the movie has legitimate guts. Few films would have the guts to do what this film does at all, let alone halfway through, let alone as in your face as they do. And yet it never feels manipulative or artificial. I bought every second despite the fairly contrived nature of the plot. I credit the actors with this because they seem to believe their characters. Lieberher is spectacularly low key as the genius and melancholy Henry. I think what makes so many precocious film kids grating is that they are directed to be a bit obnoxious about it. Lieberher is the exact opposite, carrying his genius with a quiet humility and wanting to use it mostly to the benefit of his family. He’s also allowed to have moments of “being a kid” shine through both in his inventiveness and his entertaining of his little brother. For his part, Tremblay is excellent. While a more supporting role than his turn in Room, he’s consistently a strong screen presence. Lines of dialogue that are admittedly a bit hammy feel completely natural coming from him. Kids aren’t always known for subtlety, after all. Watts is very good as well. Some scenes have her a little too wide-eyed. But in the moments where it counts, she comes through like a champ. Most importantly, she helps make these three believable as a family.

Much has been made of the film’s stark tonal shifts. I found the tonal shifts a lot more understated and organic than most critics. They’d have you believe Watts and the abusive stepfather/police commissioner next door (Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris) get into a violent shootout in the woods with supporting characters falling in the crossfire. Instead the “thriller” aspects of the last act stem pretty blatantly from the earlier events of the film. Don’t get me wrong. The film has some notable tonal shifts, but the animated, over-the-top reaction by some critics is really a lot more absurd than any moment in this film. I can see some of the artistic choices that probably would’ve been better left undone. There are some beats left out that I as a writer would’ve probably included or explored more, particularly in the back half. But this is fine-tuning critical territory, not make or break statements about a film’s overall quality. When it comes down to it, this is a drama about real people in a fairly manufactured situation, but one that the actors sell without flinching. I can understand saying that this movie isn’t perfect, but when all is said and done, I think this one could be remembered as one where the critics were just wildly off from what the average person thinks. Looks like we have a new cult favorite to champion. Here’s hoping we see more of Jaeden Lieberher and Jacob Tremblay because they are two of the realest young actors in the biz.

On Writing Children


Writing child characters is one of the bigger challenges writer’s face, causing many to not do it at all. The problems are easy to see. Make the kid too “kiddy” or immature and they become an annoyance, a pest you just want to go away. Make them too invisible and they become little more than window decoration that limits the adults without adding much in return. Perhaps what draws the most criticism is writing kids as too adult, making them precocious little teenagers in little bodies. I know I’ve been accused of the latter, and it’s hard to really avoid altogether since people have such varied ideas of what kids should act like. Maybe that’s just it, though. Kids are people too.

If somebody asks you how an adult character acts, you’d probably respond that everyone is different and how a given character acts depends on the character. Some characters are measured and calculated while other are reckless. Some are open and free-spirited and others are secretive and shut people out. Kids are no different. While some famous literary children have been praised for their accuracy, such as the infectious and adorable Jack from Room, it’s a bit hard to say that such kids are an accurate representation of all kids. They were accurate portrayals of their characters, believable like any good character should be.

See, kids come in all different personality types too. Some are immature, some are precocious. I think we underestimate kids sometimes. Overhearing the things kids say, sometimes it baffles what they may pick up from adults or just how complicated their emotions can be. Most kids probably don’t have the vocabulary in casual conversation that most adults do, but some do.

The overall point is to stop trying to write “believable kids” and focus more on writing believable characters who happen to still be children. I don’t know why I’ve been drawn to write kids so frequently in my books. Perhaps they are a source of natural conflict, natural stakes. You can’t kill the kid, after all. Right? Kids have a habit of carrying this innocence to them that makes readers care. Maybe it’s an easy way out, yet it’s not. All of these benefits to writing kids can all go out the window if it falls on its face. Leaving them out is the safer option, if anything.

Many of my signature characters are my kid characters. Ask any of my readers the first character that comes to mind and they’ll probably say Patrick. He’s first seen as a kid in my debut novel, Blood Chain. And I pretty much put him through some emotional trauma that will probably make some of my readers detest me. Yet he’s the character many latch onto the most. They cherish him and become protective of him. And I think I was able to really paint on the page a real person, with complex emotions and relatable dreams and fears. Kids are a world of untapped potential and embody so much of what makes reading attractive to us. If you want to write a kid character, find one that speaks to you. Just as you would do for an adult character. You have to keep logistics in mind, don’t get me wrong. If your kid is going to radically buck stereotypes and averages of what a typical kid their age would do, be prepared to explain why. But don’t keep your kid in too tight a box. Let them teach you and show you who they are. You might be surprised at just how complex and, dare I say, adult a character they can be.