What the Novelist Does Not Tell You
By Kate MosseJanuary 19, 2021
It’s one of the oddest parts of being a novelist that your readers are more interested in what you do not tell them than what you do. Yes, the setting is delicious, the time-period intriguing, the action dynamic, the personalities gripping and surprising. You take a lot of trouble over your sentences and your paragraphs, carrying the reader along on a tide of invention. And they, above all, wonder about what you haven’t told them.
‘What will happen next? Why did that character say that? Why didn’t she realise they were watching her? Who can she ask for help? Who can she trust?’
And, with luck, they read on to find out. That’s the aim!
The desire to find out the answer to the questions the story poses is the fuel in the engine of your plot. That’s the nature of suspense—it’s the difference between what the reader knows and what they want to know. The things you don’t say are the things the reader hangs around to find out.
When I wrote my 2005 ‘mystery and history’ novel Labyrinth, I knew from own personal experience that the great cathedral in Chartres was an enigmatic ‘book in stone’. I had seen it as a teenager when on a youth orchestra exchange and been blown away by the majesty of its architecture, the richness of its symbolic decoration. As a novelist, thirty years later, I wanted something more. So, I developed an idea that the mysteries of Chartres Cathedral were a deliberate smokescreen—a mystery to conceal a greater mystery—with the amazing thirteen-circuit floor labyrinth at the heart of it. And that put me on the path to the cave in the Pyrenees where Alice, the modern-day hero of Labyrinth, asks herself the same questions as my readers. (I use the word ‘hero’ to indicate the protagonist of the story, the lead character, female or male, who we’re rooting for and who drives the plot forward.)
‘Why do I feel like I have been in this strange place before? What is this unusual object lying undisturbed for centuries in the dust of the 13th century? Why are these men determined to take it from me?’
Sometimes, suspense doesn’t hinge upon an object—what some people call a MacGuffin, the thing that everyone wants to find. It might be a magnificent diamond or, perhaps most famously, a ‘Maltese falcon’. Sometimes it comes from the fact that the hero, like the reader, doesn’t yet understand what is going on either. Perhaps intuition tells them they’re walking into danger. Into an ambush. Perhaps the people closest to them attempt to give reassurance, to calm their fears. But the trouble is, all the other elements of the plot—the conflicting desires and necessities of simply being alive in the imaginary world—mean that they cannot turn back. All that is left for them is to fight their corner against whatever the tricksy novelist puts in their way.
It’s an interesting problem. For the book to continue, it has to be impossible for the hero of a novel of crime or suspense—and suspense is present in all good stories—to just walk away. It would only take a moment’s apathy for the whole edifice of imaginary creation to come tumbling down. Shakespeare’s Hamlet could say: ‘I don’t care who killed my father, after all. I’m going back to university to study philosophy.’ And then there’s no more play.
Minou Joubert, the hero of my novel The City of Tears is confronted by a terrible decision. The year is 1572. Paris is racked by religious violence. A few days after the royal wedding intended to bring peace to divided France, a massacre begins in the early hours of St. Bartholomew’s Day. A mob is running rampant and she and her family are no longer safe in the capital. They must flee. But her curious and adventurous seven-year-old daughter Marta is missing, lost in the narrow, crowded, unsafe streets. Should Minou stay, or should she go? Should she listen to her husband or her own heart?
It is, of course, an impossible decision. It’s a ‘Sophie’s Choice‘. To sacrifice one child to save another? There is no perfect answer. There is no possible pathway that reconciles logic with love.
If I have written it right, the reader will empathise, will understand whatever Minou chooses to do. Then, as they turn the pages, they will judge future events on the basis of the past. This, also, will be a kind of suspense. How will Minou’s decision play out? Might it still be possible to take a step backward and fix what was done?
I love writing. I love standing in the shoes of the people of the past, I love imagining the cities of the past and filling them with characters I write, in part to discover what will happen to the women and men I put on the page, with attention to detail and respect. I hope that everyone who reads The City of Tears will want to turn back time. After all, how does a mother recover from the loss of a child, especially if circumstances forced her to abandon hope when, surely, some tiny vestige of hope still remained? It’s the stuff of many modern detective stories and thrillers. My job is to show how, though separated by 450 years of history, a mother or father in the 16th century facing such a tragedy, such a mystery, would feel just the same as any of us might do today.
I also love reading. I love to see the pattern of events that another creative mind has constructed and to wonder how things will pan out, who will be punished, and who will be rewarded. If I wasn’t a novelist, I would still be a reader. I would still be eternally grateful to Agatha Christie and a thousand others for making me want to know, very specifically, all the intriguing things that they have cleverly refrained from telling me and that I can only discover by turning the pages, one by one, until I reach the end. Suspense lies at the heart of every story, whether it is the central facet of the plot or something just there, in the background. We read to widen our horizons, to feel different emotions and, to have when we have closed the final page, a sense of satisfaction at a story resolved. At a mystery solved.