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The Mystery Approach

I've taken note lately that certain people are attempting to take a "mystery" approach to their stories. This isn't a bad thing, but there's a lot of things that go into it in order to pull it off correctly.

What makes something mysterious?

Usually when something is mysterious, it leaves you wondering about it, thinking about it. It doesn't confuse you, as some of the stories end up doing. But how is this done? Usually, it depends. Maybe a character's motives or backstory are left out. The idea "Nothing is Scarier" comes to mind here. Maybe the cause of all the trouble is left completely untouched upon.

Done right, this can make or break a story. Done wrong, and it'll screw things up.

"But Senji!" You say. "How do you do it?!"

I'm getting to that. Give me a moment.

First off, let's look at what fails stories that attempt to mystify or overshadow things. The issue often lies in the fact that they put too much concentration on that particular plot point. They draw the reader into concentrating on it and wanting to know more, but they then leave the important details that the reader wants to know out. Let me explain why this is not a good idea: Again, it's too much focus. The more focus you put on a plot point or character, the more you have to open on their motives and what they are sometime in the story. The more focus, the less mystery.

Let's look at Mother's Call. Almost no focus is put on the being in the kitchen. It's all the reactions to it and what is going on around it. For all you know, the being in the kitchen isn't the being at all; it's the real mother. It leaves the approach open to interpretation, and it doesn't focus too much on its biggest plot point.

That said, there does need to be some focus. The moment you bring up something interesting in an elaborate story, readers need to know at least a little bit about it. Mother's Call does in fact pull this off. You know there's something there.

A recent story I seen in the WW was about a doll. Now, almost no focus was put on the doll in question. The issue was that while it was the biggest plot point and he's doing exactly as I mentioned, the story is elaborate enough that the doll catches interest and serves as the hook. The other issues include the fact that there was no description or otherwise for the doll; that's fine in a journal, but this was a first person story. You do need to include some kind of detail. Mother's Call, for example, doesn't do this because it's incredibly short. It operates almost entirely on the aforementioned "Nothing is Scarier" trope. As you get longer, more details are required. You're attempting to draw the reader in with a longer story, and a longer story needs a better, more imagined hook.

So, with that out of the way. Try giving the reader some idea of your creature/character/plot point, but don't slam down the full thing. Draw concentration to certain areas and characteristics but don't say a single word about others. Drop hints as to a possible reason, but don't give it away. Draw the reader into thinking, not just reading. As not to compromise the plot, make it to where the character's motives or the plot point's meaning is irrelevant to the story and its events, but earmark it enough to get the reader thinking. One or two mentions are all that is necessary.

For example, and say what you will about Red, NES Godzilla Creepypasta actually pulls off the mystery approach halfway decently. Most of the story is told via its screencaps, and we're not given a clear idea as to Red's motives - just how to beat him and what he does in-game. You as a reader are meant to take different approaches to why and what Red is - and that works. It leaves things to the imagination without leaving out unnecessary details or compromising the plot. As far as you're concerned, Red is a malevolent thing haunting a video game. But what if he's a demon? What if he's a monster? What if he was once human like, say, BEN? His character, albeit given a bit too much focus on some points and left out in others, brings the most attentive readers of the story to thinking about him. Asking those questions as to who or what he is.


I refer to it as Half-Mystery when something in a story looks one way and then goes another. For example, a religious backwood household turns out to be a bunch of cult members. Mystery is a good way to set up a twist if done right. Mention that a family has religion, but don't mention what it is. Then, BOOM, you find out it's the Church of Scientology or the Cult of Satan. And that prayer? Sacrificing a human being to some Cthulhu-like entity. It makes a difference.

Lead the reader. Make them think it's something else. Make those prayers look like, say, Christian prayers, then turn around and shock them when the time is right.

Final Thoughts

But then there's another issue. Occasionally, being mysterious does not work. This could be for a variety of reasons: Maybe your set-up is too descriptive. Maybe that motive actually needs to be in the plot. Maybe leaving out the origin story confuses and upsets the reader. It's really up to the writer and how the story is written when it comes to whether the approach works.

The best part, however, is that the mystery approach can work pretty well from any POV. Namely, because the characters don't know that, justifying us not knowing it.

And that's probably the most important point. If the character knows about it, then we should know about it. We're operating from his point of view; we should be able to know what he knows sometime around.

But, possibly, the best approach is to be bland with it. Look back on the half-mystery section. Mention a detail, but don't elaborate on it. If it's necessary to the plot, then leave things to unfold. Make "The Reveal" part of the twist. You get the point. Note that this is really just scratching the surface - there is a lot that goes into making something mysterious, and it tends to be difficult to explain.


  • Don't put too much focus on the object.
  • Make it interesting and short, but don't compromise the plot by leaving it out. Make it irrelevant to the plot while still hinting at something. Difficult that may be to pull off, but it can be done.
  • If you have a reveal, make it part of the twist.
  • Mention a detail, but don't elaborate on it.
  • If the character knows, so should we.

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