I've always been good at predicting movies. When I saw The Sixth Sense I figured it out halfway through and ruined it for everyone in the theater. Primal Fear and The Illusionist, which were known for their "twist" endings, didn't fool me either. For me, the mark of a good movie or book is the ability to surprise, for the ending to be unexpected but make sense at the same time.
So when I got feedback on my third draft of Street Walk, I was very disappointed to hear that both my mother and girlfriend figured out the mystery on the same page, chapters before the big reveal. Where I thought I was just dropping a hint, a seed to make the ending tie in later, I was actually giving it away. They both assured me that they still loved the book and there was still the suspense of how the killer was going to be caught, but it didn't change the fact that, in my mind, my book was predictable.
When I had lunch with Lee Child a few Bouchercons ago, I asked him about eliminating predictability in books and how important it was to him that people didn't figure out the mystery too soon. He said that even if a person thinks they've figured it out, they'll still read to the end to see if they're right and ultimately, you just want the reader to keep reading.
For someone like me who becomes a harsher critic with each book she reads, figuring out the ending too soon definitely changes my opinion of a novel, especially a mystery. If the whole attraction of the genre is to figure out the who and the why, wouldn't a predictable ending defeat the purpose of reading? While some people may find satisfaction in figuring out the killer before the big reveal, I get disappointed, thinking that it was the writer's job to fool me and fool me well.
There is certainly a fine line between revealing too much and too little. Give away too many clues and readers will figure it out prematurely. Withhold too much and readers will feel cheated, like it came out of nowhere. Authors use red herrings to steer readers in the wrong direction, but if a character is too likely of a suspect, it's a safe bet that they didn't actually do it.
Ultimately, crafting the mystery seems like every other aspect of writing: practice makes perfect. So I will return to my manuscript and make the necessary changes, not wanting my story to be predictable. But I'd love to hear everyone's thoughts. How important is the element of surprise? If you figure out the mystery too soon, does it change your opinion of the novel? Or does the saying ring true, is it about the journey and not the destination?