While I’ve been busy juggling work, writing, and life, I’ve decided to set A Magic Life aside and write a novel that’s not so demanding of deep attention.
Like Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors, this novel was a screenplay first, which means I have one hell of an outline to work from and no reason to not have a good draft of a new book in a month or so.
But that’s not what I really want to talk about today. Today I want to offer a really basic writing tip: Don’t answer every question for your readers.
What I Mean
In the story I’m working on, a teenager is camping with his grandfather. His grandfather has cancer, and it’s no secret that he will eventually die. Yet the grandfather is having a great time camping with his grandson; so much so that his grandson thinks, “I didn’t understand how someone could be so close to death and still laugh.”
Obviously, since I’m working from a screenplay, there’s a lot of dialogue to pull from — my big task is making those little bits of action something more, and maybe expand on the dialogue and thoughts the protagonist has. It’s been easy to get into a groove and add these things.
While moving along, the line I shared above became, “I didn’t understand how someone could be so close to death and still laugh. Maybe that was why, though: what else did he have left?”
It took all of a few seconds to delete the added line.
Let Some Things Stand
This project is another young adult (YA) novel (Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors is technically a YA novel), and for one brief moment, I thought it was important to expand on what the narrator was saying.
That’s a really insulting thing thing to do to a reader.
“I didn’t understand how someone could be so close to death and still laugh. Maybe that was why, though: what else did he have left?” is weaker than “I didn’t understand how someone could be so close to death and still laugh.”
The longer example answers the thought, taking something away from the reader: the possibility of the line affecting them and stopping for a moment to think about it. The second line (original version) gives the reader something to think about.
As a reader, I like those moments in a book that stop me with a question or thought. The original line is the kind of thing I’d hope would make a 15-year-old reader stop for a moment and think about what they just read. The longer version of the line takes that possibility away.
Answer the Big Things
My last completed novel, Promise, opens with a dead person in a cave. By the end of the book, readers know how he got there.
That’s a question that must be answered because it’s part of the reason for a reader to invest time in the story. To not answer such a big thing would be a crappy thing to do to readers.
But there’s often a tendency to answer everything as we write in an effort to ensure we get our points across. If the question isn’t a big thing, though, it’s usually best to leave the smaller questions unanswered.
In this particular example, a 16-year-old wonders how his grandfather can be nearing death and still laugh. Even if a reader comes up with a different answer than the one intended, the point I hoped to make with the line is later shown.
But even if that were not the case, I’d rather have a reader come up with their own answers to those little questions — to have their own experience with a story — than to tell them what to think at all times.
Paul Lamb says
I call this the “Star Trek Syndrome.” On that TV show, they suggested some plot point and then went on to explain just what it meant for understanding the story. Nothing was left to the viewer to discover.
At the other end of this continuum is Faulkner. There are so many unanswered questions in his works that people have devoted entire careers to answering them. Some questions aren’t even asked and remain that way until you read other works of his where some tangential reference is made to a character or event from a different story, and when you give a little effort you find whole worlds of understanding that you never even thought to ask about.
I truly believe that a serious reader will either ponder the answers to unanswered questions in fiction or at least appreciate not being condescended to by having the answers spoon fed.
Lisa Eckstein says
This is great advice. Your explanation really brings home how much stronger it is to allow readers to think rather than telling them all the answers.
Christopher Gronlund says
Paul: I agree on the point about pondering things or at least appreciating being given credit. There are some books I’ve read where I didn’t get something at first–or maybe at all. But looking at it, I knew it was on my end–not the writer’s–so I appreciated that the writer extended to me the credit that I’d get it. It’s different if huge things are left out and it’s just bad writing; another thing, though, when it’s just something requiring more thought.
I’m currently reading Matt Bondurant’s THE NIGHT SWIMMER. In the story, the narrator spends quite a bit of time visiting a small island off Ireland’s southern coast each week. As she meets characters, so does the reader. We hear about what they do and receive other information. But as time goes on, characters are introduced with the assumption that the narrator–Elly–knows them, or at least knows of them. And it makes sense…she’s become a fixture on the island and would know people. So those characters aren’t introduced like those she meets for the first time. I appreciate that Bondurant didn’t stop a scene to explain everything about some characters and let me think, “Okay, Elly would know this person and I’ll soon get the information that I need.”
Reading a couple reviews of THE NIGHT SWIMMER before I picked it up, some people said they didn’t like that Bondurant didn’t explain why Elly wasn’t welcomed on the island by everybody. They thought many of the inhabitants of the island were cold. But it’s a small, isolated island. By the time one reaches adulthood, they should know that in places where a way of life has gone on for decades (or even longer)…outsiders are initially viewed with a little skepticism in many cases. Of course many of the islanders are going to be standoffish — Bondurant doesn’t need to explain that to me. It struck me as a weird thing to dwell on in a review. I appreciated that Bondurant gave me the credit to know that many in a small town are slow to welcome an outsider.
There are times I like the simple story where all is explained and it’s just a lot of fun. I’ve visited my mom when she’s had the TV show Monk on, and I can accept how everything is explained. By default of being friends with many of the people I know–and marrying the woman I married–I’ve watched a lot of Star Trek and find it to be fun as well. I like the characters on shows like Monk and Star Trek often much more than the stories. (I love how it seems like Star Trek writers, when faced with not having a solid idea for the week, resorted to the nebula story. “Uhm…what should we do for this episode? Nobody has any ideas? Okay, we’ll have them fly into a nebula! Let me get the dice and the nebula chart. Okay, I rolled a five. That means this nebula is going to…take over a crew member. Why? Okay, I rolled a 3. The nebula does this because…it’s lonely! We’ll make people feel sorry for this pulsating mass of sentient life floating out alone in the galaxy!” And there are times they actually pull it off.)
At the same time, I often like working hard for a story. Reading older literature and finding the cadence of the narrator in more intricately structured sentences. Reading writers like Faulkner who leave the reader wondering what he was getting at to the point it becomes worth studying. The “briefcase ending,” where the whole story revolves around what we never saw in the briefcase despite the briefcase being the reason for the story. All those things, I love. I don’t need all the answers; often, it’s the book that makes me think long after I’ve put it down that sticks with me the longest.
Christopher Gronlund says
Thanks, Lisa. I used to be really bad with explaining everything. I don’t know when it clicked — “I love stories that leave some things unanswered, so why don’t I do that in my own writing?” — but I’m glad it’s something I figured out. Especially with those little lines like the one I used in my example…even if the reader doesn’t stop and consciously think, “Yeah, why would his grandfather be so happy even though he’s dying,” the mind picks up on those questions even if they aren’t always recognized as questions. As we keep reading along, in the back of our minds, our brain may still be rolling around what it was given, making for a more stimulating read.
I may be totally wrong, but I know when I read things that pose little questions instead of posing them and answering them, it just seems like my brain is more alive than when everything is given to me. And it’s that stimulation somewhere in my brain that makes for an exciting read, even if I’m not conscious of it.