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.