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Unanswered questions

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Svrtnsse, Oct 20, 2013.

  1. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    In my latest scene I wrote something happened that there's no real explanation for just yet. The reader, if they've paid attention, may have a hunch, but I'm assuming they've either forgotten about the hint or just aren't making the connection (it's not intended to be a hint, it just turned out it might be).

    I, as a writer, know what happened and there's an opportunity to explain it to the MC and the reader further on in the book. The issue is it's quite a lot further on. I should also mention that what happens isn't of any kind of relevance to the overall plot or story. It can add some depth to the world and the setting and it can give the characters something to talk about, but it really isn't important.

    The way I see it I have a couple of different options.
    1. Do nothing and explain the incident later on when it fits into how I originally planned the story.
    2. Same as above, but drop reminders about the incident now and then so that it stays in the mind of the reader.
    3. Explain what happened right away or in the very next scene.
    4. Explain what happens as it does, removing the unknown from the equation completely.
    5. Unmake the incident.

    All of these seem to have their own pros and cons.
    1. The advantage here is that I can put the incident out of my head for now and get back to it later, which gives me time to make up my mind about whether to keep it or not. The drawback would be that I'm leaving the reader wondering about something irrelevant to the story without giving them an explanation.
    2. With this option I have a hook of some kind to come back to, something the MC can keep wondering about and searching for an answer for. The unfortunate fact is that as the incident isn't all that important it will probably make the reader feel cheated when they finally learned about what happened and about how it has no impact on the story.
    3. This is straightforward and easy, but it doesn't fit with my planning. It's annoying but it's something I'll just have to deal with.
    4. This would require fairly little work and would still have the benefit of adding a little depth to the world.
    5. Very easy, but a bit boring.

    After writing up the advantages and disadvantages it seems to me that option 4 would be the best one. Explain what happens as it does. I'm adding the little flair of the event to the world, letting the reader in on the secret while keeping the MC in the dark about what happened and I can still have him wonder about it later if I feel like it.
    Does this seem like sound, logical reasoning to you or am I missing something? With the information you have of the scene above, would you have made the same decision or would you do something else?

    What's your take on leaving the reader with unanswered questions? When is it okay and when isn't it?

    If you do leave a question unanswered, how long is it okay to go on without answering it? I'm assuming this depends heavily on the question, especially if your story is something like a murder mystery when the entire story is based around the unanswered question of "who did it?"

    Other thoughts?
  2. GeekDavid

    GeekDavid Auror

    My preference would be for #2. I've read books where they mentioned something once and then dropped it, not explaining it till much later, and by the time I got to the explanation I was asking myself where I'd seen that before.
    Svrtnsse likes this.
  3. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    If what happened was important to the story I would probably have gone with this as well. I think it might have been a good way to work up an interest for what's going on and create a reason for the reader to keep going.

    My concern is that since it's merely a bit of fluff the reveal would be a bit of an anticlimax and the reader would feel let down. I can still have my MC pondering what happened, but I'm not sure leaving the reader in the dark is such a good idea when there's no real reason for it.
  4. Guru Coyote

    Guru Coyote Archmage

    My take on unanswered questions:
    If you are going to make me wait for an explanation, the question answered better be important to the story. If not, you have two options: tell me (or indicate) you won't be explaining it - ever, or explain it right away. Mystery should always count.

    That said, I think you could ponder this question: can you make the explanation for that incident... count? Can you weave this mystery into the fabric of your story so that it matters why it happened? If you can, go for it and let it be a daunting mystery. If not, deal with it swiftly and move on.

    I wouldn't advise to remove it though. The fact that you care enough about it to post tells me it IS important - at least to you as a writer. So make it count in your story and let it be a mystery. Win/win.
    Svrtnsse and GeekDavid like this.
  5. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    We use unanswered questions a lot, and if it were me I would go with your idea #2, but lightly. I prefer to assume the reader is as intelligent as I am, and don't like smacking them in the head over and over again with reminders. If it naturally comes up in the course of the story, then they'll get a reminder. If not, they should be able to remember when it comes time to explain what happened earlier.
    Svrtnsse likes this.
  6. Kn'Trac

    Kn'Trac Minstrel

    Actually, I would go for option #4 as it concerns mainly fluff and has no impact upon the story as a whole. I wouldn't go in depth about it, just brush it enough so the intelligent reader, which we asume all our readers are, can pick up the gist of what happens.

    If it actually were important to the story and the MC, I would opt for option #2, leaving vague hints over the course of several (read more than one) chapters. I might even add a bit of option #1 for maximum shock effect when the information is essential to the story, but not without hinting at the tip of the iceberg first, only to expose the information in all its glorious/horrific/whathaveyou majesty.
    Svrtnsse likes this.
  7. Motley

    Motley Minstrel

    Unanswered questions are the things that keep readers reading, I think.

    But, since you say this incident doesn't' really have anything to do with the story, I wouldn't turn it into some big thing. If it doesn't matter, I'm not sure why you just wouldn't' have it happen when it happens instead of turning it into an unanswered question at all. Save the tension for the important stuff.
    Svrtnsse likes this.

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