Keep the readers guessing

The one thing that sets writing apart from the rest of the arts is that the finished product has three parts, a beginning, middle, and an end.  It is probably the most versatile of the arts, and is one of the most universal ways of communicating.  Writing includes scripts, fiction, nonfiction, music, poetry, letter writing; anywhere something is written down.

English teachers have told me that when you write, you will know the end when you answer all the questions, and tie up loose ends.  This may be fine when you’re writing an essay on the effects of global markets on the weather, but it isn’t always true with fiction writing.

When you write, you play a game with readers.  Like nonfiction, readers want to know what happens next.  You start by introducing a character’s dream, that for whatever reason they can’t achieve at the moment.  If done properly, you will make the reader care about the character, and whether or not he/she succeeds.  During the course of the story you will introduce other questions that readers want to find the answers to.  By the end of the story, if you answer all the questions the readers will be satisfied, but there will be nothing to look forward to.

If you want to give your reader something to look forward to, like a sequel, or trying to come up with a continuation on their own, leaving an unanswered question may be in order.

There are two ways you can do this.  Either you can leave a minor, but important, question unanswered at the end of the book, or you can introduce a whole new question at the end of the book.  By either one of these methods, you get the readers asking “now what?”

Two of my favorite movies, “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve got Mail”, introduced the question at the end of the movie.  Through both movies you ask yourself, “Do they ever overcome their obstacles and differences to get together and get what they both need?”  Then just when they realize they were meant to be together, the story ends.  This is when I ask “now what?”  There is no sequel so I’m left to complete the story in my own mind, and therefore the story continues beyond the story.

TV writers tend to have an underlining question throughout an entire series.  My favorite series, “Charmed” left the same questions for each of the sisters through the entire eight seasons, then answered them on the very last episode.  This had the effect of making me want to continue watching until the last.

These are examples from a video perspective, but I’ve seen short story, and novel writers use the same exact techniques. In the end, I believe you should leave a little mystery to your stories, instead of giving the readers all the answers.  This will, if done correctly, do more than make your reader a disinterested bystander.  It will make them an active participant in your stories by getting them to ask “now what?” and get them using their imagination to answer the question on their own.

Challenge:  When writing a story, try to throw in a little mystery.  You, and the reader, will enjoy the game.


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2 Responses to “Keep the readers guessing”

  1. bglashbrooks Says:

    You make some great points! Some of the best stories are ones that leave a reader imagining what happens next. And isn’t capturing the reader’s imagination what writing is all about?

    • apb148 Says:

      I always found that to be half the fun of reading when I was younger, and now that I’m a writer, I have twice the fun. Thanks for the comment.

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