Dawn Colclasure's Blog

Author and poet Dawn Colclasure

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Unanswered questions

One thing I love about fiction is that you kinda get to play detective. You try to figure characters out, figure out what the setting looks like, how everyone is talking and, more importantly, exactly what this story is all about. I enjoy reading mysteries, and this particular genre is of course one that should keep readers guessing. But any genre – fantasy, horror, romance and sci-fi – would do well to keep readers trying to figure everything out. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that readers won’t be able to figure everything out. And this is why certain questions need to be answered.

Readers of fiction are a lot like journalists. They want to know the who, what, where, when, why and how of everything. Why does that character walk with a limp? Why is that character afraid of traveling through that particular state? Why is that character afraid to commit? But also, who are these characters? What does this particular symbol mean? Where is the story set? When did that character find the time to make the sweater she gives to her beloved? How does that character know how to pick locks like a pro?

As a writer of fiction, I realize we can’t give away too much information in one giant info dump, but we DO need to provide that information at some point in the story. Readers are a curious sort, and if their questions about who someone is and why he is important to the story are not answered, it’s a big turn-off. And, I must say that, as a book reviewer, it can be pretty irritating. One particular novel I read had me asking "what the heck just happened???" at the very end and it was aggravating that I couldn't figure it out.

In my case, I have been working on edits for Shadow of Samhain. This particular draft that was accepted by my publisher answered two questions that were not answered in the original book, November’s Child. Namely:

How did Jonathan find out about who his mother really was?

How did Jovin end up being brought into the story? (People don’t just appear out of nowhere, after all.)

I was sure to answer these questions, but I had neglected to include one other important piece of information. At one point in the story, my character, Janay, reflects on how she hadn’t talked to her mother for 20 years. Okay … why? Did she and her mother have a falling out? If so, what was it about? Did her mother abuse her and she finally got away? Was she kidnapped as a teenager and lost track of where her mother was?

I knew I could not keep readers guessing over this. Sure, readers could draw their own conclusions about why someone was estranged from their parent, but that’s not the way it works when you write fiction. Don’t leave readers hanging when it comes to something they really can’t figure out for themselves. Don’t leave those kinds of questions unanswered.

In the original book, I did answer that question, but not in this draft. So, as I worked on the edits, I realized that was important information that needed to be in the story, and so I added it. I was grateful I was able to catch something like this during this round of edits, but, unfortunately, not every author catches something like that.

When you tell a story, tell the whole story. Answer the questions: Who, what, where, when, why and how. If you need to hold some things back for future books, write it in a way that lets readers know it’s something that you’ll come back to later (such as leaving a character in confusion about something), but do try to answer the questions you can answer in the book you are writing now. Readers will appreciate it if you fill in the gaps so that they can continue reading, and enjoying, your story.

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