In writing fiction, you’ll constantly be raising questions in your reader’s mind. Those questions create curiosity and it’s up to you to decide whether and when to satisfy that curiosity.
On the one hand, nothing kills mystique quicker than instantly answering every possible question that might arise. Curiosity keeps the pages turning.
On the other hand, nothing is more frustrating than trying to read a story where you lack essential context to understand what’s going on, especially when you feel that the author is intentionally holding back critical information for no good reason.
What you’re looking for is balance.
There are really two kinds of questions that you can raise: implicit and explicit questions.
An implicit question arises when the reader lacks context to understand something — a foreign word or a family tradition or a character’s backstory.
An explicit question is a question that one character asks another.
The meta-question you should always be asking yourself about implicit and explicit questions is this: “Should I answer that question?”
Sometimes you will; sometimes you won’t. How do you know when you should and when you shouldn’t?
There aren’t any hard rules here, but I usually ask some related questions:
* Is the reader going to be hopelessly confused unless she gets an answer to the question? Generally, curiosity is good, but confusion that leads to reader frustration is bad.
* Is the story pace going to suffer if I take time to answer this question? During high-action parts of the story, you really don’t want to take time out to explain things. Those explanations can usually wait at least a few pages until you reach a low-action part of the story.
Let’s look at some examples from the great novel, THE CHOSEN, by Chaim Potok.
In THE CHOSEN, the two lead characters meet in chapter 1. They’re fifteen year old Jewish boys, playing on rival baseball teams in 1944 Brooklyn.
Our hero, Reuven Malter, is playing second base, and his nemesis, Danny Saunders, hits a double. One of the first things Danny says to Reuven is this:
“I told my team we’re going to kill you apikorsim this afternoon.”
If you’re not Jewish, you may be wondering what “apikorsim” are.
Potok doesn’t tell you right away. It’s clear from the context that the word is an insult. Potok doesn’t break the pace of the story to explain any more.
But the word hangs there in the reader’s mind. It gets repeated a few more times during the action part of the scene.
Five pages later, there’s a lull in the action. Potok now explains that an apikoros originally meant an infidel. However, Hasidic Jews like Danny Saunders also use the term even for observant Jews who are somewhat more assimilated into American culture.
For Danny Saunders, Reuven Malter is an apikoros who will burn in hell.
Potok takes half a page to explain all this.
It’s important to get it right, because Reuven and Danny are going to become friends, and Reuven’s status as a non-Hasidic apikoros will be a major obstacle to their friendship.
Yet it’s not so important that Potok felt it necessary to explain it in the heat of a baseball game. The exact definition of the word “apikoros” was an implicit question that could stew for a few pages before Potok took the time to explain it.
Now let’s look at an explicit question a little farther on in the same book.
Late in the game, Reuven takes the pitcher’s mound for the final inning of the game. Danny Saunders comes to bat and hits a wicked curve incredibly hard right at Reuven. The ball shatters Reuven’s glasses and smashes into his forehead.
Reuven is rushed to the hospital with a massive headache and a piercing pain in his left eye. There, he passes out. The next day, he regains consciousness and finds that he has a big bandage over his left eye. His father comes to visit.
Reuven has noticed that the nurse hasn’t told him anything about his eye. So he asks his father straight out, “Is it all right?”
That’s an explicit question that his father could answer immediately. But he doesn’t.
Reuven has not yet grasped how serious the situation is. Neither has the reader. Reuven doesn’t know he had a splinter of glass in his eye. He doesn’t know that a big-shot eye surgeon performed an operation on his eye to remove the splinter. He has no idea what danger he’s still in.
If Reuven’s father answers the question right away, that would kill the tension before Reuven or the reader even know that there is any tension.
So Reuven’s father equivocates. He’s not a good liar and Reuven presses him with more questions and more.
Slowly, over a page and a half, the truth emerges. The splinter. The surgeon. The operation. The fact that the pupil of the eye was sliced and now has to heal. The fact that it might scar as it heals. The strong possibility that Reuven might never see again out of that eye.
By the end of the scene, Reuven is in a panic and he hates Danny Saunders more than he’s ever hated anybody in his life.
Danny wanted to kill him. Danny may very well have blinded him in one eye. Danny is a despicable human being.
Hate takes time to build, and Potok builds it slowly by dragging out the answer to Reuven’s question.
Sometimes an explicit question arises that shouldn’t be answered until as late as possible. Let’s look at an example from the same book.
While Reuven is convalescing in the hospital, Danny comes to apologize. Furious, Reuven sends him away. But Danny is persistent and he returns the next day to apologize again.
It takes some time, but slowly Reuven begins to understand Danny a little. Danny’s father, Reb Saunders is a famous rebbe, leader of a Hasidic congregation. Danny is destined to be a rebbe someday, but that’s the last thing he wants.
Danny is a once-in-a-generation genius and his restless mind chafes at the restrictions his father puts on him. Danny is trapped in a life he would never have chosen.
Danny has another problem, which he gradually reveals to Reuven.
Danny’s father never talks to him. Except when they’re studying Torah together, Reb Saunders never says a word to his son.
Reuven asks Danny why.
Because this question drives the entire story, revealing the answer would be the same thing as ending the book, so the answer MUST be delayed until the very end.
The reader desperately wants to know the answer, but the viewpoint character, Reuven, doesn’t know the answer, and neither does Danny.
The reader knows she’ll have to wait until Reb Saunders reveals it, in his own way, on his own schedule.
This works because Reb Saunders is not a viewpoint character. Since he’s the only person who knows the answer, there’s no problem in concealing it.
However, it wouldn’t work if Reb Saunders were a viewpoint character. When a viewpoint character holds back a secret from the reader, it feels artificial and annoying, and the reader feels frustrated, cheated by the author.
Your novel will raise all sorts of questions in your reader’s mind, some simple, some complex. Some implicit, some explicit.
It’s up to you to figure out if and when to answer these questions.
Don’t be too quick to answer them. But don’t be too slow, either. Part of the art of writing fiction is deciding exactly how and when to reveal the answers.
This article is reprinted by permission of the author.
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 29,000 readers, every month. If
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