Embracing the Unexplained

Not everything that happens in a story needs to be explained and withholding details can give a story more impact.

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When it comes to the strange and the unexplained, writers seem to fall into two camps. Firstly, there are those who introduce a mystery then work to resolve it, offering background and reasoning to logically (within the context of the created world) clarify what is going on. Secondly, there are writers who revel in the obscure, deliberately leaving elements unexplained and instead allowing the reader to infer from hints and suggestions their own interpretations. Whilst providing a reveal is tempting, and the natural instinct for most, there is a strong case to be argued for deliberately withholding reason and embracing the bizarre. Much like a jigsaw puzzle with most of the pieces removed, the reader has to guestimate the big picture based on the fragments they can find.

The writer should know the rules of the story they are creating. Everything, in effect, happens with reason, even if it is random, as they are contained and dictated by the laws of the universe being written; to do otherwise is either born of poor judgement or laziness on the part of the author. That being said, the audience does not need to know all these rules, nor do they need each event justified. Stories are told from the perspectives of characters; even a third-person omniscient narrator representing the god of the tale does not have to explain everything that occurs and why, and, frankly, if they did it would make for a boring tale full of exposition. Characters can have varying degrees of knowledge but none should possess a complete picture, and even all the comprehension of the characters combined should still only make up a small fraction of that which is potentially knowable.

In reality, explaining and simplifying the complexities of life to mere exposition is not possible. Books, papers, religious texts, all add up to slight glimpses of a perceived complete picture, and yet even then they are influenced by author bias and personal opinion, and, in the case of religion and pseudoscience, entirely open to interpretation. A single fact can require volumes of justification, so why is it reasonable to expect your characters to solve the intricacies of your mystery with a few deductions and coincidental understanding?

Leaving elements unresolved and motives unexplained, whilst dropping a few gentle hints that subtly suggest possible connections, allows the reader to create their own impression of what is really happening. The reader can comfortably know more than all the characters combined and still not have all the information. The reason films like Blade Runner and Apocalypse Now are still held in such acclaim is, in part, due to their refusal to tie up all the loose ends. TV series are now adopting a similar idea, with Twin Peaks and Fargo both embracing the method of hinting at a big picture whilst not sharing it all, and novels like Naked Lunch and American Psycho that use this technique are rightly regarded as masterpieces. Open-ended does not have to mean unfinished.

If fiction reflects reality, then stories should not answer all the questions that are asked. Exposition can and should be avoided, and by leaving out as much as possible whilst dropping the most insignificant clues – something which cannot be done with a heavy hand – the jigsaw puzzle can be partially pieced together by the reader. They do not need to see the whole image, just enough to make out roughly what it could be, and how the key elements mentioned connect. Unlike a resolution that is fully explained, that discovery and interpretation will resonate with your audience long after the book is complete.

Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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