Give Your Readers Space to Think
To keep readers reading is to keep them interested in your story. One great way to do this is to provide them with a few unanswered questions and the space needed for them to ponder over what the answers might be. This is often done early on to get readers hooked in the opening and therefore invested in turning pages, but creating interesting questions throughout the entirety of your story and leaving them unanswered for an appropriate amount of time will help to keep the readers’ interest.
If you’d like to use this plot ‘space’ as a device to get readers more engaged and captivated by your story, then there are some points you will need to consider. Many of these points intertwine and heavily depend on each other, and all need to be taken into consideration before deciding on what type of plot-space you should leave for your reader.
What’s the reason for the space?
As with all devices and techniques for getting readers invested in your story, you can’t just throw in a plot-space from nowhere and expect them to be happy with it—there has to be a plausible reason as to why the question is left open, or readers will see it for what it is; a tacky element you’ve thrown in. Your reason for withholding the information could be that you’re telling a story from a first-person perspective which begins after an event, and there is nothing yet that has happened to allow the character to reveal to you, through inner thought or dialogue with others, what has happened (after all, you’re not writing a documentary). Another reason could be that the character who would be telling you the information has died/been kidnapped/ran away. There are endless possibilities—just make sure the one you choose is possible in regards to your story.
What size will the space be?
Giving readers too large a space to think may leave them wondering aimlessly in a void that soon feels dauntingly endless and uninhabitable—clues and hints, subtle but noticeable, are needed to shrink the size of the space, give readers reassurance that they have not been forgotten, and allow readers to make educated guesses at what the missing information might be due to their curiosity and the gratification of guessing correctly. Perhaps think of this thinking space as a long corridor with many locked doors. With every door tried, the reader will guess at what could possibly be lurking behind it, trying one door after another, until they finally find the open door and reach the answer.
An example of a story where the size of the thinking space was far too daunting for me to continue engaging in the plot was the TV series Lost. This series revolved around a group of forty-eight survivors of a plane crash, lost on a seemingly uninhabited tropical island somewhere in the South Pacific, miles away from their original flight course and therefore with little hope of being found. At first I was completely engrossed by the crash, the revealing character flashbacks, the strange noises and screams from the inner island, the completely out-of-place polar bear and ‘the others.’ But then (Mild spoilers!) there was the Smoke Monster, the submarine, the rescue tanker, the six characters who must have escaped the island since they are seen back in civilisation, yet are dying to return to the island. When they eventually do manage to get back they are accidentally separated into different time zones with half returning to the island in 2007 and the other half in 1977. All of these numerous happenings created far too vast of a thinking space with too many unanswered questions for me and, with no grounding or believability, the plot had left me lost and lacking any will to continue watching—a response which must have been felt by many since the viewer ratings dropped significantly.
What will the duration be?
At some point, one of the doors in the hallway I mentioned earlier will almost always need to be unlocked to allow readers to understand the answer, and usually therefore the decisions made by a certain character(s). This should be done in a way that isn’t merely revealed to the reader, but discovered by them, allowing them to feel further involved in the plot.
If you are leaving this space empty, with the question unanswered for a large chunk of the book, then you need to remember to give a few hints and clues along the way as to what the missing information might be. Playing ‘plot investigator’ can be enjoyable for readers, but not if it lasts for too long without letting them know they’re on the right track.
Not many stories allow the thinking space that plot-spaces provide to last forever. Even if the reveal may be a little ambiguous, it is still given in the happenings of the characters and in the details of the environment they are in. In The Road by Cormac McCarthy, a father and son hungrily walk along a freezing road in a seemingly post-apocalyptic world. Their environment is freezing and without food or shelter, covered in ash, and every tree standing is charred black and soon to collapse in a strange synchronisation—all of which gives readers plenty of options as to what they believe may have happened, be it a post-Third-World-War America or signs of a recent reaping in Christian belief, where people who are ‘good,’ both living and dead, rise to the heavens, and those who do not fit the bill are left behind to witness and endure the seven year period known as the Tribulation.
There are some appropriate instances where you may never reveal the answer to a question, but this needs to be done sparingly and for very good reason or you run the risk of seriously annoying a reader. Your reason might be because the characters in your story never actual find out for themselves what is happening, and a great example of where this permanent withholding of answers is successful is in the 2017 film Bokeh where a young American couple holidaying in Iceland wake one morning to discover that everyone has disappeared.
What will the frequency be?
The frequency of the unanswered question you choose to place in your story generally depends on the length of time you have chosen. Small withholdings of information can be delivered into the plot at frequent bursts, usually with one starting after the previous one has been revealed, or with all of them rotating around the same topic. This allows for multiple occasions of thinking space to become less tangled and confusing for readers. Large withholdings of information should be used sparingly, or you might end up with a reader whose brain is as bewildered as mine had become during the third season of Lost.
This allowance of thinking time for readers, or plot-space, is useful in all genres of writing, but can be particularly effective in stories that feature elements of suspense or horror. This is because, when we are not provided with all the answers, we fill in the gaps with what we find inside our own imaginations, and when the withheld information is regarding something creating havoc, pain and/or terror, we use what we personally find to be the most frightening thing we can think of.
Post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories are well-suited for creating plot-spaces, with the obvious withholding of information being the answer to why the world has become the way it has. This information can then be fed to a reader in small breadcrumbs of information, and a wonderful example of this is Wool by Hugh Howey. By reading Wool, the reader learns of what might have happened to the society who now dwells in an unused silo through the thoughts, research and actions of the handful of characters that the cleverly intricate plot follows.
It is important to mention that providing plot-spaces is not the same as writing a plot twist. With plot-spaces, a reader knows there is something missing and will try to figure out what that might be via the information and clues they are fed through reading/watching a story. A well-balanced plot twist, however, is something a reader doesn’t see coming but, once it has been revealed, all the carefully placed foreshadowing comes to the surface. The reader realises that, due to the events in the lead-up to the twist, it was an absolute eventuality.
If you are still unsure of how far you can push plot-spaces when it comes to your own writing, you will likely find watching the 2002 film Gerry helpful. I won’t tell you the plot of the story as I went into it completely blind and really enjoyed it, though I admit I found myself gently fast-forwarding a few parts. The amount of pondering the film made me do, although I wouldn’t recommend leaving your readers with quite such a vast plot-space, kept me thinking about the story for days afterwards—and it will allow you to see just how far a plot-space can be push for a reader.
Will all writing techniques, plot-spaces must be planned and carefully considered, and used with purpose and the correct intention, to help create an intriguing and curiosity invoking story that readers will find hard to put down.
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© 2018 Rebecca Delphine
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Rebecca Delphine is an aspiring Young Adult author from Thanet.