Hello readers! We’re back with another Monday installment of Being a Better Writer! And we’ve got an interesting topic to cover today. One that can be a little contentious depending on your audience.
But first, a little bit of news. Or rather, a bit making sure you didn’t miss the news. Last week had a decent amount of it. A summation on Wednesday, and then a post of its own on Friday concerning book pricing that’s definitely worth a look.
But I do have two more newsworthy items for all of you readers before we dive into today’s topic. One a question which I hope to receive responses to. A two-parter. How happy are you with Patreon being available, and would any of you relish having a Ko-Fi available to donate to instead?
I ask because it has been brought to my attention that some people prefer Ko-Fi donations rather than Patreon’s monthly service, and it’s been one of those things that occasionally I’ve been asked to think about. So now I am. What I’m asking in turn is do any of you wish to use it? There’s little point in me having a Ko-Fi to donate to if no one wishes to donate to it.
Last, but not least, the Starforge Alpha 2 Call will go up Wednesday. That’s right, the time has come! It is expected that this draft will be shorter than the Alpha 1, so under 500,000 words rather than over. If you’ve been excitedly waiting for the Alpha 2, then hit up the post on Wednesday, because it’s about to arrive!
And that’s it. Please leave responses about Ko-Fi (or any comments on the Patreon) in the comments below. With that, let’s talk about today’s topic.
As I said above, this topic can be a bit of a contentious one, and that’s something that in my time I’ve noticed seems largely dependent on audience. Some audiences do not like having lingering, unanswered questions left in any narrative. Some readers are fine not getting every puzzle or every single thing answered concretely, or are willing to extrapolate (in the positive).
So let’s talk about this topic for a bit and how it might change what you decide to write. Hit the jump.
Okay, so what do we mean when we say “unanswered questions?” I ask because we want to be very clear with our response. We are not talking about questions left unanswered because of, say, plot holes, or simply because the author forgot to address something. Those are legitimate errors.
No, what we’re talking about are questions raised in the narrative, major or minor, that are deliberately left with no resolution by design. A classic example of this sort of thing in major sense is the short story The Lady, or the Tiger?, which ends on a giant unanswered question of which door the protagonist chose. Quite deliberately, in fact (and it’s why this story is still remembered).
But unanswered questions can be found in other sources and severities as well. For example, a few weeks back we mentioned the short story The Lottery, another famous work of fiction, and that story leaves the reader with plenty of unanswered questions as well. How did the titular lottery get started? Why did the lottery get started? What possessed people to adopt this system?
But none of these questions are ever answered in narrative. Or at all. The reader is left to ponder them … but with no information that ever gives a hard answer.
Lastly, even stories with fairly concrete endings often leave a reader with unanswered questions. The Most Dangerous Game, for example, ends without telling us if the protagonist ever made it back to civilization, or even about his fight with the antagonist of the story. We know he won that fight … but everything else is left up to the imagination.
Now, a shrewd reader might note that I used these three different examples for a particular reason, that being that each of these examples is a different “kind” of unanswered question. Or rather, it’s a different use and execution, each for a different purpose or understanding of the audience.
The Lady, or the Tiger?, to begin with, is very much using its unanswered question as a “bombshell” to end the story on. The reader is led to understand this choice the protagonist must make, to comprehend the consequences, and then right as the character goes to choose … BOOM! The story ends. And we never find out which choice they made. Or rather, the answer.
This, done well, is a fantastic sort of shock to the audience that can cement a story’s ending in their mind. Look, for example, how many people debate even to this day about the ending of Inception, as it ends on exactly this kind of unanswered question.
Now I’ll note that this type of ending is not as simple as it appears. Ending with an unanswered question of this level tends to be a very careful exercise, something a lot of would-be writers miss when they attempt to set such and ending up.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s call this type of unanswered question the “bombshell” approach, because it delivers a “bomb” to the reader with the last few lines.
Of course, many a writer has attempted this sort of bombshell only to fall completely flat, ending on a “wham line” that feels cheap, often as if it’s attempting to get the reader invested in a sequel. For example, one book I read had the “bombshell” come in the last paragraph of the story, as suddenly the protagonists were ambushed and one took an arrow to the chest. The book ended on the protagonist wondering if the other character was alive or dead (or something like that) as they took a blow to the head.
That’s a crappy unanswered question. It felt cheap. Unearned. Dirty. First, they definitely weren’t going to kill a protagonist character before the opening of the second book (or in that opening) which the advertised on the very next page. But it also felt cheap as an unanswered question because there was no lead-in.
Look at stories like Inception or The Lady, or the Tiger?, or any story with a well-regarded unanswered question ending, and you’ll notice a very common thread woven through the whole story: That of the unanswered question. Everything, in the case of the short, or a lot of things, in the case of Inception, point towards that unanswered question.
In other words, the reader is thinking about the aspects of the question through the whole story. They’re getting parts and pieces of information about it: Why it matters, what it came from, what either result could mean, etc. These pieces are woven into the story so that when the unanswered question arrives, the reader feels like much of the story was building to it. Even if they aren’t given an answer to the question, they don’t feel that it came out of nowhere as a cheap shot. They simply feel that the curtain has fallen before that particular question was ever answered, leaving them to wonder and ponder on the outcome.
Now it’s not quite so simple as I make it sound here. Any story that ends on a bombshell unanswered question is going to take some careful, clever editing to make sure that the response you raise from the reader is still the one you’re looking for. Additionally, I’ll note that in longform, the unanswered question bombshell is woven in alongside other plot points that do see a resolution.
For example, going back to Inception we note that there are other plotlines being resolved and answered alongside the last “question” the film ends on. So there are questions that are answered along the big one that isn’t … Even if that big one does cast some question over the other resolutions about whether or not they’re actual resolutions (which just makes the unanswered question all the more impactful).
Cast Away, the 2000s Tom Hanks film, is another film that ends on unanswered questions. The audience never finds out what was in the one lone box that Hanks’ character never opened. We also never find out where he’s decided to go, the movie literally ending with him at a crossroads looking in various directions.
However, he’s back. He’s off the island, which was the big conflict, and the story never left that unresolved. It just doesn’t ever explain to us what he’s going to do next, or what was in that box. But the box helps ease the audience into the crossroads, and makes that ending feel … actually pretty good. After all, he made it back. So now what does he do? Well … something. But we don’t need that answer.
Look, I do want to caution here. For every good bombshell unanswered question, there are dozens of poorly done attempts that leave an audience feeling frustrated. And some audiences will be frustrated no matter what (we’ll get to that later). But there are a few things you can do as you plan your work to make it less likely to be an issue.
For starters, you can make sure you’re planning on this bombshell from the very start. Weave ideas, themes, questions, and resolutions into your story that will support this story ending without giving everything an answer. For example, if you plan to have your story end with the protagonist leaving the job they’ve worked at for the entire story and sitting at a park asking “Well, now what?” then you should be working to make that conclusion feel … shall we say earned? We could raise questions of the character through the book like “What would you do without this job? Who would you be?” and then have the character make the choice to “find out.”
Yes, this story ends on an unanswered question, as the reader never would “find out,” or even know where they’d gone. But done carefully, asking questions like that and showing that the protagonist is ready to make that journey still gives the audience a resolution despite ending on a pile of questions that aren’t resolved. Sure, we don’t know where they’re going, or what will happen next, but the character has grown enough that they’ve had development in the story in choosing this step. So even if we don’t know where they went from there, it’s like watching a character take the most important step of a larger journey.
If you want to end on a massive unresolved question, be sure you’ve built the story properly to this moment. And again, it may take a few attempts to get right
Okay, let’s move on to the second type of unresolved question, the type on display in a short like The Lottery.
The Lottery has a lot of unanswered questions, all of which are about the setting itself. The story is fairly straightforward, with a bunch of townsfolk gathering and pulling slips of paper from a box, then stoning the one who gets the black mark to death.
Why? We don’t know. Who started the system? The question is never answered. For that matter, where does this take place? It’s left pretty ambiguous.
Here’s the thing, though: All of these questions could be answered. It wouldn’t be hard for a character to give a speech about their “great charter” or something similar that answered exactly how this system came to be, or what it was meant to accomplish.
But the story doesn’t do that. Quite deliberately. Instead it leaves these questions unanswered so that the reader will think about them.
It even prompts the reader to do so with a bunch of the dialogue. The characters talk about how some towns have decided to do away with the lottery, dialogue tailored to both give the story character, but also to get the reader thinking about the questions the story does not answer.
This is a powerful tool, because what the story is really inviting readers to do is think about how those questions may be answered. The story doesn’t need to provide them—in fact if it did, it would be less impactful for it. The goal is to make its readers think and ask themselves how such a system might have come into existence, and ponder solutions.
In other words, this type of unanswered question is done specifically to make the reader ponder and think about possible solutions. If we knew what sort of event had caused the titular lottery, I guarantee that the story wouldn’t be nearly as impactful or memorable.
These types of unanswered questions can be found all through stories of every kind. Even my own works have featured characters musing on something that isn’t even answered, postulating or positing theories to explain something. This in turn gets the reader thinking about it, and if you’ve got the right type of audience, thinking critically about how things might be answered.
Okay, some caveats. For starters, you can’t do this with everything. Leaving everything in your story vague an unanswered will just frustrate people. Some questions do need answers, as your plot or setting will determine. You should be careful with what questions are left unanswered. You should also have a reason to leave them unanswered, a goal of some kind that serves the audience by, for example, encouraging them to think of the larger sphere of the story after its conclusion. Going back to The Lottery, the questions it doesn’t answer encourage the reader to think about the “how” and the “why,” and while there are no answers given.
But second, and finally coming back to a thread I’d said we’d get to earlier, this also comes down heavily on audience. Because this kind of unanswered question? It’s the sort of question that asks your audience to think critically in order to arrive at other conclusions (for example, how many ways could a lottery be justified) and some audiences do. Not. Like. This.
Critical thinking, and asking your audience to engage in it, can be a disaster with some readers. Some readers do not want to think. They don’t want question, and the especially don’t want to have to accrue information and context from the story to hypothesize answers to these questions.
Basically, if you have unanswered questions of this type in your story, designed to make the reader wonder ‘Huh, how could that have happened?” these readers are going to tear you apart. Their reviews will not be kind. They are there to be spoon fed answers, not to wonder what could make these people stone themselves.
Once again, the answer here is knowing what audience you are writing for. That isn’t to say that someone from the other audience won’t find your work and be very put-off, but ideally you’re not going to pitch this type of story at an audience that isn’t going to like it.
We’ll see this rear its head with the last type of unanswered question as well, so fair warning, we’ll talk about it there too.
But getting back to writing, how can you craft a story that uses the type of unanswered questions used in The Lottery?
Well, a big difference between this type and the bombshell is that these aren’t at the end. Instead, they’re spread through the story. And they aren’t anything the reader needs to know in order to finish the story and arrive at the conclusion. Regardless of how the lottery started, the fact is obvious that it is there. The story is going to move to its conclusion regardless of the source of this odd ritual.
Simply put, none of these unanswered questions should be required for the story’s conclusion. They should posit questions that, answered or not, will not determine the ending.
Additionally, they’ll be better if they’re questions that the characters themselves ponder or at least consider or reference, rather than for example the omniscient prose. If a character wonders “Huh, how did they build that?” but never finds an answer, it’s a lot better than the narrative prose actually questioning the reader on it (barring of course, a few exceptions like comedy or subversion). Characters wondering about related topics can be a good primer for the reader, but also point out that perhaps it isn’t as important as whatever conclusion the story works toward.
A great example of this kind of storytelling is quite often found in classic episodes of The Twilight Zone. Very often in those episodes the audience is left very ambiguous on much of the cause behind what’s happening. Many times the how or why is never even addressed, or left incredibly unresolved. What matters is the conclusion of the story itself. We can wonder about the how and the why—and indeed The Twilight Zone very often made its ultimate point the audience doing exactly that—but even if one chose not to, there would still be a conclusion to the story.
So if you want to put these kinds of unanswered questions in your story, make sure that they’re not needed for the conclusion. Like with the bombshell, you might have some editing to check on. Make sure your audience is the right one. Frame the questions so that they come from natural sources, IE if they’re going to be asked, have a character do it in a way that is natural and fits the story.
Again though, the biggest one here is that the question shouldn’t be key to the ending. Like with The Lottery, whether or not we wonder about how it started, the event itself is still going to happen.
All right, we’re in the home stretch now, and on to the final type of unresolved question: The ones the reader can work out.
Usually you see these with endings. For example, let’s talk about the ending to Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Does the film answer whether or not the rebels take over the from the empire? Well … no. It doesn’t. It doesn’t say what became of the characters, or outright spell out that the rest of the imperial fleet didn’t show up and wipe out the battered rebels.
Because it doesn’t have to. Or rather, shouldn’t need to. That’s the last type of unanswered question we’re going to discuss today. The ones that aren’t answered by the end because we can safely assume that good things happened.
This one again runs into audience issues. No joke, I’ve seen self-styled “critics” who believe they’re doing the world a favor by trying to argue “Well, the ending didn’t specifically say the characters were going to do this thing next, so clearly they’d never do it, therefore they’d all die” as if this criticism has any sort of weight or substance. Worse, it sadly does again with that audience that isn’t for critical thought.
You don’t have to answer everything. It can be reasonably assumed, for example, that if you end your story with two warring factions signing a peace accord the characters are happy with, that it is an intelligent peace accord, and the characters are right to be happy, and that they won’t be destroyed a week later by a hidden secret clause in the contract.
I’ve seen readers get angry about exactly this before.
Here’s the thing with this last type of unanswered question. With both the prior two, they are tools to make the reader think. One to reason what either result might mean and what the conclusion might be, the other other to ask questions about how or why the story—or elements in it—might have come to pass.
But this last type of question isn’t really either. It’s … well, it’s fluff, to be blunt about it.
I don’t mean that it isn’t important to the setting, but it wasn’t important enough to state in the ending. It’s left ambiguous because the author shouldn’t need to say it. The reader and the audience, based on what’s given, should be able to assume and determine correct answers given that A) they don’t assume the characters are all morons and B) paid even a small amount of attention during most of the book.
Now not all of these questions will have answers … but they also might not because we don’t need the answers. For example, Jurassic Park doesn’t need to end with the lengthy court battles that did, as of the sequel, ensue (though the sequel merely reports that they happened, without covering them). Does the original book address them before ending? It alludes to the idea that they will happen. Does it say?
No. It doesn’t need to. The story has reached its conclusion already, and does not need to answer a question that most could work out on their own.
These types of unanswered question are good fodder for potential sequels, but at the same time can be safely left unaddressed because the audience can nod and say “Well, I wonder about what will happen here, but the characters aren’t concerned and they’re not idiots, so clearly that’s been thought about, or they’ll figure it out.”
Again, this is an area that runs up against audience and critical thought once more. Some audiences want every single “obvious” element stated, or they’ll assume the worst and refuse to think about it. Knowing what your audience expects will do wonders for knowing what to leave unanswered and what to directly state in your ending.
Once more, editing may come up with this. You might find that everyone wonders about a key part of the story you didn’t consider important enough to resolve. Usually this is easily fixed, but you should be prepared just in case if a bunch of your early readers ask a specific question you may not have realized was important to them.
Look, as a general rule, resolve questions that concern the immediate plot, and leave ones that don’t. Also, if an answer can be had by assuming that the characters continue to be true to the established story, or from clues given over the course of things (or both), you can leave that unresolved as well. Maybe add a few clues if the early readers end up puzzled.
You don’t have to answer everything. Readers should be able to work out that “Hey, things worked out” for the minor stuff. As we noted at the beginning, while The Most Dangerous Game doesn’t specify that the protagonist made it off of the island, it’s very reasonable to assume such without being told.
Okay. Wow. That was a lot of text. So let’s recap. There are three types of unanswered questions you may leave in your work. The first is the bombshell unresolved ending, which the whole story will point toward, or at least work into the narrative so that it fits when it finally arrives. Build for this from the beginning.
The second is the unanswered question that can be posed by a character, or an occurrence, that never gives the audience a “why” or a “how.” Like in The Lottery, the reader is left to critically consider how such a thing may have happened, but the story ends all the same and has a resolution regardless of these questions and their lack of answer.
Last, we have the “fluff” questions, which are answers not given at the end of a story because a reasonable reader will assume that the characters maintain their course and behave as they have thus far. It may also be possible for the reader to work out, roughly or precisely, from information given in the story, what the answer is. Or they may not have that info, but can assume that things turned out in accordance with the ending.
So, there you have it. Types of unanswered questions in stories. These can be related to narrative, character … you name it. They’re tough to pull off sometimes, but … Well, there’s one last thing to point out here.
We write with these questions because they keep the reader dwelling in our world. These questions, these puzzles, critical or simple. invite the reader to stay in our world and wonder at it, seeking their own answers in the realm of their imagination. This is why some stories have such endearing grip on people.
So, should you leave questions unanswered in your work? I’m afraid only you can say.
But good luck. Now get writing.
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3 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Leaving Unanswered Questions”
When I suggested this as a topic, I didn’t expect it to result in a blog quite so large!
My interest has always been closely related to that second type of unanswered question. The subgenre that brought it to my attention is Weird Fiction, a term I first heard coined by China Miéville in the appropriately titled anthology “The Weird” (which is easily my favorite book, a great source of inspiration). Such stories are frequently fascinating and I’ve tried my hand at writing them a few times.
I wasn’t even considering the other brands of unanswered question, but they were still good reads with valuable insight, so I don’t mind!
Always answer enough questions in a story so angry fans don’t storm your house with pitchforks and torches when you end it, but leave enough details unfinished that you can easily flow into a sequel. Or two.
I had legitimately forgotten that this one was a request! I gotta start marking those!
Hopefully what was said about the second type (especially it’s use in The Twilight Zone) was helpful to you!