Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.12: The Long Shadow of Unanswered Questions

Our continuing exploration of tension has taken us to a favorite technique: unanswered questions. Sure, this obviously applies to mysteries, but consider the question posed in romances: “will they get together?” In its simplest form, the unanswered question that forces a page-turn is “what happens on the next page?” In this episode we explore how to use unanswered questions to drive tension, and how to avoid some common pitfalls.

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: What questions have you, in your current work-in-progress, posed for the reader? Can you pose more? Look for ways to ask questions to which the story can give multiple answers.

Thing of the week: Ted Lasso (Apple TV).

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: How do you postpone answering questions? First, we haven’t gotten there yet. More specifically, you have to gather evidence first. Or you have an answer, but it’s the wrong one. Or you have an answer, but there’s more to uncover. Try-fail cycles! Yes-but, no-and! Plan your information arc, where are they gathering information, where is it revealed. Hide the real question! Cell phones and Google — I don’t know who to call, or I don’t know how to ask the right question puts a speedbump in the way. Let the familiar become strange. Go ahead and tell us, and see what happens then. Give us some information that is satisfying and compelling, and build the trust that you will tell us about the other stuff later. Let another character ask the questions the reader wants to know. Use red herrings, things that seem connected but really aren’t. 

[Season 18, Episode 12]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] The Long Shadow of Unanswered Questions.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] There are questions that we have that are unanswered. In our continuing exploration of tension, one of the favorite tricks for tension is questions that are unanswered. This can take a number of different forms. You classically see them in mysteries, but you also see them in romance, like, “Will they get together?” So, let’s talk about some ways to avoid answering questions without it being super gimmicky.


[Mary Robinette] I have mentioned before my use of my small dog, or of my character’s small dog to interrupt questions as… For people not on the video feed…


[Mary Robinette] Erin’s cat is also providing a running commentary.

[DongWon] Which has completely prevented us from answering questions about unanswered questions.

[Erin] Her main unanswered question is, “Why no treats? I don’t understand.”


[Howard] I think it’s worth pointing out that when you write a book, when you’re reading a book, fundamentally, information is being hidden from you because you haven’t gotten to the end of the book yet. Just the ordering of the material is such that I’m not hiding the answer, I’m getting to it. We’re getting there, we’re just not there yet. You don’t have to… The moment someone in the story or on the screen or on the page has the answer to the unanswered question, that is not necessarily the moment at which that answer would be revealed to anybody. Because the story unfolds at a pace at which that hasn’t happened yet. So, I mean, that’s the easiest tool.

[Dan] So, to be a little more granular about that, some specific things you can do to kind of stall that answer is you have to gather evidence first. Or you have an answer that turns out to be the wrong one. Or you come up with an answer that doesn’t actually solve the mystery, it doesn’t answer the main question, it just spends you off in a new direction, and then suddenly you have together more evidence and answer different questions.

[DongWon] Yeah, I mean, I think for a mystery type story, this is really the heart of the try-fail cycle. Right? The thing you are trying to do is gain more information. The way you as the author withhold that is you have your characters fail at that or get misleading information or only a piece of it. Right? I mean, this is, going back to another of Mary Robinette’s favorite tools, the yes-but, no-and, you can apply that to yes, you now know this one piece of information, but there’s a complication because that leads you down to a dead end. Right? So you can think about it in terms of… I think we often give try-fail cycles around action in terms of trying to rescue someone or trying to fix something. But you can apply that to information gathering, because when you’re in a mystery, fundamentally, your main tool is the information that’s in front of you right now.

[Erin] Yeah. I think the… One of the things I like to think about a lot when I’m writing is information arc as an additional type of arc in a story. Like, you have your character arc, maybe your plot arc, but where is information being gathered, it’s where is it being revealed to the reader, and then maybe separately to the characters, really planning that out. Because I think where unanswered questions become annoying to readers is when it feels like you just didn’t… You forgot you raised the question, or you just didn’t bother getting around to answering it, versus that it was something intentional that you’re doing about the way you give out information.

[Dan] Another great thing that I’ve seen done before is just kind of hiding what the real question actually is. We’ve used romance several times, which is another great source of tension. The first season of Bridgerton does this brilliantly. In a romance, we often expect the main question to be will these characters fall in love? Yes, clearly, by like episode three, that’s answered. But there’s more going on. Will they get married? Yeah, like by episode five, I think, they’re married. But there’s more going on. Ultimately, we realize the actual question that that season is asking is, will they be happy together? Will they resolve their other issues and have a happy life together? Which is just taking it much further than what we initially thought we were asking.

[DongWon] That kind of brings me to what I think is the greatest failure state of how information is released to the audience in a novel. One of the those things is when it’s not connected to character. Right? I think one of the best ways to sort of appease an audience when you give them bad information or if they’re not getting the answer that they wanted is making sure you’re getting more information about who the character is and you’re tying that process of trying to get more information into something revealing about who the character is. I’m thinking of like the game Hades, which is a fantastic game. It’s a [rogue?] Like, so you’re just… It’s designed so that you will fail and die. Every time you die, you’re rewarded with a little bit more story, as you get to interact with all the characters of this world. So the loop is, we’re punishing you for the fact that you’ve failed, which you’re supposed to do, and rewarding you by giving you character. So if you think about like how satisfying the loop in Hades is, think about that in terms of your reader going through the try-fail cycles of your book. Make sure that your rewarding them with something, even as the characters themselves are failing.

[Mary Robinette] That brings me to a great point that when we’re talking about these questions, the unanswered questions, there are unanswered questions that the character has and there are also unanswered questions that the reader has. If you want to… I find that when you’re trying to emotionally link the reader and the character, but if you give them both the same unanswered questions that that puts the character… The reader on the character’s path. But sometimes you’ll have a situation where the character knows an answer… This is my traumatic piece of back story… And the reader doesn’t know the answer. So that… The reader tension is what is the character’s traumatic back story? The character obviously knows it. So that’s like… That’s a way that you can ratchet the tension up by withholding something from the reader as long as the reader doesn’t feel overtly manipulated. The I’ll think about that later. That you have to have a reason for them to not think about it.

[Mary Robinette] Speaking of reasons to not think about the rest of that and how are we going to do it, I’m going to pose a question, which is, how are we going to keep people from feeling like they’re overtly manipulated when they didn’t get the answer that they want, and we’re going to answer that after our break. Our thing of the week is Ted Lasso. It is currently a two season series. There is supposed to be a third season. I am eagerly awaiting it. It… On the surface, this is nothing that I would like. It is a show about soccer. I love this show so deeply, because it is a show about what happens when you make the kinder choice, ultimately. Because of that, and because of the way they are handling tension and tropes. It’s as if they said, “What’s a common TV trope? We’re going to set that up, then we’re going to subvert it by having the character make the kind and understanding response to it.” It is funny. It is heartwarming. I care about soccer in ways that I have never cared about them. It has some of the best secondary and tertiary characters of anything that I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended. Ted Lasso. All of the seasons. If you’re only going to watch one thing, that one thing should be Ted Lasso. Except DongWon will arm wrestle me about some other things. But…


[Mary Robinette] All right. So I posed a question before we went to break. That question was how do you interrupt a question… How do you withhold the question from the reader…


[Mary Robinette] And make them feel not overtly manipulated? That moment when someone’s like…

[Howard] Yup.

[Mary Robinette] Here’s a thing that everyone in the room knows, but the reader is not allowed to know it.

[Howard] 15 years ago or so, there was this up ending of the whole industry of writing and plotting things, because suddenly viewers, readers, listeners, whoever recognized that just about everybody had the sum of all human knowledge in the palms of their hands and could call just about anybody. So if there was a question that couldn’t be answered by the people in the room, but they knew someone else had the answer, they would just call them. Screenwriters and writers of fiction and writers of everything had to find new ways to say, “Well, why wouldn’t they just call them?” The first answer was terrible, and that’s, “Oh, I’ve got no bars. I’ve got no signal.” There are 10 minute YouTube videos of people in movies holding up their phones and having no signal, because the audience needed to be manipulated, because we needed to not have the answer right now. The right way to do it is illustrated in what happens when someone else’s Google Fu is better than mine. I don’t know how to ask the right question to get the answer from my phone. I don’t know what the right question is. I don’t know how to phrase this so I can find the answer. I don’t know who to talk to who will have the answer, but maybe if I talk to somebody else, they can help me. That starts putting speedbumps in the… In between me and the answer to the question.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. That was one of the things that I had to do in the Spare Man was… It is set in 2075 or 2074, I can’t remember. Anyway. My own book. Whatever. Point being, everybody is constantly interconnected. So I had to come up with a reason to turn that off. It was fun, in some ways, because I made it a punitive thing that was being withheld from them. Because they were being falsely accused of a crime, so they were not allowed to connect to the Internet. But that also then allowed me to make it a strong character thing, because it then became a thing that had to be fixed. Also, the frustrations that go with I’m used to being able to just send a ping to my husband, and now I can’t. Like, one of the things that I enjoyed was her constantly trying to contact him and not being able to. The reflex of it.

[Erin] I also think that communication devices, just that specific thing, as like the reason you can’t get the answer, can also be a way to ratchet up that tension in kind of a similar way that if you’re used to something, something is familiar and it goes to becoming unfamiliar, that’s always I think a great source of tension in horror. The familiar becomes strange. So if you pick up your phone to Google something and instead your phone is doing something very odd, or you get a picture of a dead body, or something else that’s both distracting… So, like, throw something shiny the reader’s way. To distract them, for one thing, but also with something you thought was going to happen. You had an anticipation of getting the answer, then that was yanked away from you. That can provide new information and new questions that then the reader will fixate on instead of the one that you didn’t answer in that moment.

[DongWon] I’m going to come out with a little bit of a chaotic answer to this, which is if you are really struggling how to figure out the key… How to keep your audience from feeling manipulated by withholding information, try just telling them the thing. Right? I think so often I see writers going through these back loops and just like contorting themselves to withhold information where I’m like, “No no no no. Just tell us what’s going on!” It’ll be more interesting if we, or even if your characters, know exactly what’s happening and they still have to solve this problem. Right? I think one of the week parts of a mystery is sometimes knowing what happened doesn’t actually change anything. To spoil Glass Onion a little bit, it has an aspect of this, where, like, the resolution of the mystery still leaves a really big unanswered question of like, “Well, what do we do about this?” In a way that is truly fascinating. Right? So I think sometimes if you find yourself stuck, and your like grinding on this question, try writing it from the perspective of just give them the information. Let their phone connect to the Internet. Let that person call person C and be like, “Hey, the killer is so-and-so.” Then what does person C do? It doesn’t mean they’re going to survive. Right? It could make a much more interesting scenario for you and kick your book in an exciting new direction.

[Mary Robinette] I’m going to second that, that often I find that when I just let my character tell the other person the thing, that what actually happens is it just… It opens new questions and they’re significantly more interesting questions.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] Which allows me to keep ramping that tension up.

[DongWon] If you’re stuck, you might be asking the wrong questions, is really what I’m saying.

[Dan] So I see this a lot with doing chapter critiques and stuff at conferences and classes. We will be sitting around in like a writing group environment. We’ve read chapter one of seven different people’s things. Especially with fantasy and science fiction, a lot of the questions are, “Well, I don’t understand this. I don’t understand X or Y thing about your story.” I have to remind them, you usually don’t in chapter one. There’s worldbuilding, you have to give us time to settle into it. But what I find fascinating is that I usually don’t get that question when the chapter is providing us a ton of other fascinating information. If you are giving us something that is satisfying and compelling and makes us… It’s scratching that itch to know stuff, then those other kind of unanswered questions don’t seem as pressing. Because part of that is the distraction that Erin talked about, you throw some shiny at us, but a lot of it is just you’re building trust with your reader. You’re giving them information, so then I know that you’re going to give me this other information if I am patient and wait for it.

[Howard] It’s super useful to anticipate the question that a reader might have and to give that question to another one of the characters. If one of the characters does a thing, and you know the readers are going to be like, “Wow, why did they do that thing?” Let another character ask that question. “Why did you do that?” The person who did it said, “You know what? That’s a long painful story and we’re not going to have that conversation right now. Right now we’re busy running.” Now I have acknowledged to the reader that there is information you don’t have yet, you know who has the information, you know who isn’t giving you the information, and everybody in the story to this point is behaving in character.

[Mary Robinette] I will flag though that you do need to make sure though that it is actually a long painful complicated story.

[Howard] Yes.

[Mary Robinette] Because the number of times I have seen someone say, “I’m not going to tell you that right now. We don’t have time.” And really, all they needed to say was like a five word sentence.



[Mary Robinette] It’s… Make sure that there is a legit reason. There was one other thing that I was going to say. What was that?


[DongWon] I guess we’ll never know.

[Mary Robinette] Well, I guess I’m going to have to…

[Howard] I have to say none of us know and all of our cell phones work.


[Mary Robinette] Oh, I know what… There was actually a thing. Red… I do want to just briefly touch on how to construct a good red herring. Because red herrings are one of the ways that you can… Are linked to the unanswered question, because they are the question… The line of questioning that pulls your detective down the wrong dark alley. In Glass Onion, it’s one of the most blatant red herrings in the history of ever is wandering around in a bathrobe for much of the film. But what you’re looking for is something that appears related to the story, that you feel like everyone else should be able to draw connections to whatever it is, and ultimately ends up not being connected. I have a red herring going on in Spare Man. The way I constructed that one… And I will attempt to discuss it without spoilers for the people who haven’t read the book yet… Is basically, I did it was that I gave one of the characters a secret so they were clearly hiding something, which is obviously to the reader going to be related to the murder. But it had… That secret had nothing to do with the murder. So that’s a real simple way to give… To insert a red herring is to give someone a secret, that’s just not the right secret. Which then leads to more unanswered questions.

[Mary Robinette] And… Your unanswered question right now is what is our homework assignment?

[Dan] Well, as tempting as it is to just never answer that question, I will tell you. I will spoil the homework. What we want you to do is take a look at whatever you’re working on right now, your work in progress, something that you’re writing or creating, and figure out what questions you are asking to the reader. Sometimes that might be an overt mystery question, how does this thing work, where did this body come from, who did the thing? Sometimes it’s worldbuilding questions. You’ve proposed some kinds of things about the way a technology or a magic or a society works. Figure out what those questions are. Write them down. So that you can decide later when and how or if to answer them.

[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.