Writing the Midwest: On utilizing ambiguity and the reader’s uncertainty

“Writing the Midwest” is a recurring series featuring writing advice from today’s most prolific authors. Whether it’s dealing with writer’s block, knowing when a piece is finished, or how and where to find inspiration, we’re delighted to present to you the very best guidance to help you and your writing. You can find links to the authors’ full interviews below.

On utilizing ambiguity and the reader’s uncertainty:

Dan Chaon: I’m tolerant of a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty, but a lot of readers aren’t. There have to be little nuggets or bread crumbs along the way that make them feel like they’re making progress in putting the puzzle together, or folks get frustrated. I have to hope for a reader that, like me, enjoys a certain level of suspension that may not ever fully be answered. Otherwise, “tension” feels mechanical, like one of those first-person shooter video games from the 1990s, where you’re just on a single path through the level on your way to the big battle with the boss. But for me, the questions have to be bigger and more compelling than any one solution.

Jacquelyn Vincenta: [It] seems to me that one of the most essential and yet most difficult elements in crafting a compelling mystery is to bring the secrets at play within the story as close to the surface as possible without anyone fully understanding them for what they are until the end. When these motivating, disruptive energies are present but not revealed they should give rise to words, behavior, and intriguing events that drive the story logically forward, even without the full truth of them being available to the reader… and yet we feel them there so that when the facts are all made clear, they resonate back through the tale. One of the deepest pleasures of reading a mystery is that experience, as you complete it, of reviewing the tale with newly enlightened eyes.

Lee L. Krecklow: I love blind spots, both for readers and characters. We’re most intrigued by the things we can’t see. One of the techniques I use to achieve this is an intimate but alternating third person perspective. The reader has close, internal perspectives from each of the players, but never at the same time, so one doesn’t have access to certain characters’ thoughts or emotions during key moments. The reverse is that the reader has certain pieces of information that the characters don’t, information which might help the characters or their relationships. Hopefully that creates tension and urgency. I’m also not above allowing some actions to take place off the page, so that a reader needs to keep reading into the future in order to understand what took place in the past. That’s just another form of blind spot.

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