Writing Tip of the Week: Don’t Leave Me Hanging (Unless You Have To)

I took a quick poll of avid readers (okay, I asked my husband, and he mostly reads science textbooks) about what bothers them most in a book. The answer came quickly, and it was simply “not answering my questions.”

Of course, my mind immediately shifted to Pretty Little Liars, which is probably THE most aggravating show anyone has ever watched. I quit a few years back, but my husband and several friends still watched this season dutifully, hoping that maybe, maybe, some of their questions might be answered.

They weren’t.

Not to knock only on PLL, because there are quite a few books, movies, and TV shows that do this. So after some deep thought, interrupted by my barking dog, here is what I’ve come up with:

3 Things NOT to Do to Your Audience and What You CAN Do Instead

#1: Bring up something your audience will want answered, and then never bring it up again.

Simple examples would be suggesting one of your loved characters had a troubled past, and then dropping the topic. Why even bring it up if you aren’t going to give us the juicy details? Unless it’s part of a larger cliffhanger that will be answered by the end of the book, it’s not worth it.

What you CAN do is drop bits and pieces of solid information in your writing for the reader to gather. Is your character an alcoholic? Have them shove an empty whiskey bottle in their glove compartment before their love interest gets in the car. Or better yet, have the love interest see the bottle poking out from under the chair, but they keep quiet for now. They have roommates, it could be anyone’s. Build up the little clues before you drop the big bomb, whatever it may be.

#2: Have a reason for EVERY little mystery or cliffhanger about your character/plot.

Agents and editors alike will tell you that if it’s not necessary, cut it out. If you’re just being mysterious to be mysterious, don’t. It’s not a good look. What it looks like is you’re trying to increase your word count with some extra fluff. And I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but even if you think it’s the most profound paragraph you’ve ever written, few will agree. Why? Because they don’t know what you’re talking about. Only YOU know the subtle hints or implications behind your writing, so it ends up being a waste of a paragraph.

What you CAN do is use your talent for something else. So you were really in the zone when you wrote it? Great! Instead, use the zone for some banter or imagery that increases your character development or world-building. At least have a goal behind every word you write. Otherwise, it will not survive the final edit.

#3: Belittle the reader for not figuring it out sooner.

There’s a fine line between your character beating themselves up over missing all the clues at the end of the book, and your reader doing the same. We want our reader to connect with the main character, to desire what they desire, feel what they feel. But when your reader ends up feeling like crap because your character is trashing themselves so hard, do you really they’re going to want to pick your book up again, or even read your second book? Probably not. Why would they want to? You made them feel bad.

What you CAN do is give your character some license to be upset, but be careful not to project those feelings onto the reader. Epiphanies are fine. Things can come into place. Lines like “I can’t believe I didn’t see it sooner,” don’t make me feel terrible. Lines like “The weight of my idiocy crashed down on me as I realized everything I missed was right in front of my face,” makes me feel kind of stupid. Of course, this is also assuming the reader is on the same playing field as the character.

So basically, it all boils down to this: don’t leave me hanging, unless you absolutely have to. If it’s vital to your plot, go for it! If it’s an added afterthought, maybe write it down in a separate Word document and save it for later. Most likely you’ll completely forget about it and there won’t even be a “later.”

[for more sass and class, follow me on Twitter at @tclem91]

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