[This post appeared at Flash Fiction Chronicles earlier this week.]
Marshall Cook, in an online fiction class sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, suggested creating a feeling of “Not-Knowing” to draw the reader into a story. On his FlashFiction.net blog, Randall Brown, in response to comments by Steve Almond, said “If a character knows something, the reader should know it.” Are these statements contradictory? Not really. Mr. Cook doesn’t advise not telling readers everything they need to know, nor does Mr. Brown say the reader needs to know everything up front.
Authors grab the reader’s attention by creating questions in the reader’s mind, questions that matter, questions that force the reader to continue with the story in order to find the answers. The inexperienced writer often poses the question and leaves it to the reader to figure out what happens. Many times this approach leaves the reader confused and unsatisfied. Even experienced writers leave out some important piece of information, at times. That’s not to say every story must end with a definite resolution; but that initial moment of Not-Knowing, the question posed that leads the reader to the story’s conflict, the reason why telling the story is important in the first place, should be made clear at some point.
Ethel Rohan’s story, “Reduced,” provides a good example of what I’m trying to say. In it, Ethel shows the reader a husband and wife in conflict. As the story progresses, the tension increases until the real problem is revealed. It’s at this point that Ethel shares with the reader that one piece of information that both characters know that explains the conflict created for the reader by that Not-Knowing. You can read Ethel’s story here.
In my brief experience as an editor, I find writers are good at creating the sense of Not-Knowing (although some take way too long to do so). It’s the sharing of information known by the characters that explains the “why” of a story where many authors fail.