How Do You Know What Questions to Leave Unanswered for Readers?

Contributed by Cori Nicole Smith Wamsley

Photo courtesy of bossfight.co

Photo courtesy of bossfight.co

“A good novel begins with a small question and ends with a bigger one,” Paula Fox, an author of children’s and adult literature, once said. But what about all the questions that an author asks throughout the book? Do we necessarily need to wrap them all up in a neat little package and give the answers to our readers at the end? 

When I spoke to a group of high school students recently, one of them asked a rather intriguing question: How do you know which questions to leave unanswered so you don’t anger your reader? The answer lies in the expectation of your audience. 

When you write in a particular genre, you aren’t just expected to write about elves or awkward paramours falling in love or a plot twist that leads us to an unusual suspect. You are also to follow the conventions of length of the text, style and tone, and the feeling the reader is left with at the end of the novel.

What is important is that you answer the questions that lead the reader to feeling closure when they expect it. If you’re writing a plot where your characters spend the entire book searching for a murderer, you better track him down by the last page. Most readers would also expect a reason for the murder. As for the bigger questions the reader may be left with: Though the story itself has come to a close, the reader may be thinking about society’s reaction to such events, what actions we might take, whether certain events could happen today, etc. Or, the story may leave readers with a feeling that justice has been served and a longing to devour the next adventure of this clever detective.

When a writer chooses to leave plot points open so you can decide what happens after the written ending—which readers may find maddening—then they are likely writing in a genre where the reader doesn’t need the story to be completely wrapped up. Typically, they will solve the main problems of the text, but they could also show the reader the thread of a new story right at the end of the book. You could have a vague sense of closure for the book, but not for the character’s entire story.

One book that famously leaves questions unanswered is Lois Lowry’s The Giver. I remember reading it in high school and feeling like I had been abandoned by the writer. She leaves us hanging with the boys having escaped the strange community, but we don’t know if they survive, if they make it to a new community, or if the lights ahead are even real. She solved the problems of the text and left the reader with a new set of problems. 

For my course, this was a required reading, classified as young adult, science fiction, fantasy . . . and dystopia. Incidentally, dystopian novels frequently have unresolved endings, which is part of why I don’t usually read them. It’s unsettling, and I enjoy a sense of closure. I’m reading to escape daily stress, so while I enjoy books that make me think, I do prefer the neat package that many other genres, such as mystery, provide. 

Evoking a feeling of uneasiness is part of the author’s plan for the book, as well as a convention of the genre, so a reader who may not appreciate that feeling—perhaps someone doing a required reading for a class—may be angry with the author for leaving them hanging. Time to move on to another genre!

Within a series, though, certain questions must be answered at the end of each book, but other questions need to be left open to complete at the end of the series. When I write in my middle grade mystery-fantasy series, Martina Mackenzie, I work with a smaller plot line per book and one larger plot arc that reaches across the six books. However, I stick with the conventions found in mystery novels, letting the reader know where the magical objects are, finding anyone who is missing, and stopping the bad guys from perpetrating the crime they are trying to commit in each book. The larger arc, tracking down the core of the secret society and putting an end to their evil deeds as the main characters learn important things about themselves, will take the entirety of the six books.

Questions like that are ok to leave open, but I wouldn’t dare stop the book without getting the main characters safely back to their home world and giving the reader closure on that book’s plot. It’s a convention of the genre, and my readers would expect it, especially since I’m writing for a 9–12-year-old audience.

So your audience and the conventions of the genre essentially dictate what is appropriate to leave unanswered. And hopefully, your prose will be thought-provoking enough to lead to the bigger questions, deep thinking, and satisfied minds that any genre is expected to provide. 


About Cori Nicole Smith Wamsley

Cori is a freelance writer/editor working one-on-one with businesses and individuals, author of six books, speaker, and blogger about effective written communication, all at www.coriwamsley.com