A few weeks ago, I was flipping aimlessly through Hulu. I came across an FX show starring Tom Hardy called Taboo. I had never heard of it before, but the header image intrigued me. I watched the first episode. And then another. Then another one after that.
The thing is, I don’t know if I like the show. It is convoluted, and the plot is not easily summarized. The characters are nearly universally awful people. And yet…
I can’t stop watching it. I don’t binge it like I’ve done other shows, but I find myself coming back to it. And it’s not even that I care whether the characters achieve their goals or not. So, what keeps me coming back? The mystery of it all.
Nothing is ever explained outright. You discover backstory in snippets. Bread crumbs dropped on a forest path. You meet characters here and there, with little introduction. And for every question finally answered, three more spring up. It’s both infuriating and intriguing.
In contrast, I watched two episodes of HBO’s Succession tonight. I probably won’t watch a third. There was more than enough family drama and a will he/won’t he conundrum. But everything was laid a little too bare, and I found that I didn’t care. And there weren’t many questions left unanswered.
Why am I talking about this? Because, when done well, it can be a powerful method of storytelling. Giving the reader just enough information to keep things clear but not enough to sate their curiosity. It’s a tightrope, too much in either direction and you fall.
If your reader has too much information, especially right at the beginning, they may find they can write the rest of the story themselves. On the other hand, if you don’t give enough information, you risk the reader becoming confused or giving up. And the whole point of this is to keep the reader engaged.
The trick is to keep track of your unanswered questions. Who is Johnny’s mother? What happened to Susie’s bicycle? Where did that box with the still-beating heart come from? And when you answer one question, that answer should prompt more questions yet. Johnny’s mother is Jane, who disappeared from Suffolk ten years earlier. Where did she go? Who took her? Did she leave on her own? Susie’s bicycle was in the neighbor’s shed. Who put it there? Why did they steal it? Why is the neighbor leering at her from across the yard? The box was left by a dark stranger who gave no name.
I think you get the point. Keep your readers guessing, and they’ll feel the need to read one more chapter before bed. And then one more after that.
However, I do have one caveat on that: This only applies to the first 2/3’s of your story. In the last third, things need to be tied up. Not every question needs to be answered, necessarily, but there should be more answers than questions unless you’ve got a sequel already planned. And even then, be wary.
Now, go forth and write! And comment below with any other shows or stories that do this well!