Keeping the reader guessing

stack of booksIt’s usually considered a good idea not to have your story be too predictable. Some genres, such as mysteries and thrillers, really require this. Others, like fantasy, not so much. Personally I think that striking writing can trump plot – that a work with a fairly conventional story line can be so poetic or poignant or hilariously funny as to be thoroughly engaging because of the way it’s written. Most of the time, though, plot matters and if the reader thinks he can guess exactly where the story is going, he just might decide not to bother to read the rest of it.

I’ve noticed there are a number of things that writers do to keep readers guessing, some of which I like better than others. Basically they can be broken down into four categories. Of course several of these can be used at once, and some of them can grade into each other, but I see them as distinct enough for purposes of discussion.

1) Plot twists: There’s no doubt that plot twists are effective – when they’re well done. For me, one hallmark of a good story is that it can be unfolded in a completely natural, straightforward way – without any gimmicks – and hold my interest throughout because the events in it are simply interesting or in some cases surprising. Basically this uses whatever plot twists the story naturally has to keep the reader guessing. I think the only way to go wrong with plot twists is to work so hard at making them unexpected that they feel contrived. If everything in a story suggests it’s going in one direction and then it suddenly veers in another, there can be a problem if there’s been literally nothing to make the new direction feel remotely logical – even in hindsight. Obviously this criticism doesn’t apply to the “inciting event,” which comes at the beginning of the story and frequently comes out of left field. I’m especially annoyed when a writer pulls something out of a hat right at the end of a story that is in conflict with everything I thought I knew about what was going on – just so he or she can say, “gotcha!”

2) Withholding information: Actually, writers always withhold information because the writer knows everything at the beginning of the story but obviously can only give information to the reader one bit at a time. As long as the order and pace of information delivery feels natural and logical, this is perfectly fine. A well-written mystery story told from the point of view of the sleuth is a good example. The reader gains information in a very natural way as the character uncovers clues. I start to have a problem, though, when a writer clearly is picking and choosing what to tell me just to keep me in the dark – for example, when the story is being told in retrospect and the narrator simply neglects to mention things to keep the end in doubt. That makes me feel manipulated. The same is true when the writer conveniently doesn’t show a character thinking about something he obviously would have been thinking about at the time simply because the writer is trying to protect some planned surprise. Writers have essentially complete power over what they reveal to readers and when, and I think there is an art to using that power in way that doesn’t feel heavy-handed.

3) Misdirection: This is the preeminent tool of the stage magician but I usually find it annoying when it’s obviously being used in storytelling. A lot comes down again to naturalness and finesse versus heavy-handedness. Mystery readers are generally forgiving of the use of red herrings – it’s a trope of the genre – but even a red herring shouldn’t be clumsily pasted in. There should be cross-connections to the plot that make it seem to naturally belong in the story. Outside of the mystery genre I personally feel that deliberately putting in a red herring is just a mistake. There’s a more subtle kind of misdirection that occurs when a writer abuses his power to influence the readers’ attention or perceptions. Readers judge the importance of things by how much the writer dwells on them. I get thoroughly annoyed when a writer expends a lot of words making some object, event, or action seem important and it turns out to have been merely a distraction. Similarly, if that blue-and-white vase is going to turn out to be vitally important five chapters later, barely mentioning it along with half a dozen other unimportant objects in the room is going to have me crying foul. The writer should at least have had the character notice it because his mother had one like it, or something like that.

4) Deliberate obscurity or ambiguity: I say “deliberate” because unintentional obscurity is always a problem. I’m sure there are readers who don’t mind this technique in fiction nearly as much as I do. It probably comes from my having been a scientist, and a text editor, where clarity is really at a premium. There are, however, some writers who simply like to keep things purposefully vague or ambiguous or unexplained. Any story can naturally have specific points of uncertainty because the characters’ knowledge is incomplete. That’s fine. So is having a character whose nature is to be deceitful, cagey, or hard to pin down. What I personally object to is feeling like I’m constantly moving in a fog of hints and subtle suggestions or standing on a shifting surface that never settles down. It keeps me guessing, yes, but at what cost? If I’m never sure about anything, how much of a surprise can anything really be? The best thing for me is to simply avoid writers like that, but there are other writers whose stories are mostly quite clearly told but who resort to obscurity at some specific point in an obvious attempt to prevent me from guessing where they’re going. I tend to lose respect for writers who do that.

That’s the end of my rant. As always, comments are welcome. Do you have similar pet peeves? Am I completely full of it? Or is it all just a matter of taste? Are there other approaches to keeping readers guessing that I haven’t thought of?


  • G M Barlean

    March 19, 2015 at 5:58 pm Reply

    Very good exlination of all of these different techniques.


      March 19, 2015 at 7:05 pm Reply


  • Audrey Kalman

    March 19, 2015 at 8:32 pm Reply

    Thanks for this great run-down of the various techniques writers use (some more effectively thank others) to keep readers engaged. I am in the middle of revising a novel that is told in a rather unconventional way, although the events are not all that unusual. I am trying to pay very close attention to having things unfold as naturally as possible and not make the reader feel manipulated or cheated. It’s damn difficult!


      April 1, 2015 at 10:03 pm Reply

      Oh yeah, I think it can be difficult. The challenge – and the beauty – of being a writer is that you have so much power.

  • Carol Balawyder

    March 8, 2016 at 10:49 pm Reply

    Oh, I didn’t find your post as much a rant as just very informative.


      March 9, 2016 at 7:58 pm Reply

      Why, thank you, Carol. That makes me feel really good.

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