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Is it problematic to open plot questions that you don't answer?

 
RusticBohemian
(@rusticbohemian)
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I've got a story in which the main character has his "training" interrupted at the beginning o the story, and his teacher and family disappear. He never learns all there is to learn about his "powers" because of this. 

Years later, something happens to allow him to learn more about his "powers," and he goes on an adventure, which is the main bulk of the short story. 

By the end of the adventure, he still doesn't know exactly what happened to his teacher/family. Is this ok? Does starting a short story with this open question demand that the answer be found by the end?

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Topic starter Posted : June 17, 2021 10:44 am
Wulf Moon
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Posted by: @rusticbohemian

I've got a story in which the main character has his "training" interrupted at the beginning o the story, and his teacher and family disappear. He never learns all there is to learn about his "powers" because of this. 

Years later, something happens to allow him to learn more about his "powers," and he goes on an adventure, which is the main bulk of the short story. 

By the end of the adventure, he still doesn't know exactly what happened to his teacher/family. Is this ok? Does starting a short story with this open question demand that the answer be found by the end?

Yes. You made a promise to the reader. Always keep your promises.

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Posted : June 17, 2021 12:38 pm
DoctorJest
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Posted by: @rusticbohemian

I've got a story in which the main character has his "training" interrupted at the beginning o the story, and his teacher and family disappear. He never learns all there is to learn about his "powers" because of this. 

Years later, something happens to allow him to learn more about his "powers," and he goes on an adventure, which is the main bulk of the short story. 

By the end of the adventure, he still doesn't know exactly what happened to his teacher/family. Is this ok? Does starting a short story with this open question demand that the answer be found by the end?

I think Wulf is right here, especially with a view to this contest in particular. You would expect such an opening to be illustrating the story's key conflict--and if it isn't, then you have probably started telling your story at the wrong point. If the character's story is to do with his adventure, and not with his missing teacher and family, then the story should likely start with that, and not the setup background of what happened to him before--the latter can be important to the character, and certainly alluded to, but likely shouldn't be the setup that's indicating the question that the story will be answering.

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Posted : June 17, 2021 1:14 pm
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Dustin Adams
(@axeminister)
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I did something similar in my Q3. It added some tension and a story layer, but I didn't answer it and critters caught on.

Ultimately I removed it and put something else in because there was no answer.

So I'd say answer it, or remove it.

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Posted : June 18, 2021 6:38 am
Wulf Moon
(@wulfmoon)
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A Story is A Promise by Bill Johnson. I have the year 2000 version. Expert advice on this topic. Your opening is a promise to the reader that you must deliver on by the end of your story. While you can, of course, do whatever you want, I assume a major goal for most of us here is to get published. Don’t irritate your readers by failing to give them what you promised in your opening, or they won’t likely read your work again. 😊

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Posted : June 18, 2021 10:09 am
Scott_M_Sands
(@scott_m_sands)
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Good question to ask, Rustic.

I feel like as I'm trying to practice more of these skills myself (obviously still perfecting the craft, though :)), I now notice it more when I'm reading stories by others. And I find it REALLY frustrating now.

I don't want to do that to my readers.

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Posted : June 23, 2021 9:01 pm
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Dustin Adams
(@axeminister)
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Scott,

You notice it more? Meaning promises started but not answered?

And do you mean crits or published stories?

I ask because I'm on a perpetual quest to discover why some stories are published (and others, mine, aren't). I realize that may be screaming into the void, and writing new words is how to get stories published, but I've gotta have a hobby, right?

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Posted : June 24, 2021 6:13 am
Scott_M_Sands
(@scott_m_sands)
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@axeminister

Dustin,

I was referring in this case to published stories by other people (be that novels or short stories). If they set up a promise at the start and don't follow through, it really bugs me.

"Many people will tell you that you can't write. Let no one say that you don't." -Ken Rand
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Posted : June 24, 2021 9:18 pm
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Morgan
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Posted by: @rusticbohemian

I've got a story in which the main character has his "training" interrupted at the beginning o the story, and his teacher and family disappear. He never learns all there is to learn about his "powers" because of this. 

Years later, something happens to allow him to learn more about his "powers," and he goes on an adventure, which is the main bulk of the short story. 

By the end of the adventure, he still doesn't know exactly what happened to his teacher/family. Is this ok? Does starting a short story with this open question demand that the answer be found by the end?

Sounds like what you have is the premise for a series rather than a short story for the WOTF contest. The dangling carrot that *might* carry readers through the series is, "Will this guy find his family in THIS episode?"

 

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Posted : June 29, 2021 1:09 pm
Doc Honour
(@ehonour)
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Douglas Hofstadter did this purposely in chapter V of "Godel, Escher, and Bach..." He wrote a story that contained a story within it, and that second story contained a story within it. I think he went down to about level five before working his way back up to finish the enclosing stories. But then he stopped short, and never finished the original enclosing story.

But Hofstadter did it on purpose to illustrate a point about complexity: that people notice. That it bothers people not to have it complete.

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Posted : June 29, 2021 3:50 pm
David Hankins
(@lost_bard)
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Posted by: @ehonour

Douglas Hofstadter did this purposely in chapter V of "Godel, Escher, and Bach..." He wrote a story that contained a story within it, and that second story contained a story within it. I think he went down to about level five before working his way back up to finish the enclosing stories. But then he stopped short, and never finished the original enclosing story.

But Hofstadter did it on purpose to illustrate a point about complexity: that people notice. That it bothers people not to have it complete.

Sounds like 1001 Arabian Nights. I have a 6-volume 1896 edition and it’s that long because so many of the stories have their own embedded stories that keep going down Inception style. It just goes to show that very little in writing is truly new these days. We take the old, twist it, and tell the story again to a new audience. 

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Posted : June 30, 2021 3:37 am
Álex Souza
(@alexvss)
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Posts: 39

Although I agree with pretty much all of the above, I've been having a different view on this topic as of lately. I've been obssessing about open endings and weird stories (think I've been watching too many Gaspar Noé and Cronenberg). I really like open endings now because it makes the reader finish the story by himself. It lingers with him, doesn't let him sleep at night. He will have go through the story again, look for clues, study each sentence. A closed ending, on the other hand, is ultimate. It probably won't linger with the reader afterwards.

But do take my opinion with a grain of salt. Some heavyweights have said the complete opposite, and it seems that my take is not welcome in WotF. Take this as a shout from a person who has been reading stories that seem to have the exact same structure over and over.

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Posted : July 4, 2021 5:46 pm
DoctorJest
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Posted by: @alexvss

Although I agree with pretty much all of the above, I've been having a different view on this topic as of lately. I've been obssessing about open endings and weird stories (think I've been watching too many Gaspar Noé and Cronenberg). I really like open endings now because it makes the reader finish the story by himself. It lingers with him, doesn't let him sleep at night. He will have go through the story again, look for clues, study each sentence. A closed ending, on the other hand, is ultimate. It probably won't linger with the reader afterwards.

But do take my opinion with a grain of salt. Some heavyweights have said the complete opposite, and it seems that my take is not welcome in WotF. Take this as a shout from a person who has been reading stories that seem to have the exact same structure over and over.

I think there is a really significant distinction between open ending and broken promise, though. I would be shocked if there weren't a number of open-ended stories in prior WotF volumes--my short story Ashwright has a semi-open ending, and made the SHM pile in its quarter, so clearly not all stories with open ended elements get discarded out of hand. However, the story must keep the promise it makes in the beginning.

Open endings need to be just as deliberate, and just as satisfying, as closed ones. If you assume (not unreasonably) that a slush-pile reader may read the start of the story to see if it opens well, then skip to the end to see how it finishes, then it should be clear that your ending needs to land well. The story pattern that you mention means that those stories have memorable endings--and likely, though they may not answer that question, they will at least have addressed it in such a way as to leave open either new questions that derived from it, or a limited, but known set of possible endings that the story could lead towards, and where leaving those options open is more interesting than closing the loop.

Suffice to say, however, this is no easier to do well than it is to write a satisfying closed ending--and a lot of novice writers may simply leave their story open because they can't come up with a good answer, a good ending, and so on. But if that's the case, chances are, it's not ending with any real, lingering property, but more a frustrating sense of being cheated. There's a big difference between a story that concludes with an open question, and a story that doesn't really conclude at all--and how the reader feels at the end of it is the telling distinction between them.

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Revised SHM ('Ashwright') at PodCastle
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Posted : July 5, 2021 1:36 pm
David Hankins
(@lost_bard)
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@doctorjest

Well articulated. You’ve given me something to think about on my next story. 

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Posted : July 6, 2021 10:49 am
Scott_M_Sands
(@scott_m_sands)
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Agreed, David. I really like Doctor Jest's distinctions here.
It's actually perfect timing, as the story I'm working on has an open-ending and I was going to ask about it. I actually answer what is set out in the opening (I hope!). The protagonist accomplishes what is his heart's desire, but then learns at the end that there's another level he wants now. It ends with him about to start the next part of the journey. Is that bad?

(Thinking about it now, it reminds me just a little of the movie Maze Runner. At the end, the bad-head honcho-lady-person says 'begin phase two' or words to that effect)

Funny - I put quite a lot of thought and depth into having what I would deem to be an intricate plot. I'm now wondering if I don't expand this one out into a novel, as there are so many other wonderful places it could go.

"Many people will tell you that you can't write. Let no one say that you don't." -Ken Rand
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Posted : July 8, 2021 7:54 pm
Disgruntled Peony
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Posted by: @scott_m_sands

Agreed, David. I really like Doctor Jest's distinctions here.
It's actually perfect timing, as the story I'm working on has an open-ending and I was going to ask about it. I actually answer what is set out in the opening (I hope!). The protagonist accomplishes what is his heart's desire, but then learns at the end that there's another level he wants now. It ends with him about to start the next part of the journey. Is that bad?

(Thinking about it now, it reminds me just a little of the movie Maze Runner. At the end, the bad-head honcho-lady-person says 'begin phase two' or words to that effect)

Funny - I put quite a lot of thought and depth into having what I would deem to be an intricate plot. I'm now wondering if I don't expand this one out into a novel, as there are so many other wonderful places it could go.

Ending with the protagonist heading toward a new goal is great as long as the story's conflict had been resolved. It's a good way of showing the character's growth and development, because the new goals are usually affected by the outcome of the conflict that just got wrapped up. Makes for a really solid denouement when done right. smiley  

I'd still recommend finishing this story as a short first, because that might help give you ideas for how to expand it into a novel later, but if you're feeling that spark, it may be a solid option. Some writers expand short stories into novels on the regular. (Orson Scott Card immediately comes to mind, but he's far from the only one.)

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Posted : July 9, 2021 6:19 am
Scott_M_Sands
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Posted by: @disgruntledpeony

I'd still recommend finishing this story as a short first, because that might help give you ideas for how to expand it into a novel later,

The short story is essentially finished. Needs a few touch ups, mostly in the opening. But the main bulk of the writing is done.

And thanks for clarifying about having the protagonist head toward a new goal at the end.

"Many people will tell you that you can't write. Let no one say that you don't." -Ken Rand
V36-37: R x6
V38: R, HM, P

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Posted : July 9, 2021 7:50 am
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