Most of you know I write mystery/suspense novels. Those who didn’t know that…well, now you do. :) That makes me a bit of an outlier in our little blogging community, but that’s the subject of a different post. Anyway, today I’m going to discuss a topic that is very common in my chosen genre, but also has relevance in most fiction writing. I call it the Tipping Point.
A key element in writing mysteries is creating questions in the readers mind. Questions that the reader is compelled to find the answer to by reading further and being drawn deeper into the web. How does this newly discovered clue fit into the scheme of things, or is it a clue at all, maybe it’s a red herring that is designed to distract the reader from the real truth? The more questions floating around unanswered, the deeper immersed in the mystery the reader becomes. But there is a hidden danger the writer must always keep in the back of his/her mind, or else risk losing their audience. The menace I’m referring to…confusion. Allowing too many unresolved questions to build up without offering the requisite explanations can leave the reader lost and bewildered. It’s a high wire the writer must balance his story upon. Letting readers in on the mystery too soon can drain tension and render the story less than effective. Letting the puzzle draw out too long may leave the reader perplexed, and ultimately frustrated.
I contend that within every story, there lies a Tipping Point. It’s that place in the narrative where the reader will reject any further questions without first receiving some answers. If those answers don’t come, the reader will either partially, or completely, shut down. And do you want to know what the tricky part is? Everybody’s Tipping Point is different, so the writer has to gauge reactions based on the market…or his audience. For a rookie novelist, with nothing but beta readers and CP’s as their audience, this can be almost impossible.
I usually dislike using movies or television shows to illustrate my point, but in this case my example is such a great fit to the discussion that I’ll make an exception. LOST. A lot of people really loved this show (myself included), but a lot of viewers became disenchanted with it during the second and third season because of the exact point I’m making here. Too many questions…not enough answers. The show crossed over the Tipping Point and many viewers shut down (or change channels). The writers were so caught up in maintaining the mystery surrounding the island (so they could lock in future seasons), they forgot to satisfy the needs of their audience.
Let’s say you’re a YA, Sci-Fi, Romance, Fantasy, or even literary fiction writer, how does any of this pertain to you? I assert that most styles of prose utilize mystery as a component of the story, creating questions in their reader’s minds. If that’s the case, even though the quantity of questions usually wouldn’t compare to that of a pure mystery, the author still needs to consider the Tipping Point. Waiting until the last chapter to answer all of the important questions…is usually not a good strategy to follow.
How about you, is there a book you remember reading where the author violated the Tipping Point?