The Tipping Point

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?

28 comments

  1. Great post! I completely agree. I can't think of an example right now, but I have put books down in frustration when it creates more questions than answers. Grrrr.

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  2. I love this post. You are not the only one who's alone in writing in a certain genre. There aren't many horror writers out there either, much less adult horror writers.

    I definitely need to master the Tipping Point. I'm trying really hard but sometimes, things seem too obvious to me because you know, I wrote it. LOL! So I think I try too hard to make things mysterious so THANK GAWD I have great CPs or all would be lost. Also the Man is a great problem solver and if he can figure things out in a couple pages, I have works to do! :)

    Again, with the loving of this post.

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  3. i read once where every book is a mystery - because the reader has to figure out what is happening in the story right along with the protag.

    so, i think this advice can definately be used for any genre! thanks!

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  4. I can't remember reading a book where the story went past the tipping point, but I *have* read books that were just too easy to figure out. Sometimes authors get into the habit of beating you over the head with a clue, or they give clues the same way throughout the whole book so it's easy to find the pattern.

    I'm actually having a lot of fun putting a lot of mystery into my new WIP, HANSEL AND GRETEL. Though it's technically a sci-fi, the MC has to solve the mystery of the missing children. Very exciting to write!

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  5. I just came across this the other day while reading. I was frustrated because the main character had the tools to answer all her questions, but she didn't. And while the author claimed she had a reason, for me it wasn't strong enough to keep asking questions when she had the answers right in front of her. Ugh!

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  6. oh i completely agree. I think every story has some sort of mystery, even if it's just "what's going to happen next"

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  7. I'm waiting on the final installment of a five book series by an author I adore. I've been reading her novels for years, and love her both as a person and a writer. The series in question has amazing characters and a world I can't get enough of. That being said, there are many mysteries at and surrounding the heart of the series, and with the last book approaching, none of the questions posed have been answered. It's incredibly frustrating, but I continue because I'm somehow in it for the long haul. I'm hoping it pays off the way the final season of Lost did for me.

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  8. This is a great post, D.L. and the info can definitely apply to us all. I'm with Vicki - I know I've been there but can't think of a specific example right now. :-)

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  9. I've been looking forward to this post :)) It makes me think of The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo. In my view, or rather for me, that book overshot the natural tipping point. I was so near the book's end without any answers that I was truly frustrated. Plus, my mind was saturated by all those characters. I couldn't keep them all straight. I wonder if Larsson's tipping point was late in the book since it was only book one of three?

    I'm going to be thinking of where the tipping point should be in my MS. Thanks for the insight into what I think will be a fun thing to gauge as I write deeper into the plot.

    Hope you had a great weekend!

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  10. I have read books that made that error b/c I remember thinking what you just said (albiet not so succinctly)--titles aren't springing to mind, sorry. :o\

    But I think this holds true regardless of genre. You have to keep that tension going by witholding something or by stringing them along somehow.

    But I guess my concern is more being too frustrating in the stringing...

    A bit like watching LSU football. :D LOL!

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  11. At the moment the show The Event threatens to cross that tipping point.
    And if someone gets frustrated reading my book, then they have a very low threshold!

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  12. Hi,

    Let's just say whatever genre I'm reading I want to be led astray, I want to be tempted, I want to taste the agony of pleasure and pain, and most of all be pushed to the boundary of emotional overspill.

    I don't care if it's not a "happy ever after" ending so long as there's possibility of that happening further down the line: maybe a sequel.

    If it's a dead end - make it unforgettable such as the death of the hero in "Harry's Game" by Gerald Seymour, which made me cry and left me grieving his passing.

    If it's a straight up happy ending let it be realistic or you might as well pack it in a fancy plastic be-ribboned box and call it YUK.

    Yeah, keep me on the edge of might seat, let me begin to slip into sense of security and then set off a firecracker right in front of me, and don't make it an easy ride back to Normal Street! ;)
    best
    F

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  13. The tipping point is so important to get right, but man is it hard! I can't think of a book right now but you definitely know it when you see it!

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  14. This is the exact reason I didn't bother watching most of the last 2 seasons of Lost. I'd loved it at the beginning, but to frustrated with it.

    I can't think of a book title right now, but I know I've put down a few for this reason!

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  15. Always just fabulous posts, however you always put me on the spot and it never fails the minute you ask me a hard question I crumble trying to think of an example!!

    I'll tell you one thing for sure... I'll be on the look out for one.

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  16. GREAT post. Very apropos to my current preoccupations. Why is it that so many people don't seem to realize that it's what you *don't* say that makes the reader pay close attention?

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  17. I completely agree with this post, and think it applies to all genres. I have definitely read books (and more often than not, series) that the questions just keep coming and coming with no answers, and I do disengage. It's either that or go completely insane trying to figure everything out.

    Oh, and btw... I actually don't rearrange my furniture. Like ever. ;) I am selective about my change I guess. Ha ha.

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  18. DL--I thought I'd give you a link for a kindred spirit (maybe). Clarissa is a mystery writer...

    http://clarissadraper.blogspot.com/

    Have a great week!

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  19. DL--Great post!

    I'm going to throw out a title where I thought the tipping point wasn't in the right place (and probably get trampled by those who disagree with me in the process!:D)

    In Meyer'sTwilight, I felt many of the questions facing Bella (Why did she want to stay with Edward? Why was she willing to risk so much? Wasn't she concerned about the danger to herself and her dad, particularly after she was almost killed by rival vampires? etc.) were not answered until very late in the book--and in fact some remained unanswered ( have only read the first book BTW).

    Perhaps this was an intentional choice on the part of the author, since the book was to be the first of a trilogy but, as the primary conflict driving the story forward hinged on the relationship between Bella and Edward, I found the dearth of information to help the reader understand Bella's motivation annoying and distracting.

    I propose that if the tipping point had been sooner and we'd been given a real insight into Bella's motivations (beyond being enamored with Edward's gold eyes and lantern jaw ;)), the novel would have been stronger for it.

    As I'm sure I've said something blasphemous, I'm now going to hide under my desk until next week. :D

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  20. Great post. I had some "Tipping point" problems in the first draft of my novel. Before tackling the re-write, I took two months to outline it. This approach really helped me to identify when and how to unfold essential elements of the plot to my readers. Hopefully, the second draft will be light years away from the second one.

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  21. I'm a fan of mysteries. There was a time, before I got serious about my writing, that I read almost nothing else. Of course, when I did start writing, I thought I would write mysteries--they are a lot tougher than you think.

    I switched to YA and though I'm not writing strictly mystery, I agree with you that all writers have to create questions early on that propel the reader to keep reading--but also answer the questions too!

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  22. Wonderful post, DL. I'm beta-ing a mystery and this really comes in handy. Also with my own WIP, which has a small mystery element too. Did you write this for me, or what?
    ;)

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  23. Thank you so much for this post! I'm planning a YA sci-fi, but mystery is definitely a strong element in the book, and releasing information and determinging the Tipping Point are definitely very important.

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  24. God, this is such a good post. It's not something I've given a lot of thought to, but such an important consideration in writing. I'll be keeping this in mind in my ne WIP and in revisions of the old.

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  25. Great post, and you're right-- the tipping point crosses genres. I can't seem to recall a book that's done this to me, but I ~know~ I've experienced it as a reader. As a writer, I feel like I'm constantly wrong on this one *cringe* Hopefully as I continue to grow I'll find the right balance :)

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  26. Yeah, I hate that. Or when they think the readers are too stupid and don't let them ask the question, they just make plainly obvious what the answers are.

    CD

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  27. This was a fascinating post! I'm so impressed with mystery/suspense writers for the exact reasons you pointed out. It's such a tough juggling act... yet so worth it if it's done well.

    I'll admit that I just read a newly released novel that *almost* crossed that tipping point with me. However, I think predictability in a mystery/suspense novel is almost worse than confusion...although if there's too much confusion, a reader may stop reading all together.

    Good luck with mastering your writing tipping point. It sounds like you have a lot of insight on this topic, which can only help your writing be successful.

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  28. totally agree. A few questions keep me going, but too many feels sloppy. I get tired of it, especially because the author doesn't usually deliver and I get confused.

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