Playing Coy With Readers

There’s a school thought that says it’s better to keep certain things a mystery in order to surprise your readers. This is different than a twist. This is more like withholding information from readers, or better yet, having characters withhold information from each other and, by extension, the readers.

Because people so seldom say exactly what’s on their mind, right?

This is true. But I can see how it can get annoying if an author finds clever (to him) ways of eliding around important information to catch the readers unaware.

Of course, I’m talking from personal experience. My excellent editor called me out on this in a few key spots in my next book (out sometime in 2019; that’s about all I can promise now!).

And she was right. I was being too coy. Too clever. To smart for my own good.

The drama doesn’t have to come at the expense of pissing off the reader, because if the reader is annoyed, if the drama doesn’t make sense, they won’t care about how clever you think you are as a writer.

“Dramatic irony” involves something the audience knows but the characters in a work do not. This, by definition, doesn’t require keeping the reader in the dark.

The things that seem obvious, but you sometimes need an editor to point out when you’re lost in the forest of your own story.

“. . . the novel’s pace reaches pulp speed as our heroine begins her quest for a way home with the aid of a few, equally lost allies, her wits and trusty screwdriver.”


  1. —I can’t think of any examples in fiction at the moment, maybe the last Harry Potter book where in my opinion, I think Rowling tried to continue to SPOILERS…make the reader think Snape was bad; i think this removed potential drama and action from the story.

    —LOST was a show where it seemed the producers were much too coy with the audience, characters went from real people with believable motivations and actions to weird one note versions of themselves by the end. And no one it seemed, past a point, ever asked what the hell was going on. It’s been a while since I watched it but I remember being disappointed for multiple reasons as the seasons went on.

    —-Oh, I think Battlestar Galactica remake was another one where the producers played coy because they didn’t know what they were doing exactly.

    —-To your larger point I think sometimes keeping things from readers makes sense, sometimes not, whatever best serves the story, there’s no one right way.


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    • JJ Abrams is like the king (queen?) of this phenomenon. The “mystery box” approach loses its luster when 1) you draw out the mystery, 2) nothing gets explained, 3) the explanations you DO give are deeply unsatisfying, half-baked, and/or ex post facto retcons/deus ex machina because you didn’t plan anything out beforehand.

      Which brings us to Harry Potter. I was determined to get through my initial post without mentioning these damn books, but your example of Snape is perfect. Much of that series reads like Rowling making it up as she went along and force-fitting early things they were never meant to go together because she didn’t bother to create a coherent plot or mythos.

      You’re right they there is no right way to do it. I think Robert Jordan got it mostly right in the Wheel of Time, because his characters are always keeping things from each other, but usually the reader knows something is up. It creates some pretty tense scenarios.


  2. —I used to be excited to see JJ Abrams name, thought he had the right feel for mystery and the fantastical but as you said, “half-baked” etc. soured me on his work.

    —I disagree about Rowling, I think she had a lot of it plotted it out, just some things that didn’t interest me, “wandlore” turned out to be significant.

    —-Are you excited/dreading/indifferent to the Wheel of Time tv show that’s coming out? I never read the series though I liked the book covers I’d see in stores, online or in people’s hands out and about over the years. Were you satisfied with how Sanderson helped finish the series, another author I’ve not read. I have to be in the right mood for epic fantasy.

    —-For a lot of stories I don’t expect an answer to magic or the mysterious usually unless that’s central to the tale, it’s usually more for how the characters interact with the magical element(s) and if the story comes to a satisfying conclusion with what has gone before.


    In Lost it’s a magical island, that’s the premise and even if they’d gone with it being some kind of purgatory that would’ve worked too.

    Some of the mysteries didn’t have any good explanation, why did the countdown end in Egyptian symbols? It looked cool but why? I’m fine without an explanation because unless they had a really good one it’s going to be disappointing. The thing is, most of their answers were disappointing same with the character/story-lines.

    Jacob was built to be this impressive character who turned out to be insufferable.


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    • I am not excited for the Wheel of Time TV series. As with the Lord of the Rings one that’s forthcoming, I fear they’re going to Game of Thrones-ify it.

      Sanderson did a bang-up job finishing the final three books in the series, as good a job as anyone could do given the situation. Going to his writing
      style from Jordan’s was jarring at first, but I quickly got used to it. His characterizations also took a while to hit their stride, particularly Mat’s, but I appreciate how Jordan told Sanderson specifically to NOT copy his style. Aside from a few fanservice/fanfic feeling elements, some dumb one-on-one dueling, and one rather weak cookout in an otherwise satisfying final confrontation, it was quite good.

      As for Rowling, I’d have to reread Harry Potter to reassess my first impression. I liked the books, but a lot of the linkage of plot elements and threads just screamed RETCON to me in big, red letters.

      And I read the Lost spoilers, because I have no intention of ever watching it. Sounds weird, to say the least.


  3. —In my opinion I think Lost and Breaking Bad have two of the most effective pilots ever. They get you right into the show. The latter worked pretty much the whole way through though.

    —I throw up spoiler warnings out of consideration but I figured Lost would’ve been something you’d seen. Ha ha, the examples I went for must’ve sounded pretty strange…!


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