At a writer's critique group, one piece of feedback to me was: people didn't understand where I was going until the very end. They suggested stating something explicit at the very beginning so they knew what it was I was trying to convey. My thought at the time was agreement "Yeah, we can all use having things spelled out for us - we're all tired and overworked."

Later I was thinking about the idea that when you write, try to move the story without hitting people over the head with it. This is sort of 'show, don't tell'.

My preferred way of showing, not telling is to bring to mind Hemingway's advice: the written words are the visible portion of the iceberg, and the way those move tells the reader what is happening beneath the surface, which is most of the story. Unwritten but implied and understood. Don't underestimate your audience.

How does one balance these two ideas? How does one 'state explicitly' as the group suggested to me, without hitting the reader over the head?

  • Does your story involve a mystery?
    – Alexander
    Sep 21, 2017 at 19:53
  • No. It was about transcendence. A very short story. About a person trying to do a task, and coming to a completely separate and unexpected realization from that task (about life, the universe, and everything). The group did not get that it was a transcendent experience. They wanted some hint in the title or something. Could be the rules change depending on length.
    – SFWriter
    Sep 22, 2017 at 1:28
  • 2
    So, in other words, there is nothing in the story that supposed to stay unclear or unknown to the reader? I would say - keep showing reader some clues, but make sure you don't lost him.
    – Alexander
    Sep 22, 2017 at 8:37

8 Answers 8


This is an interesting question. The answer, I believe, lies in remembering that people read for pleasure. And when it comes to our pleasures, we value predictability very highly. This is not to say that surprise has no role in pleasure, but it is a very confined one. When we read a mystery, we want to be surprised when we find out who the killer is, but we read mysteries because we predict that we will have that pleasurable surprise (and only that particular surprise) at exactly the time and place we expect it.

In that sense, a piece of writing is like a cruise ship. The passengers don't need or want to know what is going on in the engine room (OK, I want to know, but I trust you get my point). They don't want to know the details of navigation and ship handling or how things run in the galley. But before they buy their tickets, they do want to know the exact itinerary, the exact cabin they will be occupying, and the kind of meals, amenities, and entertainments that will be provided on the voyage.

The pleasure, in other words, in in the voyage itself, and in the ports of call, not in any mystery about what they will be; it is in the food and the wine, not in any surprise about how and when you get to eat.

A genre is a promise of a certain kind of literary pleasure. Most readers stick to their chosen genres because they are looking for the specific pleasures that those genres promise. That is why it is harder to sell a story that does not fit an established genre: such a story asks the readers to take a risk on a book that may not deliver the specific pleasures they are looking for.

So, the part you want to conceal is how the sausage is made, not the fact that your are serving sausage. The pleasure lies not in surprise but in superb execution of the experience the reader signed up for. So the reader is always going to ask, what am I signing up for here? If you don't tell them, they are not going to read on. So it is essential to make it very clear where this is going, and then to make the journey unforgettable.

I once heard an agent describe what publishers are looking for as "the same, only different". "The same" is key here. The same is the guarantee of the familiar experience I want and am accustomed to. The different part is a modification of that experience that safely keeps it within the bounds of what I expect while giving a pleasing but safe variation on that experience.

  • 13
    Ironically, I always assumed readers enjoy being surprised and explicitly do not want predictability! But as I read this post, I realize there's a delicate balance between the two that I definitely need to keep in mind. They don't want to be surprised on everything. It also occurs to me, you don't want to make your story a pissing contest of how many secret plots you can weave and reveal in the last chapter, which I confess I've done on multiple occasions.
    – corsiKa
    Sep 21, 2017 at 19:29
  • @corsiKa I appreciate your comment. Someone also recommended putting as many grenades in the prologue (separate project) as possible, in order to detonate them throughout the story. That's not my style but I bet it gets at Mark's point about what sells more easily...
    – SFWriter
    Sep 22, 2017 at 1:22
  • @Mark Baker Thanks. I am trying to write in a non-derivative way, and another balance will be to follow the expected structure while communicating what I believe is a less common (hopefully uncommon) perspective.
    – SFWriter
    Sep 22, 2017 at 1:23
  • 1
    This is a fantastic explanation because it uses an analogy. Very good.
    – raddevus
    Sep 22, 2017 at 21:38
  • 5
    My writing mentor describes it as, when you establish your genre within the first pages of your story, you're establishing a contract with your readers - that you will stick to the genre you have telegraphed.
    – Kevin
    Sep 23, 2017 at 1:30

Without having seen your piece, of course, I can only speculate, but I wonder if what you were doing was the opposite of predictability: You signaled you were going straight, or right, when your goal was to go left.

I disagree that every book has to be a safe, predictable "the same but different," as Mark's agent said. There's certainly a market for that, but I wouldn't use it as a guiding principle for every story. What your readers may have been asking for was a flag that something was going on.

Let me use a TV show as an example, because I can't think of a written one at the moment. The BBC's wildly successful Sherlock aired its fourth season at the beginning of 2017, and it was almost universally panned. People actively hated it. The cinematography was gorgeous, the acting was wonderful, but the writing was... like we were watching the wrong show.

The previous three seasons plus a Christmas special taught the audience to expect a mystery or two per episode, clever banter, Sherlock as brilliant and pretending to be cold but actually very sensitive, John as brave and telling himself he's normal while chasing after excitement, Mycroft as a cold-blooded government spymaster, Mrs. Hudson as the affectionate and exasperated friend, Sherlock and John as the closest of friends (and probably in love with each other but unable to admit it), and a realism-based narrative.

But the fourth season went absolutely off the rails from all of this. Sherlock ignoring John, John barely speaking to Sherlock, Mary constantly in the middle of the two of them, Sherlock claiming to openly prefer Mary to John, John assaulting Sherlock and beating him bloody, Mrs. Hudson drag-racing an Aston Martin, Mycroft vomiting in distress after seeing violence, a mysterious mind-controlling secret sister in a secret government installation who is somehow in league with Moriarty who's been dead for years, an explosion which blows two men out a second-story window without a scratch and destroys the flat but not the rug, a character leaping in front of a bullet after it's fired and having a Hamlet-length death scene when it's established that a chest shot puts you out in three seconds... I could go on.

My point is that the fourth season of Sherlock was so inconsistent with everything else we'd seen in the previous three years that a large chunk of the online fandom has spent the last eight months trying to figure out What Really Happened, Because That Wasn't Real. Is it someone's fantasy? A mind palace vision? John or Sherlock is dying and hallucinating? Did reality separate at the end of Season Two?

At the end of The Reichenbach Fall, John leaves Sherlock's "grave" and the camera pulls back to show Sherlock watching John leave — so he's clearly not dead. That was the flag which the showrunners gave us so we knew something was going to happen. We didn't know what, but we knew it was something.

We didn't get an explicit flag anywhere in S4 to tell us "You are not supposed to accept these events at face value. Something Else is going on." Maybe Mofftiss didn't intend to tell us what's going on until S5, but they didn't warn us that we'd have to wait for S5. So we're angry and confused because we don't know where all this is going. Is it just bad writing? Is it layers of subtext? Is it meant to be symbolic? We don't know.

Perhaps what happened with your story is that you knew where you wanted it to end up, but you didn't signal to your audience that Things Are Not What They Seem. Some little bit of foreshadowing, signaling, flagging, or other direction was missing. Your readers need a hint about your endgame. The hint can be as vague as "Even though this is set up like a sitcom, it's not actually a comedy." You don't have to spell out on page 3 that it's going to be horror/drama/mystery/sci-fi/alternate history/southern gothic. You just have to let people know that their expectations are being deliberately subverted.

  • 2
    I didn't say every book has to be the same but different, I said that (an agent told me that) that is what publishers want. After all, publishers are in business to sell books, and the surest indication that something will sell in the future is that it sold in the past. Its not an absolute indication, but it is the best indication we have. That doesn't mean its impossible to break the mold, it just means it is difficult. And, as you say, it is seldom wise to pretend to be the same and then do something different that frustrates the reader's expectations.
    – user16226
    Sep 21, 2017 at 18:48
  • @MarkBaker Point taken; I'll edit to reflect that. Sep 21, 2017 at 22:09
  • It was only two pages, :) so page three would have had to be a post mortem. Maybe they really were tired.
    – SFWriter
    Sep 22, 2017 at 1:25
  • The Sherlock spoilers weren't bad until the one about the character that died, I think if you omit that one you can still make the same point, just a suggestion.
    – Segfault
    Sep 22, 2017 at 23:44
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    @Segfault This is almost exactly the circumstances in S4: she jumps (after the bullet is fired, a physical impossibility), there's a huge spurt of blood, and she dramatically falls, and has five solid minutes to talk before dying. This is simply not reality. I'll tweak my wording, however. Sep 23, 2017 at 10:50

I agree with what others have pointed out: That your readers probably were confused because you either didn't set up reader's expectations well or you didn't set them up at all.

Let's say you're writing a love story where A and B first hate each other, but then slowly fall in love with each other. The first half of the story contains lots of dialogue between A and B where they fight and insult each other. Now let's assume that one of your readers for some reason thought this would be a horror story. They are bored by all the dialogue, because they're expecting the monster to show up and kill everybody. To them, it feels like nothing's happening. They feel let down. However, if they read the same story actually expecting a love story, they might have thoroughly enjoyed it.

Reader's expectations influence how they percieve the story and how much they are able to enjoy different elements of the story. Going in with false expectations can destroy the entire story. Going in with the right expectations helps readers to root for the right characters and to care for the right things.

Of course, that doesn't mean that you have to spoil the ending before it happens. But you should let your reader know in which direction you're going.

So how do you do that?

In your story, the ending is probably an answer to something. Figure out which question the ending is an answer to. In the love story example, maybe A is very arrogant and has to overcome their arrogance in order to be with B. So question and answer in this scenario could be: "How does A overcome their arrogance? - They love B so much that they are willing to put their ego aside." Another example: "How does Harry win over Voldemort? - By being willing to sacrifice his life for others the way his mother sacrificed hers for him."

After figuring out your question, reveal it to readers as early as possible. And this is something you can do by showing, not telling: In Harry Potter, it's very clear from the beginning that eventually, Harry will have to face Voldemort. And it's also very clear that with Voldemort being one of the most powerful wizards the world has ever seen and with Harry being completely new to the wizarding world, he is just not equipped for that. So the question comes up naturally: How?

Same with the love story example. If we've seen A be a jerk in the beginning and be very arrogant towards other people, we'll naturally wonder what's going to become of this character trait.

So you don't have to state "this story is going to be about XY". You just have to reveal a question. And if the end of the story is an actual answer to the question that the readers had in the beginning, they will feel that the story made sense and didn't lead them on. The kind of response you got is in my opinion only possible, if your story answers questions that the readers never had in the first place.

Sorry for bad English, I'm not a native speaker.

  • 1
    Great answer, great advice, and welcome to Writers.SE :D
    – Standback
    Sep 25, 2017 at 18:27
  • @Standback Wow, thanks a lot, you made my day!
    – B Altmann
    Sep 27, 2017 at 10:43

I think a story needs to be consistent.

Consider "The Sixth Sense" [*Spoiler Alert, I give away the Twist], the "I see dead people" movie with Bruce Willis. For myself, I made sure I saw it early, I knew from rumor there was a killer twist, and I did not want it spoiled.

I was not disappointed: Bruce was dead the whole time! Holy crap! I watched it again immediately, the entire movie. It was expertly done, on second watch I did not see a thing inconsistent with the premise of how the dead were represented; Bruce was dead, did not know he was dead, his wife's harsh words and refusal to speak to him were all her speaking to the air in grief as if he were there to hear her: His spirit was, but he was not. And so on.

There was definitely some odd behaviors going on, but we ignored them, and on second viewing later realized they made more sense than we thought.

If your final revelation does not seem to follow with a 2nd reading, then that needs improvement. You don't need explicit hints, like The Sixth Sense this can be atmosphere and feelings. The hints need to be there, the idea it will be a transformative revelation does not.

What would help is a feeling that a transformative revelation is needed or desired, an air of frustration, boredom, unsettlement or loss. It is okay if the mundane task being performed turns out, for the character, to provide the metaphor they need to understand their larger personal problem and move beyond it. But we need to know they need or want a transformation, in the first Act, (roughly 1/2 a page or 2/3 for you, so no easy task).

In The Sixth Sense, we see all of Bruce's problems in the first Act, his utter failure to help Vincent (who also saw dead people, and kills Bruce), his despondent wife, his inability and confusion with Haley Joel (the kid).

We are misled into assuming these are normal life problems, but we aren't lied to. It makes the twist satisfying and entertaining to have missed the clues! If we were lied to, or the twist was completely hidden, then we would be miffed. The author didn't play a fair game; they cheated to pull a surprise.

You don't have to start with "This is a story of Alice's unexpected transformation." You need to start with Alice being troubled, emotionally adrift, dissatisfied. In her thoughts, reflexively cynical and critical, barely able to resist being mean and hurtful. You need to show us that Alice needs a transformation, a solution, a new way to understand the world that makes her (in the eyes of the reader) better than the unhappy bitch she has become.


It's very difficult as the writer to set something up in the perfect amount of detail, whether that's a twist, an exposition or even just a character description.

I once read a series of 5 novels where there was an important plot point that the main character had red hair, but because the author didn't make it explicit enough in the beginning my idea of the MC was with brown hair, and as the image was cemented in my brain right at the start it was very difficult to shift.

When writing your own story, obviously you know all the information already, and drip feeding it to the reader at the correct rate is a delicate balance. You can never really tell whether you're giving away too much information, or not enough.

You don't want to shove every bit of information that the reader needs to know right into their face, as it is not enjoyable to just be told things outright. At the same time, they don't want to have to remember every minute detail in case it becomes pertinent later in the story, and yet they want to have the option of being able to figure it out on their own.

I always refer back to Fight Club when faced with a dilemma like this. All of the information was there right from the beginning to figure out the twist, but it required putting it all together to figure it out before the reveal at the end. On a re-read, everything seems super obvious, but the problem was you missed the signs, because you didn't even realize that they were signs.

But you still need the iceberg to look like an iceberg if you're expecting the readers to understand that there is more going on beneath the surface. You can't expect readers to be shown a rock and figure out it has more to it, they need to be given a chance to know that there might be something else to it.

And of course, even if you get the details perfect, you will still come across both the very observant and really unobservant: some will feel like it's too much and others won't think that it's enough. I'm guessing that even Hemingway couldn't account for that. But if literally everyone agrees, as in your case, that there was not enough information to see it coming, I would probably throw in a little bit more.

Ultimately it comes down to a personal judgement call. Like I said at the beginning, as the writer already knowing everything beforehand, it's almost impossible to not be able to put it all together. I find that putting my work aside for a while, and coming back with fresh eyes to see if I can understand what is going on is very useful.

I feel like this answer that I gave in another question treads similar ground, but it is more about longer pieces of work, so it might be worth a read.


The key and the challenge to any satisfying ending is that you must in one way let the audience know exactly what to expect, yet from another, they should be surprised at how they get it. What makes this even possible is that the expectations you build are emotional expectations, while what you deliver is the practical ways those emotional expectations get satisfied.

One of my most frustrating reading experiences was a novel by a talented new author, who clearly foreshadowed a tragedy in the opening pages, and then delivered a happy ending. It made the entire book feel like a waste of time, and NOT because I have anything against happy endings. What she promised was not what she delivered.

In a short story it can be difficult to both build expectations and subvert them, but it can be done, and quite efficiently. This link leads to a very short story by one of my favorite authors, who is known for quirky originality, Haruki Murakami. Note how, right from the beginning, we know the two principal characters do NOT end up together. So we aren't expecting a happy ending. At the same time, the description of the girl as "100% perfect for me" implies some sort of love story. And in fact, both of these pieces of info are implicit even in the title itself, "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning" (note: "seeing" NOT "meeting"). This defines the puzzle of the outer story, which is how these two characters can both connect and miss connecting. Then, for the inner story, the narrator explicitly foreshadows both the hopeful, fairy tale, "once upon a time" beginning, and the "sad" ending. At the end, we do get the promised love story, but only in memory/imagination. It's a potentially frustrating ending, but it satisfies the reader because it is exactly what we were promised, yet a completely original way of getting there.

  • 1
    I have to disagree on "they must be utterly surprised by the way they get it". I think this seriously undervalues the role of story in our lives. We want stories to end the way they are supposed to end: not in surprising ways but in satisfying ways. Stories give meaning to live. They make life make sense and feel purposeful and shaped rather than random. Surprise is randomness; stories exist to refute the randomness of existence. It is the reality of the story and the meaning asserted by the story arc that satisfies the reader and keeps them reading and makes the hoped-for ending satisfying.
    – user16226
    Sep 25, 2017 at 17:02
  • @MarkBaker Good point. I have edited to address. Sep 25, 2017 at 17:10

I feel you with the whole 'readers not knowing where it's going'.

I wrote a story a long time ago and had a very deep plot with intense characters; however, when I had people read it...they were ultimately confused.

After some time away, I approached the project again and found that I was also very confused and left in the dark. It was very difficult to pinpoint where I had gone wrong. I wanted there to be mystery, I wanted to show not tell, and I didn't want people to know my secrets.

Here's the thing: When you pick up a book from the library, on the cover flap or the back you will get a tiny summary of what the book is about. From this you will build expectations. And once you start reading, you should have a grasp at what the story is trying to get to within the first chapter. From the get go, you should understand that This Book is about a girl who is going to be kidnapped, so when you start reading, you can find hints in this first chapter about this girl being kidnapped, and you begin to build expectation for her abduction, the events that follow, and the aftermath. You don't know the details, but you know whats going to happen.

So when you present a story to people without that summary, without an idea for whats in the book, they should still be able to pick up the idea within the first few chapters.

I started reading a book from the library and the summary was very intriguing, it caught my attention. It was basically about these people's lives and how they became united. But after a short bit, I was lost. The book was throwing in elements that seemed to have nothing to do with anything, it was giving me too much beyond what I had expected. I didn't understand the context. Why was there this dead bird? Why was it such a big deal?

You have to treat your story like that summary paragraph. You have to have hints to what the goal of the book is, and include context that fits this goal.

In my story I had failed to give the reader a direction, or at least one that was solid. I also gave my reader too much to handle.

The reader is not you. They don't know anything until you give it to them. It's like they've entered a white room and things start appearing. You have to build things up in baby steps for this room to take place. They're standing there naked, looking at blank nothingness. What you need to do is create some ground. They want to be standing on something, or they'll freak out because they can't figure out how they're just floating there. You then need to create walls. What is surrounding the reader? Once they get a feel of the room, you can then introduce objects. But make sure the reader knows what these objects are or they won't know it's purpose and won't want to go near it.

This was a bit off the cuff and scattered, but I hope it makes sense.

  • 4
    could you please add some paragraph breaks? This is an exhausting wall of text. Sep 22, 2017 at 1:05
  • Oh haha sure. My bad @LaurenIpsum Sep 22, 2017 at 16:46

They gave you that advice as a corrective from your current story, which it sounded like they detested. It would probably be better to rework the story thoroughly to avoid either using their blunt advice or making the very mistake they are admonishing.

Their corrective was probably a quick and dirty way to salvage the story. But usually we shoot for higher than "salvage," so I would follow your instincts to favor a deeper improvement over placing a signpost at the beginning.

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