Some of my beta comments fall under the category of 'I the reader am frustrated by what I do not know' - and I've gotten this comment in my real life group too.

The reader wants information as soon as a question comes to mind for them. In my real life group I don't worry too much, the nature of the critique is fragmented, many excerpts, we can't remember previous chapters from weeks ago, etc.

But the beta comments have the same concern. They want to know everything, as soon as the question comes to mind, as though they are uncomfortable wondering. They want to not be asked to wait.

Popular Examples of what I'm talking about:

  1. Owls are trying to delver a letter to Harry. Why? We don't find out for a while.

  2. The ring of power makes a person invisible and eventually eats their soul. Why?

  3. R2-D2 has a hologram of a beautiful princess and it's supposed to go to a crazy man in the desert. Why?

Why do my betas ask for the answers to these sorts of questions 'right away' (or even more oddly, before the strange event even happens)? I think I pace the reveals properly, based on my own reading enjoyment. I have tried to make the story enjoyable (rich setting etc). I don't know whether to ...

  1. reorganize paragraphs so they get answers before they ask questions, but this seems like it would reduce tension.

  2. obscure the odd events, so the reader is less aware of holding the question in mind. This seems even worse than #1.

  3. Maybe my beta readers are simply impatient people who normally gravitate towards other styles of books. ??

  4. Maybe the reveal pacing is perfect, but other elements in my writing keep the space between question and reveal too un-enjoyable.

I'm very puzzled by it. Perhaps the beta read process has its own shortcomings. Any thoughts you have on the above are most welcome. (I see odd events with future reveal to be an important aspect of tension. I'd like to not lose tension.)

To focus the question: What are the best methods to pace and reveal story plot points?


Fake example, written on the fly:

Natasha raced up to the house. Fumbling, she pulled out her key chain. Damn. Damn damn damn. The wand's inside. She jiggles the key into the lock. She tries to turn it.

Nothing. She pulls the key out, it's the right one. She tries again. No luck. It's the right key. She tries the others, naturally they don't work, either.

It's at this point that my beta is commenting, "I want to know why the key doesn't work."

(then there's ~two paragraphs of Natasha pulling clues together, trying to figure out why the house key doesn't work, wondering if a window is open, should she run? because she has to get inside or else...) Then, after those two paragraphs -

At that moment, the shifter appears. Natasha backs up, next to the door out of reach, quaking. If only she'd gotten inside she'd have her wand.

He said, "I shift more than myself, Natasha. Your keys are worthless. You're not in your world anymore. "

Second draft would be tighter - but same structure. Is this structure somehow wrong?

  • I don't understand the reaction of your beta readers, which makes me wonder if you are not understanding them. I find this kind of problem a lot more common if there is an intentional gloss-over of the weird which is actually a clue. The beta reader does not trust it to be intentional. Is that the problem you are having? – Andrey Mar 23 at 16:22
  • @Andrey It's possible. Some of the comments have two meanings, like 'I don't like this character' might mean 'you should work on this character' or 'you did a good job making me not like this character,' Through the answers here including yours I am trusting to not use my options 1&2 above, and to make sure I have included enough context/clues ala 'acknowledge chekov's gun' as said somewhere below. – DPT Mar 23 at 19:15
up vote 18 down vote accepted

Pushing off from Alexander's answer, when something "strange" happens in a book I am reading, and I notice it, (sometimes a bit of strangeness can be a subtle hint that I'd only see upon rereading), I either trust the author that this is a hook, to be explained later, or I am frustrated by random oddness. The first excites me and draws me in. The second pushes me out.

The true question is, of course, what makes the difference. Why is it that sometimes I trust the author, and sometimes I don't?

I'm not sure I have the whole of it, but I think, at least in part, this has to do with the author acknowledging the mystery. When Harry Potter starts getting his letters, he is immediately curious about them. With the Ring, other hobbits comment on Bilbo not appearing to grow older, and Gandalf is concerned about Bilbo's unusual behaviour. Lacking this acknowledgement, I would have been frustrated: wondering what on earth is going on, why those things are happening. The acknowledgement of the strangeness is a promise that an answer will be given later.

Once I've been given such a promise of future resolution, I can wait for its for quite a while. In Dresden Files, 15 books in, there's still acknowledgement of issues unresolved from the 1st and 2nd books. (However, the longer I have to wait, the more impressive I'd expect the resolution to be. Think of Star Wars The Last Jedi: it feels as a let-down to learn that Rey's parents are nobody, not because we particularly mind them being nobody, but because for two films there was this promise to "reveal who her parents are".)

So, to sum up, I don't think the issue is with readers' impatience and pacing reveals. I might be wrong, but I think the issue is with acknowledging the presence of a mystery, which would effect a promise of a reveal later on.

  • Intrigued by the idea of building promise of resolution into each odd thing. Wonder how to do this in a quick snippet of written code to the reader. Will dwell on it. The idea of having the character acknowledge it somehow will be useful for me to consider. – DPT Mar 22 at 20:19
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    This is a great extension of Chekhov's Gun: don't just show the gun, but also acknowledge it. Galastel's Gun. – pbarney Mar 23 at 14:42
  • The other issue you may have is that your readers will generally only tolerate so many unresolved issues at once. If they're demanding that something be resolved immediately, maybe they've already hit their limit for unresolved issues. – Jeffiekins Mar 26 at 17:28

I think it is a mistake to think of your story as a set of reveals. A story has a shape and the reader remains interested if they sense that the story is making progress. Tension is not created by mysteries but by anticipation. Consider a romance. We all know what the resolution will be. We all know who the right guy is for the heroine and that she will eventually choose him over the wrong guy. We are along for the ride because we want to see and experience this eternal story happening in a new pair of lives.

If your readers are wanting more information sooner it is because they do not feel like the story is making progress. If you are withholding information to set up a "reveal" this is almost certainly going to create a sense that progress is not being made. It is the literary equivalent of sitting in a traffic jam. Yes, you will eventually get to see the accident scene that caused the jam, but anticipation of that happy event does not in any way make sitting in the jam an enjoyable experience.

In Star Wars, which follows the hero's journey like a textbook, the droid delivering the appeal from the princess (the call to adventure) comes at exactly the prescribed moment. It moves the story forward into its next stage (crossing the threshold). The reader is not impatient to know what the princess's message means because they are bowling down the road with the wind in their hair. The story is moving. It is making progress. Yipee!

EDIT TO ADDRESS ADDED EXAMPLES: The example seems to me a perfect illustration that sometimes you should tell, not show. One shows in order to let the reader draw their own conclusions about an event. But here the conclusion to be drawn is simple and straightforward. The key no longer worked. There is no room for interpretation here, but by going through the motions of jiggling and trying etc, you force the reader to reach the conclusion for themselves, which suggests to them that there is some ambiguity about this. But there isn't. The key does not work. This is a mere mechanical and material fact. Don't make me work it out. Don't suggest that there is something to work out. Just tell me.

Further to this, it is the fact of the key not working which is the most significant point in this scene. It is what matters to move the story forward. So all the pantomime around showing that it does not work is actually a traffic jam that is holding up progress in the story.

If the point of the scene was that your hero was frazzled of anxious, the pantomime with the key might serve to show it, but it's not the point. The point is that she is not in Kansas anymore. On that note, read the section of the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy lands in Oz and look at how straightforward and matter-of-fact the prose is.

In short, if you have marvels to relate, relate the marvels. Keep the story moving forward.

  • I will say that my betas got the draft in January, before I hammered MC to your prescribed moral arc, and I expect that edit (which they did not see) may change things. in broad strokes. But in this case, for this question, it is literally 'she sees something she doesn't understand' (works for two paragraphs to understand) 'she figures it out.' I'll give an example in edit. – DPT Mar 22 at 21:53
  • @DPT I have edited my answer to address your example. – Mark Baker Mar 22 at 23:15
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    Well, as a teller by nature, the idea of converting some areas to telling is very appealing. :-) – DPT Mar 23 at 0:13

There are "odd things", and there are "mysteries". Mysteries are supposed to get the audience on the hook, and get explained at some point later. Odd things just happen without explanation, and characters move on like nothing happened, whereas audience is left wondering about them.

Are you sure your readers immediately identify "odd things" as "mysteries", and not something odd, which would probably never going to be explained?

  • Interesting. How would we know if the owls were a mystery or an odd thing in HP? What would mark it as a mystery? My characters don't 'move on,' although they also don't 'answer right away.' They usually angst about it in some appropriate manner, other threads from earlier get tied into the angst, ('oh, wasn't there an owl at Betty's house too?') and then there's a reveal. – DPT Mar 22 at 17:31
  • IMHO the character should be puzzled about something odd just like the reader would be. – Alexander Mar 22 at 17:33
  • I think your comment and the two other answers are hitting at the same idea... :-) – DPT Mar 22 at 20:19

I admit I haven't thought much about this, as a discovery writer. However, I am following a character (or some) and I don't really have "odd things" happening.

There are clear things happening the character does not understand that pretty much force them to take some action. Somebody tried to kill them, or did kill somebody else. In "The Pelican Brief", Julia Roberts is navigating a simple life of having an affair with her law professor, when he is killed by a car bomb she witnesses, she would have been killed with him if not for a convenient minor argument they just had. That is not an "odd thing", it is an obvious plot point, i.e. what the story is about, so the audience expects it to be answered later, maybe not until the end of the story. Right now, she is confused and frightened and driven to action.

As for actual clues to something that will come together later, I do that, but I always make sure my POV character has some alternative explanation for anything out of the ordinary, or rolls with it as part of the normal random variations of life; not everybody likes lemon desserts as much as she does, this guy does. (the fact that he is her biological father doesn't occur to her.) Chances are, I wouldn't catch this clue until I reread the book, although if it is one of the litany of things she cites in figuring out this guy is a blood relative, I would say, "oh yeah, she's right!"

I don't like obvious "odd things" in books, they feel false to me, especially if the character must realize it is an odd thing and doesn't (she's an idiot), or she knows it is odd and shrugs it off, oh well, crazy things happen. Neither of those is good writing.

Apply Occam's razor: The simplest explanation is the most likely explanation.

For my character, the simplest explanation is that some people love lemon desserts, and that is the most likely reason this guy does too. The idea this guy likes lemon desserts, and therefore is her biological father, is silly, that is the conclusion that would lose the reader completely.

By Occam's razor, there is no plausible explanation for the owls; thus the reader knows this is a plot point that will be explained (better be explained) later. It is not a random odd thing, important characters don't blow it off.

You don't build suspense with such odd things; the reader identifies with the POV character(s). If they don't notice and pursue the odd thing (thus promising a mystery that will eventually be revealed), and the odd thing doesn't seem to affect anything else or cause any actions to be taken, then the reader is not intrigued but confused by the odd thing, and confusion leads to irritation with the author.

There may be exceptions; Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is the closest thing I can think of to "odd things" happening or appearing that make zero sense. But even though other characters may blow off the odd things, Dirk himself is intensely interested in every one of them, despite not understanding them, and they do all knit together in the final reveal when he solves the mystery.

Edit for added examples: I will agree with Mark, mostly. I think it is fine to race up to the house, fumbling with the key and have it not work. Then you lost me, as you lost your beta readers. It's the right key is the end of that story. It is irrational to try your car key in the door, or your sister's house key. You tried the right key. If she's irrational, how does she know it's the right key?

The right reaction is "The lock is jammed somehow" and running to try the back door, or break the best window to get in, or take some other proactive action. Without adding these scene elements, the shifter could appear at that moment: when Natasha realizes "The lock is jammed somehow" the shifter appears with his line and explains why.

Of course it doesn't explain why he didn't just shift the door into a brick wall, or her key into a bottle opener, or shift her into a bunny rabbit, but I'll presume you have a plausible explanation for that.

It is a valid instinct to note that Natasha's mindset must switch from "desperate hope" to "all hope is lost" at some point, and that should be shown, drawing it out like this doesn't help. She should conclude the lock is jammed and turn to plan B immediately (The bathroom window, the latch is loose!), or lose hope. Perhaps, she thinks of Plan B, and the shifter appears at that moment.

As a writing point, an action scene is not a great place for pondering, wondering, or putting together clues. She is in a fight or flight situation, that means her frontal cortex is shut down (except for highly trained fighters), analytic logic abilities are minimized and memory is enhanced (it helps with alternatives, paths, enemy weaknesses, etc).

If your gun jams, pull your knife, or flee or escape. You don't stand there with a jammed gun and ponder what is wrong with it, you can't think through such logic. Your enemy is still firing!

Her memory will fill her mind with images that might help her get into the house: that bathroom window, even quicker the barbecue she can throw through the plate glass rear door, the shovel she left in the garden could be a makeshift weapon.

  • Intrigued by the idea of building promise of resolution into each odd thing. Wonder how to do this in a quick snippet of written code to the reader. Will dwell on it. – DPT Mar 22 at 20:18
  • If they are under the radar, you don't have to: They are foreshadowing, perhaps disguised as coincidence. For secret siblings the favorite pie of both is NOT pie: It's Boston Cream Pie [a filled cake originally baked in a pie pan], and they both think that funny. Other odd things must have consequences, in some char's actions or emotions. The odd things must be on someone's mind, recalled at times; WTF do they mean? Theories considered and rejected. I don't think you can do it all at once in a few sequential paragraphs and then forget it. It needs to bob to the surface once in a while. – Amadeus Mar 22 at 21:42
  • Yes. Also just came to a section where beta said 'how did she know this?' and in that case how she knew it was literally in the sentence immediately preceding their Q. I'm not convinced I have great readers.... But this is still very useful and now a dedicated future revision on the list. – DPT Mar 22 at 21:47
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    @DPT There are lots of cases of people not registering information they have literally just read. It means that the information did not register at the time. Memory is a scarce resource and the brain is constantly filtering. When we read we don't retain words, we retain story (and not always that for very long). If the reader does not remember what was in the last sentence they read it is because it did not register as story, and therefore worth remembering, at the moment they read it. If story does not grip, even for a moment, the brain starts to float over the words, seeing story pickup. – Mark Baker Mar 22 at 23:01
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    Just to add, about the keys (cc: @DPT): it's perfectly reasonable to try different keys in the lock before becoming convinced that the first one was the right key. This can happen when one has two very similar-looking keys on one's keyring. What's odd about the example scene is that she looks at the key, she is sure it's the right key, and then she tries other (clearly wrong) keys. – DLosc Mar 24 at 7:07

My actual answer is at the end, but to arrive at it, let us first look at the examples you gave, to understand why they work.

  1. "Owls are trying to delver a letter to Harry. Why? We don't find out for a while." (sic)

    I suppose you think of the movie, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, in which we see an owl flying and dropping a letter, and then Harry finding it among the letters as he picks them up from the floor inside the house.

    In the movie, this scene only works because its viewers already know the story from the book. All the Harry Potter movies are badly written, if you try to watch them without being familiar with the novels. They are nothing but a sequence of the most interesting scenes from the novels unconnected to each other except in the minds of those who watch the movie because they loved the books.

    In the book, the letters aren't delivered by owls at all. Being familiar with the books, we presume that they are when we think of that scene in retrospect, but there is no mention of owls during that part of the book. Harry discovers the first letter as he goes to get the day's post for his uncle Vernon. No owls are mentioned during the scene. The next letters "had been pushed under the door, slotted through the sides, and a few even forced through the small window in the downstairs bathroom". Again, no owls are mentioned. "On Saturday, ... Twenty-four letters to Harry found their way into the hourse". Again, no owls. Eventually Hagrid delivers the letter, no owl. Harry hears of owls for the first time when he reads the letter, which says that Minerva McGonagall awaits his owl.

    This is the first time that owls are mentioned as delivering letters. And after the slow buildup from the first letter, which by all appearances has arrived quite normally, to Hagrid, the fact that Harry's return letter must be sent by owl is no longer much of an oddity at all.

    Also, owls have already been introduced, although not delivering letters, among all the odd occurences in the first chapter that that foreshadow Harry's delivery to the Dursleys and are a portent of stanger things yet to come. There is a long section where owls are seen over the city and people in strange clothes on the streets. Of course the reader wonders what it all means, but then the whole purpose of this first chapter is to incite wonder and curiosity, and any explanation would destroy the suspense and finish the story right there and then. But when we get to Harry being told to send his answer by owl, both the introduction of owls as connected to the basic mystery of the book in the first chapter and the extensive description of magically appearing letters in the fourth chapter no longer make sending letters by owl anything special. It is almost expected by then.

  2. "The ring of power makes a person invisible and eventually eats their soul. Why?"

    In the Hobbit, when Bilbo finds the Ring, the narrator tells us that "[i]t was a turing point in his career, but he did not know it". So while the reader may wonder about the ring, the narrator tells him that the mystery will be explained later. The reader's question is not answered, but addressed, leaving the reader satisfied for the moment.

    Later, when Bilbo finds out that the ring makes him invisible, he is surprised: "His head was in a whirl of hope and wonder. It seemed that the ring he had was a magic ring: it made you invisible! He had heard of such things, of course, in old tales; but it was hard to believe that he really had found one, by accident." The surprise and disbelief of the reader are resolved by showing how the protagonist feels the same.

    As for the soul-eating aspect of the Ring, this is first introduced in The Fellowship of the Ring, where the whole history of the Ring, from its forging to how it corrupts its bearer, is laid out in detail and in fact no question is raised that remains unanswered at all.

  3. "R2-D2 has a hologram of a beautiful princess and it's supposed to go to a crazy man in the desert. Why?"

    A New Hope shows how Leia records a distress message on the droid's holographic projector and hides the plans to the Death Star along with it. So that part is explained and not odd or mysterious at all. On Tatooine, Luke accidentally triggers the message and we hear that it is for Obi-Wan. No mystery either. When R2D2 wanders off into the desert, he tells Luke he is going to Obi-Wan. So we know that the "crazy man" in the desert is Obi-Wan. Again, no mystery.


Apart from the fact that you have misremembered some of the examples you gave, what can we learn from that?

How to present unanswered questions without irritating the reader

  1. When something odd happens, make the fictional characters wonder about them along with the reader.

  2. When something mysterious happens, plainly tell the reader that it is a mystery and that it will be explained later.

  3. Slowly introduce the elements of the mystery so that when the great riddle is finally presented to the reader, they are by then familiar with its components and well prepared to expecting a mystery.


A comment on your example

If your character inserts the right key and it suddently doesn't work, then this should come as sudden and unexpected to the reader as it does to the character. They way you tell it (in your example) is perfect. You are introducing a mystery, this mystery creates suspense, and I'm now curious to accompany your character as she find out why the key doesn't work. And if it take all book to find out, then that is fine. These kinds of small riddles are why I read books at all, and if you would explain the mystery right away, you'd take away all the fun of reading.

Your own text might differ from your example in important ways, but if it is like your example and your beta reader feels that they should be told the solution to this riddle immediately, then you should find a different beta reader.

I think your problem is just an artifact of the beta process.

Beta readers don't trust the author. They are reading something knowing that it has not gone through the editorial process, so they often see mistakes where the author intended to make something strange.
Let me give an example from my writing. At some point I have a character using a gold sword. When reading a seasoned writer in a published book, readers will think "is the sword magic? is there a reason he would use such a bad material for a weapon? Maybe that's the only way to kill the monster" In beta reading the response incited is "gold is soft and makes a poor weapon. You should change it"

If you are going to explain something two paragraphs you should not worry about comments like that. In a real book people will take it as normal and trust you to answer the question when you need to. The only feedback you can get here is that readers want to know the answer and you should make sure to have it at some point. DO this enough and the beta reader, and hopefully the end reader will learn to trust you and your mysteries.

  • I like this idea too - beta did say at one point 'I guess I should learn to be patient' ... onwards ... – DPT Mar 23 at 19:12

In this case, I believe your fundamental problem is too much dead time. Readers expect to have either story progress, engaging literary flourishes, or both at any given point in time. (By flourishes, I mean exposition which is thoroughly enticing background information.)

While Natasha is trying to figure out the problem with the key, you would need to provide some curiosities to hint to the reader that her frantic search has some meaning. The reader must perceive her actions as having plot or character value, otherwise it is wasted words. A good writer must do two things with every phrase: control tension while conveying plot or character information.

E.g., if she notices something wrong with the house while looking for open windows. She could question her memory or her sanity, which can add to the sense of fear and flight while foreshadowing the revelation. Depending on her character, it could be mind-racing yet competent consideration---or it can be full-on terror, confusion, and panic.

Jiggling keys and trying everything on the key ring is normal and expected behavior. It conveys nothing special about your plot, your world, or your character. As such, it offers nothing to the reader. You must give those actions relevance in the story; otherwise, you should remove them.

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