I've written enough to know the kind of writer I am, my voice, my style. I am often accused of making the reader work too hard to put the plot points together.

In my latest story: a man experiencing a mid-life crisis expresses to a dubious bartender named Nick that he regrets marrying Amanda Jackson. He believes his wife and children have held him back and wishes he'd shared his life with his high-school sweetheart, Abigail Watson. After getting blind drunk he wakes up the next day in a jail cell. Initially he believes he's on a drunk and disorderly charge but soon learns he's on death-row after being convicted murdering his wife, Abigail, and their two children. He has lost his appeals and his only chance for clemency is an appeal to the new elected state Governor, Amanda Rodriguez.

  • I think the story is told. I would like to leave it there . . . but would it add to the story if I went on to explain for those who couldn't join the dots?
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    Excepting for some genre fiction (e.g. detective or romance), I think overexplaining is one of the greatest markers of inexperienced writing and reading - for readers who expect everything on a platter. A great narrative should leave some of the work to the reader. Overexplaining means to place disproportionate weight on plot, which IMO is a mistake (except, again, for some genre fiction). In other words, my advice to you is to ignore the issue – Digital Dracula Sep 10 at 15:21
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    I had no idea what in the world you were asking until I went into your editing history. You've edited out everything that makes sense of your question. As it currently stands, it's not meaningful anymore. You've also done a disservice to all of the answers—because none of them make any sense as answers to the current version of your question. I would strongly recommend that you undo some of your edits. – Jason Bassford Sep 10 at 16:21
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    You can't know from one person to the next what anyone will pick up on, which makes this a question without a real answer. – Ash Sep 10 at 18:33
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    Any user who opens their question with "I'm going to delete this question shortly but first . . ." is showing contempt for this site's purpose - "working together to build a library of detailed answers to every question about professional writing." – Chappo Sep 12 at 4:13
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    I don't see how the recently added preamble contributes anything to the question, so I rolled back that edit. You can't delete your question at this point, as it has multiple answers and answers that have been upvoted. Editing other peoples' posts is part of the SE model. Finally, I do want to mention that self-destruction of useful content (which includes editing to delete an entire question) can be grounds for temporary suspension. Please don't do it; moderators don't enjoy suspending users. – a CVn Sep 12 at 7:25

This is easy to follow as an outline, because all the pieces are right there in one paragraph. It's impossible to say how it would read as a complete story. That said, here is some general advice:

  • In general (unless you're specifically working in a genre where the story is just an excuse for a puzzle that the reader will expect to have to work out) make sure your story will be strong on its own, even for a reader who never figures out the puzzle.
  • Play fair: If you want the reader to be able to figure out the puzzle, give them all the necessary information, don't hide things just to hide them.
  • Give them a reason to care. Assuming your story is more than just a puzzle, and the story elements are strong, the puzzle elements should relate to the story. For example, in the Sixth Sense the clues are subtle, but the twist relates directly to the main themes of the story. That way, when the twist is revealed it feels substantial, not just like a cheat.

In this specific case the dots aren't actually all that separated. It sounds like he finds out he's in jail for killing Abigail not long after the conversation with the mysterious bartender. That's not much of a stretch for the reader to figure out (particularly if they have any familiarity at all with speculative fiction). Then, they'll be waiting to hear what happened to Amanda the rest of the story, so they'll recognize her name when they hear it again. Someone who can't connect those dots probably isn't your target reader.

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    The key name is Nick, not everyone will make the necessary connection. – Ash Sep 10 at 19:11
  • @Ash - Meaning "Old Nick," the devil? If that's the dot he's wanting people to connect, it seems more like an Easter Egg than a necessary plot point. I was reading him as asking whether people would connect the dots to the fact that the MC is the one holding Amanda back, not the other way around. Maybe Surtsey really IS too elliptical... – Chris Sunami Sep 10 at 20:06
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    For my money without realising who the barkeep is the rest of the story makes no sense. – Ash Sep 11 at 10:37
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    @Ash - That's really my main point. Does this work as a story, even if you don't solve the puzzle? – Chris Sunami Sep 11 at 11:50
  • I think it works as a plot, it working as a story would depend on the amount of characterisation etc... that goes into the full text. – Ash Sep 11 at 11:52

If the reader isn't satisfied then that's no good. Teasing them a bit is OK provided you let them see the light at the end of the tunnel. Challenging them to a puzzle when they wanted a relaxing read is unsatisfying. Not giving the answer is definitely not on.

In my experience of reading draft pieces in writing groups, it's very easy for readers to lose essentials about the plot even when there isn't meant to be a mystery.

From your description I'm guessing that there's a short coda in the cell. I wouldn't be happy with that unless I'd had some clear hints that your character was unstable. Something that happens out of the blue as a fait accompli is telling when you should be showing. (A variation of 'it was all a dream' trope.)

You've got a difficult job making us care about an anti-hero. Why should I care what happens to a boring drunk? (That's not a criticism but a red warning flag that goes with the territory.)

It's always a problem judging how much hand-holding readers need. A little bit extra is unlikely to spoil it for the quicker ones. You don't have to be either arch or blunt. For example you can show us Fred is wealthy without him arriving in a Rolls Royce by other little details. Perhaps he shows photos of his latest luxury holiday. Job done naturally. You might add "I bet that was expensive Fred" and how he replies tells us about Fred's attitude to money. Two for the price of one!

What you can or should do depends on your aims. For example, do you want the ending to be ambiguous, obvious, or what I'll call Twilight Zone-y? By that I mean, "well, there's only one explanation, but it does require magic", like him ending up in a reality where he did marry someone else. Whichever one you want is fine, as long as you achieve it.

The problem, of course, is that there's always another off-the-wall option your readers hopefully won't think of. For example, maybe he never married Amanda in the first place, but due to some mind-bending he got the details wrong early on. While a reasonable reader will disregard that option as long as you don't give them reason to doubt the original narrative, the "number of explanations" is determined by what real readers are like, not just your words. You have to be very careful to write around that.

I know from experience watching TV or film with people of low or average intelligence that endings I think couldn't be clearer often aren't. In theory we can blame the writer instead of the reader (although I don't feel from the examples that come to mind like I know how the writer could have prevented the confusion), but I think the most viable strategy is not to worry about it too much as you write. Do your best to deliverately have your intended effect as you draft, but then see whether beta readers "get it".

The best stories have details that are realised on a second run to be foreshadowing. You may find it easier to add these in a later draft.

  • From my perspective . . . the moment you learn that the bartender's name is "Nick" the outcome is fairly obvious. However, beyond the standard plot highlighting the consequences of doing a deal with the devil, there is the questions of who held who back. It appears that without him his 'original' wife has become State's Governor. The pike in a double-twist is . . . in another world he convinced this woman to marry him. Will that same chemistry transfer, can he use them to save his life. – Surtsey Sep 10 at 16:30
  • @Surtsey I wouldn't say that the bartender's name is a sufficient hint to make the outcome "obvious". "Nick" might be "Old Nick", might be St. Nicolas (the prototype of Santa Claus), might just be a guy named Nick. It's a nice hint when there are other cues pointing in the same direction (could be visual cues regarding Nick's appearance, he might have a limp, etc.) but it's not sufficient in and of itself to "solve" the story. Which might be the reason your readers struggle. – Galastel Sep 12 at 15:05
  • @Surtsey In a way "Nick" being a moniker for the devil is a very cultural thing - I'd even say subcultural. I know a lot of people who wouldn't make that connection. But, if the character is dubious enough, you don't need them to. We can assume from things he says that he has a hand in the main character's new fate, whether he is Old Nick or some Reality-Bending-Alien whose name just happens to be Nick. – Erdrik Ironrose Sep 14 at 11:11

In case you still want an honest answer, rather than deleting the question,

When you're writing a story, you know all the clues and all the connections. Since you know them already, they might well seem obvious to you.

Are they as obvious to the reader? A good way to find out is to offer the story to beta readers, and hear what they say. If most beta readers get it, but one doesn't, you're probably safe. If most do not get it, they can't all be stupid and inattentive, right? So the fault might lie with you.

In particular, I would pay attention to beta readers from different demographics. It might be that a hint that seems obvious to you, is only familiar to people of your age, or your background. Remember also that some of your readers might only speak English as a second language, in which case knowing that "old Nick" is Satan might be more of a challenge. Especially if a person is also not a Westerner.

Now, explaining the story can feel detrimental to the story, like explaining a joke. It would also not be particularly interesting to those readers who got it without need for further explanation. The solution I would suggest is adding more hints throughout the story. Then, a reader can still figure it out, even if they've missed some of the hints.

Of course, giving the solution to the mystery, so to speak, isn't always a bad thing. In more than one story, understanding how a negative effect came to pass is necessary to negate it. In such stories, the act of restoring a "good" situation is cathartic, and built around the characters finally understanding what's going on. The readers who got it can pet themselves on the back, and enjoy the way the plot progresses from the realisation onwards. The readers who didn't, now finally get an explanation and can backtrack to find the hints at their leisure.

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