Solve For X: A Story Must Be An Incomplete Equation

Through The Crosshairs, Darkly (Flashbang Remix)

Math makes my brain itch. Also: my balls.

Still, math class always held up as a tantalizing mystery to my teen-addled mind.

With the scritch-scritch of chalk, the teacher would pop an equation on the board with multiple variables — “2x + 3y = 10″ — and I’d sit a little bit forward. That x, it would taunt me. That y would have me asking — “Why?” Also: “What? Who?” And finally, “Where are my pants?”

Now, to be clear, I was not an ace math student. At the end of the class, I’d mostly fallen into the role of audience member rather than active participant — the teacher might look to me to solve for x and y, and my response would usually be: “I don’t know, but I’m sure excited to find out! Stay tuned, everybody! Here it comes!” Not precisely what the teacher wanted, but hey, I liked words, not numbers.

A lesson learned just the same.

That lesson? An equation we already know is boring. If I type out: “4 + 6 = 10,” well, great. Good job, me. Who cares? It’s a complete equation. Already balanced. Nothing for me to do. I’m not needed, not for my math skills, not for my slack-jawed interest in the outcome.

We already know the outcome. The magic trick has been spoiled, so — hell with it. Might as well go home.

But an equation with a few missing components becomes interesting.

It becomes interesting either because a) I’m going to try to solve it myself or b) I’m simply invested in the outcome and want to know how it all “adds up,” so to speak.

This, then, one of the core components of storytelling.

It’s like Trinity says in The Matrix: “It is the question that drives us.” (And, curiously, it’s why I think the two sequels to that film plodded along like a Valium-besotted box turtle: no question to drive us forward.)

Every story is a mystery story. No, not every story has a murder that must be solved by a plucky PI or a hardscrabble loser. But every story should be driven by questions: the audience must be interested in more than just the outcome of the story. They want to know about the character’s dark past. They want to know about the strange phone calls at night. They want to know why that dragon is different than all the dragons that have come before. I’ve said this before, but questions are the accelerator and answers are the brakes: the first speeds up the tale, the latter slows it down. (And both are necessary to set the tempo.)

One of the deepest requirements of storytelling is the reader’s need to know more. A story must tempt and tantalize in this regard — it’s why the old epic storytellers like Homer used to begin their tales in medias res, because to begin at the beginning wasn’t going to keep a gathered group of listeners rapt. Homer (doh!) knew that you had to hook the audience, and one of the ways you hook them?

The mystery. The question. The variable.

You are not just a storyteller. You are not just a writer. You are a drug dealer.

You are hooking your readers on that sweet sweet story juice, getting them to grind their teeth until they taste just one more word, man, c’mon, just another taste?

And the way you do that? Always leave something out. Always insert one or many variables: unfilled, unanswered gaps — nagging uncertainties that cause the reader’s brain to gibber and ooze.

Hint to us that something happened between the lead character and her mother: but don’t tell us what. Or why. Not yet. It’s tantric: hold off on, erm, concluding that orgasm as long as you can.

Show us a place where something terrible happened: but don’t give us a face full of details. Leave questions: yes, these questions will technically drive the protagonists, but more importantly they’ll hook the reader.

In every chapter, find the question. Take something away and insert the variable. Yes, from time to time you should be answering those questions: filling in variables that have been left too long. But one variable down should only mean that another pops up: mysteries persist and spawn other mysteries both greater and stranger. These are the handhelds your reader will use to continue climbing your mountain of words.

In the end, yes, you must balance the equation. You must answer the mysteries: mysteries that the reader may have already answered in his own head, and that’s okay. The reader likes to feel smart just as much as he likes to be taken along for a ride. The reader is allowed to do work. Doing work keeps the audience invested; it gives them a reason to keep on going, because they’ve already put in the mind-time.

So, that’s my advice for the day. Every story is a mystery. Every tale, an unsolved equation. Don’t just spell it all out. Leave gaps. Give the reader a reason to stick with you. Compel them.

Every chapter. Every character. Every setting.

A new mystery, big or small.

Ask yourself the question: “What is the question?”

Proceed from there.

(Let me ask: who does this well? Where have you seen this done in such a way that it really has grabbed you by the throat and dragged you along? Obviously, really good mystery stories do this, but what about beyond the mystery tale? Look outside the expected choices. I know in television, Lost is perhaps the easiest answer, but what Lost perhaps did wrong is that it created too many questions — as an old teacher used to say, it let more snakes out of the bag than it was able to kill. In that situation, the mystery can harm your work just as much as it can help it, but I think that’s only if you go too far. What else? What works? What doesn’t?)


  • Jeff Somers is good at this, especially in Electric Church, which drops the reader in a dystopia full of questions: how did the world get this way, what are all the agendas of all the factions who want the MC killed or recruited? Will the MC get killed completing his suicide mission or will his liver dissolve first from drinking bathtub rotgut? And if he survives both, what will he do next?

    Good stuff.

  • Now, I know what you are asking – is this the real person, or is RickA, Carrol, douchebag doppleganger (or doppledoucher, if you will). It is in fact me, or is it? Maybe this is a clever ruse by that nefarious pretender of the stink. Or maybe it is a new party altogether, the stealthy ninja-douche (master of bullshitzu) Rick ACAroLL.

    Regardless, this reminds me very much of something I kind of came to as I was plotting out my current novel – the reader always needs to have a question, and every page of the book needs to work towards that question in some way, not nessesarily solving it, but it should be involved with it. When one question is answered, it should lead naturally into another one or a second related question should take it’s place. If I ever find a part of my work where that question is absent, then that is the part that needs to be cut (or the question threaded into it).

    And I’m really digging that paradigm. Basically it’s allowed me to set up my work not only in acts, chapters, and scenes… but in questions. In the first part, it’s “What did he do?”. That leads into “What is happening to him?” and then “Will he turn agiainst Them?” It’s an important moral and story question that not fuels it, but drives the plot (becomes the plot) and brings new directions to take the plot and subs. The Question Filter, if you will.

    Your equation, my question – pretty similar. I am not smart enough to come up with this shit on my own, so it must be you rubbing off on me. Do it again, you sick bastard, and I’ll tell your wife.

  • You know who does this well? George RR Martin.

    After reading A Game of Thrones, I felt satisfied in the narrative. It had begun, middled and ended very well. I’d met lots and lots of characters with different perspectives and dimensions. There was sex & violence. All of this by itself would probably make me happy.

    But there are unanswered questions. What’s up with the stuff north of the bigass wall patrolled by the Night Watch? How is the civil war going to resolve? What will the silver-haired princess living with tribal horse-lords do to top how she ends the book?

    Martin has me solving for X. I’m sure some solutions will be in the next book, but more questions will also come.

  • Inception springs quickly to mind.

    In books, Lee Child does a great job of setting up the mystery very quickly and picking at it incessantly like a pus-filled scab until you just can’t take it any more by the end of the book.

  • Trying to think of who does this well — Donna Tartt, in The Secret History (and somewhat less so in The Little Friend) springs to mind.

    Roland Barthes wrote on this particular point extensively. His analysis of “Sarrasine” in S/Z might be deadly dull, but it nails down exactly why a good story compels again and again. A killer first line is worth a lot here.

    “Last night I went to Manderley again…” for instance. Du Maurier there creates all sorts of questions. Where is Manderley? What is Manderley? What happened before? Why isn’t the narrator there now? Why is it significant enough for the narrator to dream about it? And so on. All in one brief line. The fact that the rest of Rebecca is no slouch on that point either is not insignificant.

    I work very hard on this thing and I confess that I get unreasonably proud of the moments when I catch it. Questions are the meat and drink of the story writer. Any idiot can create tension within the text, but a real writer creates it in the reader.

    • Any idiot can create tension within the text, but a real writer creates it in the reader.

      Yes, that. A hundred times, that.

      And SECRET HISTORY — ohhhh, yes. Yes. Absolutely.

      — c.

  • It could be argued that most of his stuff is noir of a very cyberpunk/sci-fi flavor, and thus are pretty much mystery tales, but Richard K Morgan is very good at feeding out details and off-hand incidents that come into play in one way or another further down the line.

  • “In the end, yes, you must balance the equation. You must answer the mysteries: mysteries that the reader may have already answered in his own head, and that’s okay. The reader likes to feel smart just as much as he likes to be taken along for a ride. The reader is allowed to do work. Doing work keeps the audience invested; it gives them a reason to keep on going, because they’ve already put in the mind-time.”

    Yes, absolutely. 100% with you there.

    But, and I’m babbling here in a stream of consciousness sort of way so don’t mind the drooling, I think that NOT answering questions can be just as effective and, in some ways, more important.

    I think it comes down to two things. The first has to do with answering the right question.

    Nobody cares what exactly is inside the bottles Cary Grant finds in the cellar in Hitchcock’s film NOTORIOUS. We know it looks like sand. People mention uranium a lot. There are German scientists about to do bad things with SCIENCE!

    The question of what exactly is in those bottles is never explicitly answered. Nobody comes out and says, “This is uranium. Everybody got that? It’s bad stuff. Really.” And that’s fine, because we don’t care. We’ve been given the honor of being intelligent enough to figure it out or make our own interpretation.

    It’s a mystery that lessens the story if it’s answered.

    Now if Hitchcock hadn’t answered whether Bergman and Grant were going to finally get together, we’d have eaten his balls for breakfast.

    The other thing has to do with structure.

    You can narrow down the narrative, drawing down to a conclusion where everything gets answered. A lot of novels do this with an Order > Chaos > Order path. They close down the world at the end. Yes, they might leave some things around that they can grab for a sequel, but that particular story is done.

    But some of the best short stories don’t do that. They’re an opening of the narrative. They answer questions, of course, but create larger, more profound ones at their end.

    Tim O’Brien’s THE THINGS THEY CARRIED ends with an Army platoon leader in Vietnam making a decision on what it is to be a leader. Which begs the question what does he do with that? His world changes in a profound way that we don’t get to see the results of because the story ends.

    Ending it there opens up the world. The story’s not over. The questions haven’t been answered. There are things left unsaid. And the story is stronger for it.

    I think it really comes down to what you’re trying to say and how you’re trying to say it. Answering, or not answering the questions are tools to use. Right tool for the right job.

    • @Stephen:

      Yeah, man, I’m with you on all of that. The “unanswered questions” thing is tricky, and definitely a case-by-case (even within a story) basis — it’s definitely a lesser tool than the question (I’d argue that the question is a broader tool than the unanswered question), but a critical one just the same.

      Good point on Hitchcock, too.

      I need to revisit Hitchcock. Been a number of years, but I love the man’s work. Just saw ROPE again recently and am in love with that film.

      — c.

  • I would actually have to say Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. I have the unfortunate ability to puzzle out incoming plot points long before they hit me, which tends to make most stories feel stale unless there’s some stellar writing behind them — but Kushiel has stellar writing and a plot that had me guessing all the way to the end. The politics are brilliant, the heroine is brilliant, the villain is brilliant and more compelling than any other villain I have read about before. It might be shelved as fantasy, but I think it’s an excellent book for anyone who enjoys wrestling with mind games, whether they be played on the reader or the characters (or both).

  • Lois McMaster Bujold is very good at this. The first book I read, Warrior’s Apprentice, has Miles Vorkosigan digging himself a little deeper with every brilliant plan until he’s an 18yo military reject in command of a mercenary army. When I wasn’t laughing I was wondering how in hell he would get out of THIS one, and when I wasn’t doing either I was sniffling because damn, LMB is good at what she does.

  • “In the end, yes, you must balance the equation. You must answer the mysteries: mysteries that the reader may have already answered in his own head, and that’s okay. The reader likes to feel smart just as much as he likes to be taken along for a ride. The reader is allowed to do work. Doing work keeps the audience invested; it gives them a reason to keep on going, because they’ve already put in the mind-time.”

    This is so true, and it’s the reason I hate many actual mystery plots. I like working out the puzzle, and I like trying to do it before the book tells me the answer. In order to do that, the story has to provide sufficient information to aid in the solving. Some authors (I’m looking at you, Agatha Christie) cheat by leaving out ESSENTIAL information that the reader has NO WAY of knowing or even inferring. It’s extremely annoying to learn on the last page of the book that, for example, the butler DID in fact have a key to the gun cabinet when the whole plot up to that point has done everything short of an outright lie to make the reader think that he did NOT have such a key.

    If we accept that all stories are mysteries at heart (and I do), then it becomes clear that the problem described above can apply to any kind of story, not just overt mysteries. Yes, authors should absolutely create questions to tease the reader’s mind! I completely agree that that’s essential to a good story of any genre. But the reader should also be allowed access to the tools to solve the mystery. The best books, in my opinion, force the reader to figure out what those tools are how to use them before he or she can solve the lovely equation that is the plot.

  • Jimmy McGovern, British TV scriptwriter, has said, (and I think I’m quoting here) “I’d rather be confused for 10 minutes than bored for 30 seconds”.
    Kind of echoes what you say about leaving something out and how the reader/viewer likes to feel clever, or surprised, or what not. My opinion, the best writers help the reader use their imagination, they don’t tell them how to, by laying on thick with the descriptivenesses like.
    I really should get back to work. And when I say work, I mean youtube. Unfortunately, I have a job where pants wearing is mandatory. :’-(

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