Solve For X: A Story Must Be An Incomplete Equation
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?)