Westworld, The Power Of Unanswered Questions And Sagging Middles

By on November 2, 2016

I LOVE HBO’s Westworld (androids in a wild west world? Sign me up!). It is my newest addiction. But this week’s episode left me feeling a bit dissatisfied. It took me some time to figure out why.

There are too many unanswered questions.

Unanswered questions are a powerful writing tool. It is why readers turn pages—to find out the answers. An awesome first page or first paragraph or first line raises a question in the reader’s mind.

The first line to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight is “I’d never given much thought to how I would die–though I’d had reason enough in the last few months-but, even if I had, I would have never imagined it like this.”

How is the heroine going to die? Why is the heroine dying? I HAVE to continue reading to find out the answers. Once I have these answers, I’ll stop reading.

UNLESS there are more questions I want answers to. Then I will continue reading to find out THOSE answers.

The biggest questions at the beginning of a story are around backstory. Why is the heroine doing what she’s doing? What makes her think this way? Why does she have X as a goal?

This is one of the reasons why many editors don’t like prologues or early story backstory dumps. They could eliminate this huge incentive for readers to continue reading. If I’m told on page one how Bella is going to die and why she’s dying, I have no reason to read page two. It is a waste of an absolutely wonderful first line.

In Romance, the big question readers are seeking the answer to is ‘Is the couple (or more) going to achieve their happy ever after or happy for now?’ This is why often the couple (or more) doesn’t exchange ‘I love you’s until the end of the story.

If they DO say that phrase earlier in the story, a skilled writer will ensure readers know the happiness won’t last. Maybe one of them still has a relationship-destroying secret or the killer is lurking outside their bedroom or they love each other but there’s no way for them to be together.

So you’re likely wondering… If unanswered questions are powerful, why am I dissatisfied with Westworld’s gazillion unanswered questions?

Because I can’t keep track of them. My mind can only handle so many unanswered questions before I get frustrated. My rule of thumb is… if I lose track of my own unanswered questions while writing a story, I have way too many of them.

This doesn’t mean we can only raise the same 3 or 4 unanswered questions throughout a 100,000 word/400 page story. That would be challenging and a bit boring.

What we CAN do is answer some of those questions and then ask different questions.

At the beginning of Releasing Rage, while writing this story, I asked myself if Joan, our heroine, would ever be assigned to a cyborg. (question raised) She was. (question answered) Why was she assigned to a cyborg? (another question raised) The last human assigned to the cyborg was killed. (question answered) Would she survive being assigned to this cyborg? (another question raised – this question remains for almost all of the story)

One of the things Game of Thrones (the show) does quite well and quite brutally is answer unanswered questions. When the storylines become too complicated, they kill everyone off in a storyline and simply eliminate it. Then they raise more questions.

We don’t have to be that bloodthirsty. We can simply answer the damn question. We can give the heroine the job she thinks will solve all of her problems but then ensure that job causes her MORE problems. We can allow the hero to escape one mess to step knee deep into another bigger mess. I really like it when the answer to the question makes the situation worse, not better. That’s a lot of fun to write and to read.

Giving readers answers to questions throughout the story creates a sense of movement and a feeling of satisfaction. Shit is getting done. (grins) Often when readers comment that ‘nothing happened’ in a story, they are truly saying that no answers are given and no new questions are raised (mid story or at all).

When we, writers, face a sagging middle, it can mean the same thing-we need to answer questions and raise new ones. This is often the reason for mid story boredom. If you, as a writer, find you can’t finish stories, look at your unanswered questions. Do you have any? Do you have too many? Do you lack answers? Talk to other writing buddies (like myself) and brainstorm both answers AND questions.

Unanswered questions are powerful. Use them wisely.


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One response to “Westworld, The Power Of Unanswered Questions And Sagging Middles”

  1. Great article, Cynthia. You’re right – too many unanswered questions in a book or tv show can be quite disconcerting. Westworld is asking too many questions on every level and I find myself wondering how the writers are going to make the story work.
    Thanks for the tips on fixing saggy middles in our writing. Any suggestions for fixing a saggy middle on our body?

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