As a writer, writing, I generally have a strong impression of the surrounding truths of the story I’m working on. Even in a short piece, such as the 100 word flashes I post every Friday, I know a lot more than I put down on the page. With a first person narrator in particular, I may not give you the age, description or even gender of the main character, but I know in my head a few salient pieces of information and I definitely know whether it’s a male or a female character I’m writing.
Similarly, I know a lot more background than I can give to the reader. In Friday’s story, which I wrote based on a picture of barbed wire (you can read the story by clicking the “Previous Post” link at the top fo this page), I had a strong feeling in my head that the main character was the reincarnation of a holocaust victim who had died in a concentration camp. I gave hints of this in the piece, but I couldn’t find a way to give it all, and in particular to make the reincarnation element crystal clear (as opposed to this being a holocaust survivor some years later), without breaking the flow of the story and interrupting with pure exposition.
Maybe, to an extent, this is something I will get better at with practice, but I am also a firm believer in the reader finding his or her own way through a story.
In another recent fiction piece (http://wp.me/p1PeVl-6i), I wrote about a bench at the end of a tunnel with a plaque to the memory of a young girl. I deliberately gave no clues to the fate of the girl apart from the years of her birth and death. There were two reasons for this, one was that I simply couldn’t decide in my own head what had happened to her, but the other reason was that I wanted the readers to decide for themselves. And people no doubt did.
It’s a difficult line to tread. I don’t believe readers need happy endings, but I do believe readers want answers and resolution. I find it immensely frustrating when a writer sets up a dilemma and then fails to resolve it (Jodi Picoult is an expert at doing this – I don’t read her books anymore as a result). If there’s a twist, we want the writer to give us a fair chance to have seen it coming, even if we didn’t, so that afterwards we can look back and go “Oh, that was a clue!” and, importantly, so that we know when we get to the end that our reading is “correct”. The reveal has to be clear enough, but so do the clues before it.
In my view, the barbed wire piece just about succeeds. If you read reincarnation and holocaust, I think you would look back and find enough pointers to confirm you were on the right track (although if you didn’t, I think you could read the whole piece without seeing them). But I can’t decide if the tunnel piece is a great work of reader involvement, or a frustrating cop-out on the part of the writer. I’d love to know what you think about this balance.
If you read the tunnel piece and you want answers, here’s what I think happened. (If you don’t want to know, stop reading now.) It’s easy to assume that the girl was (raped and) murdered in the tunnel. A perfectly valid alternative would be that she took an accidental overdose of drugs there and died as a result. There are probably a few other possibilities. Given the state of the tunnel and the recent nature of the bench, not to mention the location of her ghost, it is unlikely that it was just here favourite place to walk or play and she died of something unconnected, in another place. But if I have to pin my colours to the mast on this one, I think she killed herself in the tunnel. I don’t think she suffered at the hands of anyone else there, although I’m sure she suffered both before and during the suicide. But I think she came down there to hide and take her own life.