Questions vs. Answers with Margi Preus
This week in my editing, I'm striking down plot holes. Through the course of working with my developmental editor, I ended up creating gaps while filling in others, and now I'm smoothing everything out.
What led to these plot holes were, of course, questions and requests for clarification. One of the biggest challenges of writing for me is, when do you introduce certain information? When is it okay to hold some things back? Where are you giving too much information to the reader?
It's a balance and I'm finding it. In this week's guest post, though, Margi Preus suggests we don't actually have to answer all questions - leaving a few unanswered can even beneficial for readers!
Questions vs. Answers in Stories for Young Readers
Questions are often the inspiration for writing stories. At least they are for me. And questions always arise as you are writing, too. We write to find out, right? We write to try to understand something, and, really, I think, if the question is a really good one, it probably doesn’t have an answer.
My favorite kinds of questions are those that make us ponder, and mull, and maybe talk about with others. These are the kind of questions I like to pose to the reader: why do some people triumph over adversity while others are crushed by it? What makes some people willing to risk their lives to help others? These are also questions that have inspired some of my historical fiction, including the recent Village of Scoundrels (Feb. 2020). Sometimes my characters ask the questions I myself wonder about:. What is our responsibility when terrible wrongs are being committed? Are we contributing to the problem if we don’t speak up?
Even though The Silver Box, as a mystery, is a little more light-hearted than some of my historical fiction, it still contains unanswerable questions. What if, my protagonist Francie wonders, her mother may not be who Francie hoped she would be? What if her mother is a criminal, and if so, is she, Francie, doomed to follow in her footsteps? How much are we shaped by our family and how much responsibility do we bear to our friends and family? Is it fair to involve her friends in what may be a dangerous adventure? Francie both longs to include them, yet doesn’t want to endanger them—what is the right thing to do?
I don’t attempt to “answer” questions like these, or to deliver a moral, or try to tie things up. Life rarely, if ever, ties up neatly, and I usually try to leave the story showing the character moving forward with life, probably still with lots of questions, but also with hope! I guess I want my reader to know that life is full of questions, some of which will never be fully answered, and that’s okay. (The mystery, of course, is solved by the end of the story. That is nonnegotiable!)
Studies show that readers of fiction are more comfortable with ambiguity and with disorder and uncertainty—"attitudes that allow for both sophisticated thinking and greater creativity.” So I feel fine about posing questions that probably won’t be answered in the course of the story (at least not by me!) and leaving my young readers with questions of their own!
About the Author:
Margi Preus is the author of the Newbery Honor book Heart of a Samurai and other books for young readers, including the Minnesota Book Award winning West of the Moon, and the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award book The Clue in the Trees. Her books have won multiple awards, landed on the New York Times bestseller list, been honored as ALA/ALSC Notables, selected as an NPR Backseat Book Club pick, chosen for community reads, and translated into several languages. New titles in 2020 include Village of Scoundrels, The Littlest Voyageur, and The Silver Box, part of the Enchantment Lake mystery series.
Back when such things were done, Margi enjoyed traveling, speaking, and visiting schools all
over the world. Now mostly at home in Duluth, she likes to ski, hike, canoe, or sit quietly with a
book in her lap.
You can follow her online at: