I am an avid mystery reader, and it has made me a harsh non-mystery reader. One of the techniques that I appreciate in the work of Ruth Rendell, Elizabeth George and others is the subtle use of details and observations that keep the reader just confused enough to keep them going. I recently finished Ann Patchett’s latest novel, State of Wonder, which is not a mystery. It is a story of a scientist that goes to the Amazon is find out what happened to her friend/co-worker after receiving a cryptic message from the research station he was visiting. At every turn, I had no idea what was going to happen next, was frequently completely confused as to where the story was going, and loved going along for the ride. Despite every writing book I’ve ever read, all the characters were not fully fleshed out, people’s motives were frequently unclear, and the protagonist was not particularly sympathetic, but I did not care – I wanted to find out if Marina would ever get out of the jungle.
On the other hand, I recently read, and abandoned, another novel (that shall remain nameless) that was given many positive reviews. I knew on page five exactly what was going to happen. The author had followed all the rules – characters were well developed with descriptions and back stories, the settings were well developed, and the plot points unfolded clearly and logically – yawn. I got to page 135 (I felt that was enough of a chance) before I couldn’t go on. I realized I already knew who would end up together, who was going to die, and who would live happily ever after – and didn’t care.
In my writers’ groups, we are always talking about leading the reader down a clearly laid path but I’m not so sure. Sometimes I like to be left guessing for a while. If the story is too laid out, it’s boring to read. Ambiguity, in the right hands, can make a story exciting and compelling.