*Nonfiction* and *Fiction*
You don’t need to resolve every single plot thread, character arc, and unanswered question in your book.
You DO need to make it absolutely clear to the reader that you left the unresolved things that way on purpose.
Readers expect resolutions to story lines, answers to questions, and suggested courses of action to deal with the information you present in your book. If you don’t provide those, they think you’re a bad writer, or you have nothing of value to say. It’s okay to leave a question unanswered or a resolution vague, but the reader must be able to tell that you did so by intent, and not by incompetence.
Here are some dos and don’ts of leaving hanging threads in your book:
DO mention the hanging thread toward the end of the book.
DON’T let it fizzle so that you look like you forgot about it.
DO inform the reader if a question has not been provided with an answer, whether it’s through your characters discussing the lack of answers in a fictional book, or your narrative voice discussing the lack of resolution in a nonfiction book.
DON’T expect readers to simply realize you’re choosing not to answer the question.
DO provide a brief recap if your hanging thread deals with a complex topic from the rest of the book.
DON’T expect readers to flip back through the preceding chapters and search out the information on their own.
DO give some indication of when the thread will be resolved or the question answered.
DON’T undo the satisfaction of your current book’s resolution by focusing only on the unresolved parts at the end.
DO resolve more parts of your book than you leave hanging.
DON’T think you’re being “deep” by refusing to answer tons of questions.
DO resolve any plot thread or question that takes up a chapter or more in the book. (This is cumulative. If you have a paragraph in thirty different chapters dealing with a plot thread or question, that’s more than one chapter’s space, and it still counts.)
DON’T build up to a promised resolution and then fail to deliver it. That just wastes the reader’s time.
DO explore the implications of the hanging thread. What would change in the world if it were resolved?
DON’T wax poetic about those implications. Say what you have to say, and then stop.
DO offer hope. This thread WILL be resolved!
DON’T ever, ever say, “The world may never know.” If there’s no hope for resolving the thread, why did you even bring it up?
DO answer every question that you promise to answer. When a character says, “I think we’re getting close,” that’s the equivalent of a promise. When your nonfiction book says, “We’ll deal with these questions later,” that’s also a promise.
DON’T promise answers you can’t or won’t deliver. It’s a cheap gimmick to string readers along toward a reward you never intend to give them. They don’t need to read 200 pages for you to tell them, “I don’t know either.”
DO use vague or open endings to let the reader fill in the blanks.
DON’T provide so little information that the reader can’t possibly figure out what happened. It’s okay to leave them at a crossroads for how to interpret the book, but the preceding chapters should have built a signpost pointing out the various directions they could go.
DO allow the reader to think through the possible interpretations of a vague ending.
DON’T make one possible ending the super-duper obvious conclusion and then try to play it off like it’s vague.
DO get honest feedback from friends, family, and editors about whether or not your hanging threads work well.
Hanging threads are a great way to leave the reader wanting more, but only when used wisely. Use these tips to help you dangle the proverbial carrot in front of your readers, without letting them see the string.
Where have you seen hanging threads used well? Where have you seen them fail?
*This Week’s Word Count*
Your book is as long as: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
Your book is as long as: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain