“Let mystery do its work – encourage the listener (or reader) to participate.”
— Jeffery Overstreet
“Awaken the questions. Tease the mind into active thought.”
— C. H. Dodd
Jesus was the master of mystery. He spoke in parables and hyperbole and metaphor. He rarely, if ever, gave a direct answer to a question. Often he answered a question with another one.
I imagine his disciples were often wandering around with quizzical looks on their faces as they tried to figure out what it was he was teaching them. And I imagine they found that very frustrating. But I’m sure, after wandering the landscape of Palestine with their teacher for three years, they came to an understanding that it was as they searched and pondered and struggled to understand, that they learned more and more about Him and His kingdom and about themselves in relation to it.
As writers I believe this is something we should emulate in our work. I believe, as C. H. Dodd said, that we should “awaken the questions” more than seek to provide the answers. It is when we leave our readers asking questions that they become completely engaged in our stories. They want to find the answers and it is oh so much more satisfying when they are led to discover them on their own.
Think about a book you love. What was it about those words that drew you in? The poetry of language perhaps, the lovely flow of words that seemed to sing? Or was it a deeper understanding of something that had eluded you before, the epiphany, the discovery of that which had been hidden? In most cases our favorites are books that were a blend of these things, books that made us think, made us wonder and ask questions, books that led us deeper into the mystery of life and the spiritual realm.
I am often asked to edit manuscripts and this is one area that I have found sadly lacking. New writers especially are in a big hurry to tell the story and they tend to ‘dump the whole load,’ often in the first few pages. They are so anxious to explain that they begin telling the reader what they think she/he needs to know, instead of letting them discover the story slowly as the characters live it out.
For instance, I recently received an excerpt from a novel in which the heroine’s father has just been shot. The hero suddenly arrives on the scene and the young woman’s thoughts begin telling the reader all about the back story. She left us with a lot of information but no questions to make us wonder about her motivations or the possibilities for her future. The result? The emotional punch was lost as the story immediately bogged down with the details and the action came to a standstill. As the reader, I was no longer engaged with the character. I no longer connected with what she was feeling, no longer wondered what she would do now and how that would affect her relationship with the handsome young man. If the writer had focused on the characters’ motivations and given me only enough detail to move the story forward without giving it all away in one paragraph, I would have wanted to keep reading.
When our readers are caught up with the mystery of our stories they can’t let them go. The characters linger because there is a bit of a puzzle in their personality. Their motivations are deep and complex, their fears and foibles real, yet still leaving something to make the reader wonder. And then, when the mystery becomes clear, the reader understands more about the world, more about himself and more about the One who created both.
As David Weinberger has said, “We don’t need more information. We don’t need better information … We need understanding … And understanding is not more or higher information. If you want understanding, you have to reenter the human world of stories. If you don’t have a story, you don’t have understanding.”
So let’s follow Christ. Ask the questions, spin the tales, tease the mind and awaken the soul. It’s what He taught us to do. It’s what good writing is all about.