Omniscience and the explorer

Apologies in advance for another writing post. Variety eludes me lately, but at least I’m hitting a variety of subtopics. No doubt a good rant will be in the offing soon enough.

The other day I was asking about genres, for reasons previously explored, and I took some unexpected flak from another author about not knowing my world well enough. The fact that I left some unknowns in The Affix that I was willing to leave unexplained even to myself meant, he said, that I was not doing my job as a writer. Saying I didn’t know such-and-such was a “cop-out”. It was his opinion that a writer should know every facet of their world in and out, and that holding something back from oneself for the sake of preserving some mystery or wonder—even if doing so does no harm to the story in any way—is unacceptable for a professional. He pushed this to the point of being fairly insulting about it, implying that knowing your universe is the difference between being a good writer and an amateur.

It’s not that I can’t see his point, or even that I think he was trying to be a jerk about it. A writer should know the parameters of the world they’re writing. Even if they write with a seat-of-the-pants style, it’s a matter of defining those parameters as they go along. Those who plan out their stories from beginning to end need to do the same. Boundaries must be observed so that the storyverse is consistent; I completely get that. But withholding part of the truth from yourself, as a writer, does not inherently violate the principle. Nor is it a requirement that all the boundaries be defined. I’ll get back to that.

He writes crime novels set in a fantasy environment. It’s a small wonder such an opinion would come from someone writing that; crime and mystery require planning to an incredible level of detail. Anyone writing in a genre that exacting, fantasy or no, has to understand what is and is not possible and plot out the actions and whereabouts of every character at just about all times. So if he was addressing a person writing in his genre, he’d be right on point. But outside of that, seat-of-the-pants writing becomes more feasible because the goal is no longer to orchestrate a complex plot with mechanical intricacy; the plot can be developed as the writer goes along, and exploring is perfectly valid. Yet he would not be gainsaid; his mind was closed to the idea that there are other ways, and he got weirdly hostile about it.

There are many ways to approach a story, and that author’s method is just one of them. Exploration can be just as good, and sometimes it can even work in a mystery. In thinking about this, I was reminded of a book my cousin “Strange” recently published: The Mr. E Revelations: Dark Discoveries. This is an (excellent) urban fantasy with a heavy mystery element, and the mystery is explored further in each new installment. The first volume is in three parts, each of which tacks on more information and new questions. (A fourth part has recently been written as well, and it continues in much the same vein.) If Strange has the complete mystery plotted out in his head, he’s never told me; as far as I know he’s creating as he goes along, and even he doesn’t have answers to all the questions he’s raised. And yet, consistency has not been broken. Things that look like plot holes are actually new threads of the mystery to be explored. He’s no stranger to the mystery genre either, having written a compelling novel before this one that was just a straight murder mystery.

So if I choose not to decide whether one explanation or another holds sway in The Affix, am I failing in my duty as a writer to map out the story space? Of course not! The only important thing is knowing where the boundaries are. If I choose for two or more different possibilities to hold sway, all I need to do—in the story and across any sequels—is make sure no single one of them falls apart. This is itself a boundary. I can’t be blindsided by the unknown because the fact of it being unknown is part of the landscape I have made. In mathematical terms, the variable is canceled out.

Look at how many movies have been made with ambiguous endings. To sell that as a writer or director, you need to sell each possible ending with enough supporting evidence—and lack of any firm contradiction—to let the viewer walk away with either idea and feel at home with it. Doing this successfully doesn’t even require a lot of brains; if Paul Verhoeven could pull it off, anyone can. (I’m hard on him for what he did to Starship Troopers.)

Or to make up an example: Say there’s a mystery where Mrs. Bartleby sees the ghost of her late father during the course of the story, but she is also suffering from stress and her mental state is questionable. There have been other mysterious happenings that could be explained by a ghost or by a person manipulating events, take your pick. Mrs. Bartleby’s weasel nephew Trent has motive to do all this, and shows a few times during the story that he knows how to push her buttons, perhaps guide her into the mental state he wishes by the power of suggestion or even by drugging her nitghtcap. If the whole thing can be explained by Trent’s interference, then, a ghost is not necessary; but he could also act so completely innocent that the reader can be left to wonder if the late Major Bartleby is in fact haunting his estate. The writer who wishes to leave this ambiguity intact must leave both options on the table, but with skill he absolutely can. As long as the truth about the ghost isn’t needed to advance or resolve the plot, it can be left open-ended. Perhaps Trent dies at a later point in the story and the extent of his involvement can never be fully known, but he did have a close friendship with the actual mastermind or owe some kind of debt to him.

If the author doesn’t want to know, and can work around what he chooses not to know, he loses nothing. The boundaries can still be honored, and the map can be filled out as far as it needs to be. Holding back knowledge is just another self-imposed restriction, no different from choosing a perspective, deciding on the limitations of magic, or writing in a character whose vocabulary doesn’t include contractions.

Ask a bunch of authors about how they write, and you’ll get a different answer from each one. This is as it should be; there is no such thing as one size fits all, and I daresay that’s true even in the strictest genre.

About Lummox JR

Aspiring to be a beloved supervillain
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