Monday, April 18, 2011

A to Z Challenge: Obvious or Obscure?

When you write, do you write for clarity? Or do you like to keep the mystery going for as long as you can?

I'm definitely in the latter category. My series is all about secrets and betrayals. So for that to work, I need to keep things on the obscure side. I think a lot of writers prefer to keep things veiled for the simple reason that we can add more twists and turns and keep readers guessing. I mean, we can't keep people guessing if they already know...

Of course, that brings me to the first point I want to make. If you want to go for obscure, make sure that it is in fact obscure. There are few things as annoying as having to scream at a character because he/she can't see something that is happening right before their eyes.

Making the reader scream because they can see something that the character has NO WAY of seeing, is sheer brilliance. It's something I strive for.

Back to obscurity. It is also important that the writing isn't too obscure. If the reader is saying "huh?!" too many times, it pulls the right out of the story. At best.

If the writer throws in a twist with zero setting up beforehand, it will probably result in the book being flung against the wall.

That's too obscure.

So what would be the ideal reaction from the reader in this case? Something like the following:
"HUH?! Wait... *wince* oooooohhhh... that."

Yep. I'm a firm believer in Chekhov's Gun. Obscure the reason for the clue's existence, but not the clue itself. It must be VERY clearly visible. Because the idea is to slap the reader behind the head with it later. Not because they missed it, but because they missed its significance. 


  1. "Making the reader scream because they can see something that the character has NO WAY of seeing, is sheer brilliance. It's something I strive for."

    That's the key right there.

    Duncan In Kuantan

  2. Interesting approach. I think it's a matter if balance and many newer writers get it slightly wrong because they have the information in their heads that they're keeping from the reader so it's hard to write it with an understanding of how the reader would perceive it. You can't make yourself not know.

    Often I find mystery writers lack suspense because their knowledge of what's going on makes them think the tension is there, when the reader has no idea what's going on and just feels confused.

    Moody Writing

  3. I like a little of both. I don't like it when I feel a writer is being obscure just to annoy me, but if the plot hinges on secrets, or if the protagonist has a secret they *never* consciously think about (I'm thinking of Neve Slater in Sarra Manning's You Don't Have To Say You Love Me) then it works.

    In my own writing, I like to have something that sort of slips out over time. Not quite a secret, but something that the reader gets larger and larger glimpses into.

  4. This is very true. I really hate books where you are led to believe you are following clues but then at the end you realize the solution was nothing you could have seen at all, because the book never offered any actual clues (only red herrings).

    But it's a fine line, though. I've been taught in academic writing, and now I find it difficult not to explain everything as I've been taught there...

  5. I like both. But I lean more towards mystery. Dude, without that, people would put down your book.

  6. This is such a hard balance to strike. I never know if I've accomplished it until other readers tell me I have (because, to me as the writer, it's ALL obvious, obviously).

  7. It's very difficult to find the right balance between obvious and not obvious enough. I think foreshadowing is an excellent tool to use in writing, but you need to plant the clues very subtly or you'll give the game away too early.

    Excellent post! Am following. :)

  8. I'm in the latter category as well. :)

  9. I agree with Duncan. Unfortunately, though I strive for the obscurely obvious, I don't believe any of my work has quite achieved that yet.

    But I know how I'll get there: practice, practice, (procrastination,) practice.

  10. Enjoyed your post. I've written romantic suspense and I'm aware of the fine balance. Not quite sure how and if I achieved it.

    Thanks for visiting me. I'm signing up to follow.

  11. Oh, your blog must be very popluar. :) I, too, wanted to give you the Versatile Blogger Award. However, Miss Elliott asked you first, so you do not have to accept my award if you do not want to. :)

  12. Also, I believe that a good twist and turn is good for a story everynow and then, not to the point where I'm confuse out of my mind to what's going on. However, I want to think something is going to happen that's cliche, and all of a sudden the last thing I expects happens. :)

  13. I used to be much too obscure in my writing, but then again, I don't want to be too obvious. I try to find a middle ground. If I'm obscure, I usually just do it to develop some tension and make the reader wonder. I make sure to clarify everything and tie up loose ends before I finish.

    - allison writes

  14. I feel like I have so much to learn. I've read so much writing advice and seen so many questions. I hope I'll know one day exactly how to do this thing and just be able to do it.

  15. Your book sounds so exciting. I can't wait to read it Misha.

  16. Brilliant. My husband and I watched a movie last night that so clearly mentioned a "gun" but then never did anything with it. When the end was all tidied up and bow tied, I mentioned the gun and the twist ending I predicted. Sure enough--they did utilize the metaphorical gun and gave us a twist.

    But how much more powerful would it have been to have used the gun within the story, instead of saving it up for the end?

    Excellent post.

  17. Hi Misha! I'm so glad to have found your blog. I'm working on a mystery right now and this gave me a lot to think about, excellent post!

  18. I love the pull of the obscure and the mysterious. I think it makes those pages keep turning for the reader.

    Great post.

  19. I agree with you, Duncan. I will consider myself a really good write once I get that right. :-)

    Mood, I do struggle with that. Because I can never tell if something makes sense to someone who lacks my information. So I run the risk of leaving out some detail that's important to the reader's understanding of exactly what's going on... That's another reason why I have crit partners. Because I want to see where they get lost.

    Ellen I enjoy doing that too. In fact, I have characters who do everything to avoid secrets in their pasts, but who are forced to confront those secrets and so to slowly reveal them. :-)

    Thanks very much Debra!

    I also hate that, Cruella. I also know what you mean about the academic writing. I had to write more than one academic essay at university. I always had to take about two weeks off from writing, just to get my mind over to fiction. Because explaining every single thing is a sure-fire way to kill tension.

    T.D. I don't know... I've read books without mystery but that kept me in their grips because of the tension inherent to the situation or because of the characters' emotional and psychological landscapes.

    Sarah, I struggle with that too. ^_^

    Tundiel, I also think that foreshadowing can be a great tool, but I've found too many end too easily because of clumsily placed clues. So I generally try to use a more subtle approach get readers on the right track to the end.

    Nice Jeffrey! :-D

    Hehehe Nate I agree with you there. I practiced and procrastinated a thousand or so times before I got something resembling a balance going.

    Thelmaz, now that you mention it, I don't know if and how I achieved it either. I think this is one of those dangerously intuitive things to writing. Dangerous because out intuitions can be completely off.

    Thanks Melody! I'm a total Award's hog. I'll claim all my awards that I got in April in May. :-)

    I agree with you about the twists and turns. I like a story that's like a roller-coaster, but not if it's trying its level best to throw me off.

    Allison, tying up loose ends is so important to those of us who like the mysterious end of the writing spectrum. Without it, the readers will never feel satisfied. Of course, there are those ends left loose for the sequels, but that's another story altogether. ;-P

    Marjorie, the blogosphere is a gold mine of information for writers, but I stick by my belief that the best way to learn the tricks of the trade is to write - using the information you found as guidelines, of course.

    Michael, I can't wait for you to read the book. :-)

    Nicole, you made a very good point. Clues should not only point to the end. They should have an effect on or cause events later in the story itsself.

    Hi Julie! I'm glad you liked the post. Good luck with your mystery!

    September I like the mysterious as well! It's what keeps me writing. ;-)

  20. There is quite a balance to it, isn't there? I love reading books where I can't quite figure out what's happening--not because of confusion, but because I KNOW someone has a secret and I don't know what it is, but I want to know!

    P.S. I'm passing on a blog award to you. You can find it on my blog if you're interested.

  21. I love that too! Thanks for the award! I'll go pick it up in May. :-)


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