Reader Research

I confess, I tend to leave my endings open-ended.  I dislike spelling out every last detail for the reader.  I want them to use their imagination a bit.  What happens next?  Well, that’s up to you, dear reader.

Additionally, I’d rather have a reader be hungry for more than finish the story and feel overly full.  So I tend to be pretty conservative with the lengths of my endings.  Some people like it, some don’t, some leave obnoxious comments telling me I’m a terrible author for not having a real ending, but it’s my own personal preference.

The story I’m currently writing right now is probably the most extreme example of it.  As it stands now, you’d basically need either really good research skills or obscure Chinese mythological/historical knowledge to truly understand the ending, and I’m undecided whether to leave it as it is or not.  I don’t like the ending nearly as much when I have to spell out that necessary information, but at the same time, I can’t really expect readers to do research for a short story they find on the internet.  At least on my own blog, I can insert some links to make things a little bit easier to understand, but on other sites, it’s definitely going to leave readers confused.  Right now, I have three options as I see it.

1) Leave the ending as I have it now, and just accept that a lot of readers are going to be confused or leave comments like, “I don’t get it, what sort of job did he get?”  And while the story will be tighter, I think that readers’ enjoyment of it will suffer.

2) Just be explicit in the story.  This is currently my least favorite option.  I mean, I could clear it up in a single line, but it’s just such an awkward intrusion into the story that I’m opposed to it, but if nothing else is feasible, at least it’s an option.

3) Add a footnote.  This might be where I go, especially for the blog.  I could create one post that’s just information necessary to enjoy the story, and include it as a link at the end of the story.  At other sites, though, it might be more difficult to include a useful author’s note, but I can certainly try.  That way the story stays succinct, but readers have the necessary information to understand the resolution.  This option is currently in the lead.

In general, though, I think it’s an interesting question: how much knowledge can you demand from the reader?  TV Tropes has an entire page that details this, called Viewers are Geniuses, with examples of series that have assumed their viewers’ knowledge rather than explicitly mentioning it within the medium itself.  I personally consider it a good thing to encourage readers to stretch their intellectual muscles a bit.  I don’t shrink from using my vocabulary to its fullest: I feel that it’s important to learn new words.  I keep a record of new words I come across, myself.  Maybe I’ll even start posting some of the more interesting ones.  I really enjoy auxiliary learning while I’m being entertained, though.  Dresden Codak is excellent at that, I think.  At least my readers will learn something (that I consider to be) extremely interesting!

What are your thoughts on this?  Should all information necessary to “get” a story and its jokes be included within the story?  Or is it acceptable, or even preferable, to require readers to know or find relatively obscure knowledge?

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5 Responses to Reader Research

  1. Greetings from the professor! And how are you this fine imaginative day?

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  2. charles says:

    You could add a Preface or Appendix with the necessary background information. That way it wouldn’t clutter up the text. That wouldn’t work if it gave away parts of the plot, of course. You could use a Preface not just as a list of facts, but as part of the story… like a background myth.

    As a reader, I get frustrated when I am confused.I like to have the mysteries and unknowns parceled out… It’s ok to be a bit lost, as long as there is a steady trickle of answers that clear up the confusion, before too many more new things I don’t understand are introduced. The problem is that the tipping point for each reader will be different. My impression is that you enjoy being left hanging more than most, so I would err on the side of being more explicit.

    Of course, it depends on why you are writing, too. If you are writing mainly for your own pleasure, or for the pleasure of people very similar to you, then do it the way you want it. If you want a broader audience, I’d go with making the details more explicit. Just my opinion.

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    • johnkutensky says:

      Yeah, I don’t want readers to get frustrated, and there’s no way to deduce the information. You would need to have obscure outside knowledge. I feel like having a little appendix that gives that bare minimum necessary is the best way to go about it.

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