How Trust Affects Mysteries and Plot Holes

Sat Apr 08 2017

Every story lives or dies on its ability to supply mystery. I don't mean whodunit type mysteries. I mean a story's success hinges on keeping the reader curious about what's coming next.

Fundamentally, a mystery is a hole in the reader's knowledge. As soon as the reader finds the answer to the mystery, the hole is gone.

When we write, we intentionally create these holes, because we know we need the mystery. The danger is that if we're not careful, our intentional mysteries can feel like plot holes.

As writers, our job is to make sure readers can peer into the holes, avidly curious as to what's at the bottom, while making sure they don't fall in.

Mysteries require trust

Before we can talk about how a proper mystery might end up feeling like a plot hole, we need to talk about trust.

Every time a reader encounters a hole in their knowledge, they have to make a decision: do they read on despite their lack of knowledge, or do they stop because the book no longer makes any sense?

This isn't usually a conscious decision. It's more a gut-check as to whether the hole is acceptable to them.

An acceptable hole is one where the reader is confident that you will eventually fill the hole. That even though something might not make sense right now, it will later.

That confidence boils down to whether the reader trusts you. A mystery carries with it an implicit promise of a solution. Does the reader trust you to provide that solution? If they do, you're golden. They'll read on because they want the answer.

An unacceptable hole is simply one where the reader doesn't trust you provide a solution.

Building and Breaking Trust

Every reader starts a book with some implicit level of trust in you as a storyteller. The mere fact that you wrote and published a book counts for something.

A first-time reader to your work extends that trust to you on credit. You pay it off by giving them a good reading experience. The more your story seems to hang together, the more trust you build.

But if story elements don't mesh, if the plot feels haphazard, if characters don't react to situations in ways that make sense, that trust erodes.

Case study: Wool, by Hugh Howey

Some months back, I picked up Wool, a science-fiction novel by Hugh Howey. I'd never read anything by him before, but on the strength of other people's recommendations, I credited him some trust and bought the book.

And honestly, for the most part I enjoyed it. The world-building was innovative and seemed well thought-out. I liked the main character, Juliette. I liked the setting. I was curious about the story's central mystery (don't worry; no spoilers). Howey was doing a good job of building my trust in his storytelling.

Then, in the last section of the story, it changes location. On the journey from here to there, Juliette encountered some things that, according to my understanding of how the story's world works, just shouldn't have been there. I could see no logical explanation for how those particular things she found should have been there at all. It didn't add up.

That is, I encountered a hole and had to decide if that was acceptable.

Did I trust Hugh Howey to have an answer for me?

Well, Juliette didn't seem to notice that those particular things didn't fit her understanding of how her world worked either. That bothered me. But, to be fair, she was under quite a lot of stress at the time. I figured that after she had a chance to regroup, she'd start working on the mystery posed by those illogical things.

And anyway, up to that point in the story Howey had given me a pretty good reading experience. He'd paid off my initial credit and built up some trust on his own merits.

The hole was acceptable, so I kept reading.

But then Juliette never got around to working on that mystery. Pages and pages went on, and she never even paused to wonder about the seemingly-impossible stuff she had seen. It was like she hadn't noticed it, despite having directly interacted with it during her journey.

To put that in context, imagine this analogy: It was as though an ordinary person were to call an Uber, find that their ride arrives in the form of a giant green dragon that barfs up a car onto the street right before vanishing in a puff of blueberry-scented smoke, and the person responds by getting in the car as if nothing strange just happened.

Pages turned into chapters, and still nothing. I wondered, "Why hasn't she noticed? Why hasn't she stopped to think about that impossible thing? She can't have forgotten, right? Surely not. So why hasn't it at least crossed her mind since then?"

The hole in my knowledge loomed large as ever, but instead of feeling like a mystery it started to feel like a problem.

Had Hugh Howey simply forgotten to take care of it? Did he drop the ball? Worse, did he somehow fail to notice the discontinuity himself? Or did were those seemingly impossible things throwaway details meant only to jazz up the travel sequence?

I couldn't tell. Every page with no answers eroded my trust further.

The end of the book came, and still nothing. I had to conclude that it was an actual plot hole. Howey had screwed up.

I decided not to continue the series. Reading a book is a significant investment of time and energy in our busy lives; why should I make a second such an investment in Hugh Howey when he stiffed me the first time?

Surprise! It's not a plot hole

Later on, I related this experience to someone else who said I shouldn't have stopped, because the sequel, Shift, answers the mystery. The impossible things actually make perfect sense, once you learn some stuff that was yet to come.

Too little, too late, man.

Every book has to stand on its own as a coherent whole. Wool didn't do that.

"It's in the sequel" doesn't cut it, because as I wrote about last week, even series books have to provide satisfying endings while they re-engage you for the next book.

What does a plot hole look like?

A plot hole is when:

  1. The reader notices that something doesn't add up,
  2. Yet neither the characters nor the narrative ever stop to acknowledge, address, or resolve the conundrum.

Wool gave me a story in which Juliette treated those impossible things as though they were so unremarkable as to not be worth thinking about even once. She ignored the Uber-barfing dragon.

That's exactly what an actual plot hole looks like.

It is irrelevant that the sequel reveals that this plot hole isn't actually a plot hole. Howey gave me something indistinguishable from a plot hole, so he can't blame me for reacting as though it actually was one.

Reassuring the reader

It's a shame, too, because it would have been trivial to avoid this problem. All Howey had to do was let me know that he had a plan.

That doesn't mean solving the mystery in book one. It doesn't even mean giving hints about the solution.

All he had to do was acknowledge the mystery within the story.

If Juliette had ever--even just once--stopped to wonder how the seemingly-impossible thing was possible, then I'd have known Howey had a plan. Because everything she says, does, and thinks ultimately comes from him.

The writer is god, in full control of the story and its characters. Therefore Juliette can't acknowledge the mystery unless Howey is also aware of the mystery. And he's not going to do that unless he has a solution up his sleeve, right?

Do that just once, and I would have known that this particular hole in my knowledge was intentional. That's the reassurance. That alone would have rescued my trust.

It would be better still to let Juliette touch on that mystery a few times--especially right before the end of the story as I discussed last week--but even once would been enough to get me to buy the remaining two books in the series.

Mysteries vs. plot holes

Ultimately, the difference between a mystery and a plot hole is whether the reader trusts that you have a plan. So long as they do, they will follow you to the ends of the earth.

Case in point: Last week I mentioned the Flavia de Luce novels. I'm seven books in now and I have every confidence that the series' central mystery will be addressed. Alan Bradley has acknowledged the mystery within the stories, and with every story has worked a little bit more on solving it. Clearly, he has a plan. I trust him, so I am happy to follow him for as many more Flavia books as he wants to write.

But the moment you lose a reader's trust, the moment you spend the last of your credit while giving nothing in return, they'll stop reading.

And--sorry, Hugh--they probably won't be back, either.