Give Your Readers What They Want, Part 4: Intellectual Challenge

Some want the tales to be like puzzles they have to solve. These works don’t worry about explaining themselves. They present reality in an amazingly complicated way, on their own terms.

  • The Gotham Writers Workshop

Think of a story you absolutely love–fiction, science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, nonfiction. Think about the world they present, the facts and realities that make the plot come alive. Are there things about it that are unrealistic in our world, but absolutely real in theirs? Even nonfiction can have a perspective on reality that makes sense in the narrative but doesn’t necessarily fit into our own lives.

As long as it makes sense in the story’s narrative, that’s all that matters.

These writers may take time to explain it for the reader, especially if it’s a completely new world in a fictional land, but the reality of the protagonist only needs to make sense for the protagonist. The reader jumps into the world and accepts that world, as long as everything adds up within the logic of the story.

Think about that as you write. Don’t spend so much time explaining your world. The characters will do most of that for you. As long as it makes sense to them, the reader will accept it. (For the most part, of course. There can be exceptions, as always.)

Now, in reference to the quote above, a story that has puzzles to solve do three things: engage, challenge, and thrill. The suspense is high. The tension is thick. The clock is ticking. How will our protagonist solve this difficult puzzle? Has our reader already figured it out without cheating? Was the trick a clever one, maybe one that the reader didn’t see coming?

Are you interested in actual puzzles, not just plot elements that the reader has to solve? Great stories like The Hobbit with its riddles or Sherlock Holmes with clever pieces to put together to make the big picture–those are great stories to read and digest for their puzzles. What about mysteries and thrillers? I always turn to Agatha Christie.

One Major Concern: Difficult puzzles can turn readers away, make them frustrated.

The solution? Throw in smaller puzzles, ones with easier solutions that give your readers small victories. That taste of success will be the gateway drug for the bigger puzzle.


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