Do Some Plots Break Their Contracts?

businesswoman tears contract

In 1995 I watched the movie Cold Comfort Farm. A British comedy, the story was not without charm, though I wouldn’t recommend this parody of literature for everyone. Early on, Aunt Ada, who seemed to be a bit crazy, said, “I saw something nasty in the wood shed.”

Throughout the movie, I waited to find out what Aunt Ada saw. I waited. And waited. But the question was never answered, at least not for the viewer. I tried to find out if the novel solved the mystery and was unsuccessful in that quest, making me believe the book did not reveal the answer, either.

In my mind, the story broke its contract with the viewer. Since whatever Aunt Ada saw had a great effect on her, I think the nasty something should have been revealed.

Apparently I am not alone. Even now, the Internet is rife with posts about the mystery.

Your turn:

Do you think all plot questions posed in a book or movie should be answered?

Can you think of another example where a big question was not answered? Were you bothered by this, or not?

26 Responses to Do Some Plots Break Their Contracts?

  1. Ron Estrada May 23, 2013 at 4:20 am #

    The only time it is acceptable is with a series and is not an element to the plot within that particular nook. For example, in my current WIP, I make mention of my protag’s daughter and will even have her show up at the end of the book. It will leave the reader wondering why she suddenly appears after a long absense, but the plot elements of the current story have alteady been nicely tied up. The goal, of course, is to leave a small teaser for book two. Readers who start with book two won’t miss anything except, of course, my great story. They’ll come back to it once they realize the error of their ways.

  2. April Gardner May 23, 2013 at 6:08 am #

    Yes! A writer must not break trust with her readers, and withholding information does just that. The hit tv show Lost left a ton on questions unanswered. I was a diehard fan and was very disappointed with how the show ended. I felt cheated. Boo! :)

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 23, 2013 at 6:22 am #

      Boo! indeed! :)

    • Sharyn Kopf May 25, 2013 at 5:08 pm #

      April, this was much longer ago, but I felt the same way with the ending of the TV show Quantum Leap. The entire series opened with the statement that his one hope was to find his way home. Then the show ended by saying he never returned home leading to all kinds of questions: Did he continue leaping until he died? If so, did he still have the support of his team &, specifically, Al? Or was he alone? And if he wasn’t leaping, where did he go? Was he dead? And I could go on. So annoying.

  3. Liz Tolsma May 23, 2013 at 6:22 am #

    It’s important to keep your contract with your reader. I’m rereading my MS ahead of my deadline and had a secondary character promising a plan to break up the H & H. But I never played up that thread, so I deleted those couple of sentences. It’s disappointing when you don’t get all of your questions answered.

  4. Robin Patchen May 23, 2013 at 6:25 am #

    It irritates me to no end when an author doesn’t answer the questions he poses. I recently read a book in which a man shows up rather mysteriously in the midst of a thunderstorm. The basic story question is, “Who is he?” But the underlying question is, “How did he get there?” The author never answers the second question. If it was the result of some weird magic, fine, say he was magically transported from Africa to Missouri (though, even then, it would need some explanation, wouldn’t it?). But it could happen–in a novel. But to address it and then not answer it? Very frustrating.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 23, 2013 at 6:33 am #

      Robin — great point. I’d rather have the author tell me something crazy so I can at least get a good laugh than not tell me anything at all.

  5. Jeanne Takenaka May 23, 2013 at 6:27 am #

    I would agree with you. If you bring up a major question, hint at something highly impacting, you’d better show why it’s important to the character or the story. To not do so could turn readers away from reading future books.

    Loved your illustration and your point, Tamela!

  6. Rachel Muller May 23, 2013 at 6:27 am #

    I agree with Ron. I love reading books belonging to a series. If there is an unanswered question (aka “teaser”) thrown into the book I’m reading, I’m almost positive it will be answered in the next novel, essentially beckoning me to buy that next book!

    Secondly, I agree with April. I have read a stand alone or two where a question or half-told story is never settled. It makes me wonder if the author forgot about it or came to a dead end and just couldn’t deliver in the end. Sadly, it dissapointed me.

    In the end, I like a feeling of closure when I end a book or series.

  7. Cecelia Dowdy May 23, 2013 at 6:46 am #

    Do you think all plot questions posed in a book or movie should be answered?

    >>>Yes. As a few people mentioned, you can have a teaser or two, maybe pointing you toward the next book, but, all of the MAJOR plot questions should be answered.

    Can you think of another example where a big question was not answered? Were you bothered by this, or not?
    >>>Heck yeah!! I can think of an example that has bothered me for years! The movie Pulp Fiction starring John Travolta and Samuel Jackson – be warned, this is an R-rated movie with a lot of profanity.
    >>>In the movie, John Travolta comes into possession of a briefcase. Throughout the movie, they just refer to the item(s) in the briefcase as “the stuff”. The inside of the briefcase glows when you open it. People are amazed when they “see” it, but, YOU NEVER FIND OUT WHAT WAS IN THE BRIEFCASE.
    >>>this briefcase was a major plot point, too. Just mind-boggling what Hollywood does with movies sometimes. If I’d read a book like this, I’d be upset not knowing what was inside the briefcase.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 23, 2013 at 4:14 pm #

      Cecelia, it sounds as though they found the reactor rod Homer Simpson threw out of his car!

  8. Pam Hillman May 23, 2013 at 7:02 am #

    Do you think all plot questions posed in a book or movie should be answered?

    YES!!! Again, arching unanswered questions throughout series/episodes are forgiven.

    Can you think of another example where a big question was not answered? Were you bothered by this, or not?

    Recently, I watched Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Costner & Freeman) and in the beginning they’re in a Turkish prison, starving and in horrendous conditions. During the escape, Maid Marian’s brother is killed. Just before he dies, he pulls out this honking big RING and gives it to Robin Hood to give to Marian when he gets back to England. No explanation on how he’s managed to hold on to this ring in the prison. Minor, but irksome, all the same. :)

  9. Connie Almony May 23, 2013 at 7:04 am #

    I felt that way about Citizen Kane the first time I watched it. The whole movie was about discovering who or what “Rosebud” was. It turned out, the phone rang in my house just as it was visually revealed, so I never saw the answer. It was there. It was subtle, but I missed it. I now know, having watched the end a few times :o).
    There are some novels that are parts of series where the question is answered in another book. I know this has prompted me to read the next book wondering if the answer is there. It doesn’t even have to be a series following the same story, but one that is set in the same town with the same peripheral characters. My current WIP is the second in a series. The first in the series suggested a secret which is presumed not to be the case at the end. However, in the second it is revealed to have been the case, and the reader learns the answer when all is said and done.

  10. HG Ferguson May 23, 2013 at 8:10 am #

    One word: LOST the tv series. A different context, I know, but its influence remains, i.e., major questions never answered, things happen just because they happen, ad infinitum et nauseam. An author should never, ever, ever, ever (did I say never?) do this to his or her readers. You see it more in movies and especially on tv now (even some British shows which ought to know better) thanks to the influence — a hideous, enraging one — of LOST. Not giving your reader ANSWERS is the author being the cat to a hapless mouse. Keep that practice up and you won’t be an author any longer, either.

  11. Angie Dicken May 23, 2013 at 8:16 am #

    I read a book a while ago, that was character-driven women’s fiction, with pretty significant romance elements. Yet, the author left the reader hanging in regards to how the romance ended…ARGH!!! I guess to get the reader to buy the sequel??? I haven’t bought it, and it’s been three years…I think I’m feeling a little bitter still!;)

  12. karen Ball May 23, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    Tamela, great post. I absolutely agree about not breaking contract with your readers. Very frustrating when that happens. And when you realize you’ve committed the offense as a reader. In one of my novellas, I had the sister of the hero give him a letter–and forgot to tie that up at the end! I got reader letters saying they loved the story, but what was in the letter?? Happily, Harrison House recently combined three of my novellas into a book, and that novella was among them. So I got to fix the mistake and add in the contents of the letter. Love those do-overs!

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 23, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

      Karen, what a great reason to be sure to ask for the chance to update re-releases!

  13. Steve Myers May 23, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

    Great question Tamela. I can’t think of a book that has teased me without an answer. Frank Peretti’s ‘This Present Darkness’ comes closest but was answered albeit throughout the very well written novel. In TV we get it all too often. SHAMELESS on Showtime did so with one of its lead characters this year (Steve/Jimmy) and another showtime series ‘John from Cincinnati,’ teased it throughout the one year only series.

    Generally, I want the question answered (though am not a mystery-suspense fan) as much as Contemporary and Historical Fiction reader (writer) fan of filling in the missing set up question pieces as the story progresses on.

    As for Citizen Kane (referenced above) I was fascinated with the film RKO 281 that REALLY filled in what ‘Rosebud’ was (represented) not just with Kane but with William Randolph Hearst and why he did all he could to bury the film and Orson Wells. Many mysteries of Kane were revealed (decades later) and though not even close to anything ‘Christian,’ it was ‘enlightening and educational’ to learn what those were.

    Yes, if the set up is set I want the answer payoff at some point.

  14. Peter DeHaan May 23, 2013 at 3:38 pm #

    If you want readers to pick up your next book, don’t irritate them with the present one.

  15. Candy Arrington May 23, 2013 at 7:54 pm #

    I stopped reading books by an author who kept promising a “treasure” in a locked room. At the end of the book, the main character breaks the lock and the room….is empty! There was a lame explanation why the room was empty, but I wanted my treasure.

  16. Lee Carver May 24, 2013 at 8:28 am #

    Worse yet is getting to the end of the book and not understanding the ending. Remember that old space movie, 2001? I didn’t understand the ending in the movie, so I read the book, which did not elucidate the meaning at all. ARRRGH!

  17. Sharyn Kopf May 25, 2013 at 5:55 pm #

    This reminds me of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s gun principle of foreshadowing: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” Unless, of course, it’s a red herring (something that distracts attention from the real issue) or a MacGuffin (an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance).*

    Alfred Hitchcock movies, btw, are a study in the use of foreshadowing, red herrings & MacGuffins.

    * Definitions courtesy of Merriam-Webster.

    All that said, I know some readers may be disappointed with the romantic aspect of the ending of my soon-to-be-released novel. But sometimes I feel writers face a choice between being true to the story or giving the reader what she wants. Since I don’t consider the novel a genre romance, I couldn’t pull a rabbit out of a hat and make all my MC’s dreams of love and marriage come true. It would be too contrived, too forced and readers don’t like that either.

    Of course, it’s also the first book in a trilogy so who knows what will happen. I don’t even know. Yet.

  18. floyd May 27, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

    I don’t mind a few set ups not getting paid off, but some of the most famous authors do it with regularity and far too often in my opinion… even though mine doesn’t count, it still drives me loco.

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