Many times reading the works of writers, published or undiscovered, I come across a problem I did not realize could devastate a story, until I was told I was guilty of it in my early university years. The problem steamed from my notion that it was a good thing to present a story where certain, crucial secrets to plot and understanding character were not told to the reader. Vagueness, it seemed, was appealing because it kept readers hooked. I thought hovering the allure of mystery about information yet to be revealed would make my audience want to keep reading. It was okay if they did not know everything at the start and slowly learned as they read along. I was mistaken, in part, and went about this notion the wrong way. Vagueness, in excess, to the point of the reader being kept in the dark for too long is a bad thing and will poison the story if not countered with clarity and revelation.
I know, believe me I do, how good it sounds to make the reader feel like the writer has all the answers. They will know in time. It makes me feel powerful, important. It’s such a bad decision to revolve a story around the idea of the wizard behind the curtain pulling readers along without knowing why they are being pulled along in the first place. If you don’t give your reader reasons to care about your story, then they won’t be in it for long. Vagueness is not a good enough reason. Tactile, visible reasons your reader can refer to when they talk about your story will make them care about it almost as much as you do. Questions about character’s motives will only keep them wanting to find out more for so long. Not giving them what they want, at least in small portions if not the entirety of it, will end up in them loosing interest.
There’s no specific rule or standard to guide you through this mist, unfortunately, but there are general times when to use vagueness and when not to. Personally, when I think about taking a bite of the seemingly succulent fruit, first I must ask “how would it serve the story?” If the fruit cannot enrich the meal (plot, intrigue, or conflict of the story), I refrain before surrendering to the appeal of holding all the cards from the reader. Don’t shut the reader out. I’ve learned. Unless there’s hints, obvious hints like a who-done-it? story, of the information I’ve withheld being revealed in due course I would just tell/show the reader whatever to keep the story going.
When I see unnecessary vagueness in established stories, it really puzzles me. The best example I have is in the STAR WARS universe when Darth Sidious’ identity is kept a secret from the audience, even though pretty much everyone knew Palpatine was the Sith Lord since the Episode I. Watching the films now and experiencing the story with that veil still up, I’ve had to think hard about how keeping this secret served the story. (I must add, this is all personal opinion.) While the mystery of who’s under the hood kept the characters on their toes, I still don’t see any reason why his identity was kept from the audience. Obviously don’t reveal to the characters in Episode I who Sidious is, even don’t outright tell the viewers it’s Palpatine. Fine. But giving us a little more than brief glimpses of the mastermind could have just made it more fun for us to watch the big reveal in Episode III.
One time where it did work was in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. When Peter Pettigrew was seen on the Marauder’s Map by Harry, and the rest of the time in the story we’re wondering “how is he alive?” was a great use of vagueness. Jo let on the curiosity of seeing a “dead” man at Hogwarts, which was such a huge thing, we knew were going to find out about it in the end. There would be no point in having mentioned it if it were not going to be important later on.
Vagueness is a tricky thing and something worthy playing around with. I will continue to see how it can be applied to my writing, but, as always, I must ask how does it serve the story?