Letting the Reader Figure It Out

While rewatching Naked Gun, one of the many jokes popped out at me. It was when Frank Drebin and Ed go to leave the airport for the hospital. Drebin, aggravated by a piece of news about his ex’s new man, backs the car into an airport baggage train. After a long drive with some exposition and a few more jokes, they arrive, the camera panning back to show their car pulling up to the curb with the baggage train attached behind it.

It’s a great joke with its set up and delayed punchline, but the added humor after the first laugh is the imagined sight of the car hauling the baggage train along the highway though the entire scene prior. How did they not notice? Did the tail end of the baggage train whip around on a turn and force another driver off the road? If you pause the film you could easily spitball four or five more jokes to go along with that premise.

What I appreciate is the trust placed in me as a viewer to remember the set up and not have the entire joke spelled out piece by piece. The baggage train wasn’t shown to have been latched onto the car before the scene changed. My brain makes the connection and I feel somewhat smart laughing at a dumb joke.

This coincides a lot with plant and payoff. Show a story element or fact early on and bring it back later for a laugh or a surprise or whatever the story needs. However, the elements the audience can figure out for themselves doesn’t need to be as explicit.

Take when Mercutio is stabbed and tells Romeo, “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find a grave man,” and then dies shortly after. We don’t need the obvious pointed out. It’s a nice play on words and any character explaining the joke might as well reach out the page and slap the reader. But imagine if Mercutio died a while after receiving the injury. The audience might not remember that exact verbiage letting the joke slip by. The story doesn’t fall apart without that joke and there’s always the reread for the lightbulb moment.

The difficulty for the writer is knowing what to leave out and how much. I like to think of this concept in what’s often the most terrifying mindset for writers to attempt to perceive the world in — math. Fair warning.

1+1=2 is spelling it out, belaboring the point, and telling the reader what they’ve already figured out for themselves as if they were incapable of doing so. Lovecraft’s Herbert West — Reanimator is a perfect example of this detailing a scientist’s seemingly failed experiment to reanimate human corpses followed by strange, unexplained attacks and disturbances. The shocking twist at the perpetrator’s reveal is exactly what you think it is thereby making every time the narrator speculates who, or what, could be responsible read like sandpaper contact lenses.

1+1=X is giving the reader enough credit to figure out what’s going to happen when the pieces are arrayed just so. Old cartoons do this well. Wile E. Coyote uses a pulley to raise a boulder up. Roadrunner blasts through without setting off the trap. Wile E. Coyote goes off-screen to inspect the issue and the pulley drops the boulder. Wile E. returns squashed. We don’t need to see the impact, and it’s funnier when our expectations are validated.

1+X=2 is similar to the Naked Gun example. It’s any moment or reveal where the reader computes, “Wait. If that’s true, then that means…” It can be humorous or tragic or unsettling. Three miners are trapped in a cave in. After ten days’ effort, two are found murmuring the lyrics to Timothy.

X+1=2 fits in with mystery formatting. Some event in the past triggered a massive change in the protagonist’s personality. What could it have been? The hard-boiled detective won’t talk about “That case.” Then when we find out what that event was and what it meant, the detective’s actions gain more reason.

X+1=Y. When Oedipus finds out who killed his father and married his mother, it makes his life before that moment deeply disturbing for him and the reader alike. When the origin of Keyser Söze is revealed, the framing structure takes on a whole new meaning. Be careful as this can be the most difficult to lay out key information in such a way that the audience will get it.

1,2,3,4,5,X,7,8. If the sequence of events is obvious then parts can be skipped over to speed up the plot. If the rain deity’s monument is defaced and it’s been shown the thing does what it says on the tin, then we can jump to the village’s deprivation as malnourished people pay exorbitant amounts of money for small amounts of grain without needing to show the unseasonably dry weather, the futile attempts to appease the rain deity, the hesitation in the farmers’ faces looking out over their barren fields, the meager crop yields wheeled into the village on wagons, and on and on.

1,2,3,4;X,2,3,4. By use of repetition, we can assume what’s going to happen next. A guy shown to quickly fall in love at the slightest kind gesture and break up a short time later at the first sign of commitment reveals his standard modus operandi. This lets us skip around the timeline and assume what led to the current state the man finds himself in and if the character is fleshed out in his logic, we’ll reasonably know why. If he says post his latest break-up, “That’s when I found out her parents were orthodox Jews.” It’s likely they wanted him to convert, learn Hebrew, go to temple, keep kosher. It’s a perfect tool for long-run formats like sitcoms.

Ultimately, not everyone’s going to get everything. Some people are good at crosswords while others choose the word jumbles. But if the piece the audience has to get on their own holds up the central premise of the story, take the time and effort into expressing that the main question is important and its answer vital to the main character achieving their goal.

Here there’s opportunity for the reader to get invested by rewarding the reader for remembering information, by encouraging them to apply their own critical thought processes to the story you invite them to activate their brain. If it’s in the story it has a purpose. Challenge the reader to figure out what it could be and amaze them when they’re wrong. Show your respect to them for taking the money and time to give your work a shot.

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