Guest Post: Broken Bridges

UZ’s guest posts continue!
There is a form of dishonesty that has gained popularity in recent writing, which for lack of a better term I will call the Broken Bridge technique. This is where the story presents a question that feels compelling, puts off addressing it and ultimately fails to answer it, but only after pretending to care for long enough that we hope the audience forgets that we are no longer talking about it. I will describe the technique here, but I appeal to you not to use it for two reasons. First, it frequently backfires and disgusts the audience, and second, even if it works it often fails to produce truly worthwhile fiction.
Asking questions and then delaying the answer is a good way of building tension in a narrative. Why didn’t Steve call? Why is he never home? Why does his diary grow more illegible and slimy with each passing day of the last two weeks? Why was there an ugly slime monster in his house, wearing his clothes? Finally, we have the big reveal at the end, where we discover why and how Steve is gone and an ugly slime monster is in his place.
The old failure of this form of writing was the Poirot technique, where the story would present us with a chain of evidence that led to an ambiguous conclusion, and then the Master Detective would present us with a piece of information that was deliberately kept from the audience until the end. This piece of evidence would irrefutably lead to a single one of the many conclusions we previously had, but of course since the reader was theorizing in the dark they will never be as smart as Poirot because he literally prevents them from knowing the answer. This is a classic means of annoying your audience.
The nouveau Poirot technique is considerably less formulaic but even more annoying. We start with a mystery, like the mystery of Steve and the slime monster. Then, we read that there was a note at Steve’s house saying that all about Steve would be explained when the Old Man felt the time was right. Then, our hero tries to find the Old Man and discovers that the Old Man wants the Item, but then we find out through library research that the Item is a concept, not a thing per se. The concept of the Item is known to the Dog Lady of Seattle, but Seattle is now part of an interdimensional rift that can only be entered by the Sinister Traveler. The Sinister Traveler finally takes our hero to Seattle for “her own reasons”, but it comes to pass that the Dog Lady has been in a coma for the last twenty years and it’s not clear how she called our hero on the telephone the day before. The only way that…
I would continue but I think the example has been spun. Rather than ever explaining or breaking down the story at any time, the writer piles more and more cryptic layers on without bothering to address the ones that came before, until eventually no answer would be sufficient to explain the gigantic sociopolitical or metaphysical train wreck that the story represents. Not only that, but we never do find out what happened to Steve, which was supposed to be the reason we got involved in the first place.
The intent of this technique is to create a scenario with no explainable cause or progression, so that the audience wonders endlessly and hopes that they will finally hear something that will make the whole thing make sense. In its perfect form it approaches the pathological, a series of questions with no possible answer that winds on endlessly in the hope of keeping its loyal fans permanently in suspense.
All I can say for this technique is, don’t use it. Ambiguity is generally all right, leaving a character’s motivations unclear for the sake of reader interpretation is OK. Just don’t abandon your readers with a huge mess of unanswered questions and pretend that your story is a masterpiece wrought from loose ends, it is unfair to your audience.

2 comments

  1. Some of the details have been changed to protect the inept, but I think I’ve played in that game…

  2. UZ says:

    @shortymonster: Ha, probably. There’s nothing wrong with some cryptic stuff in a story, I regularly include this kind of material in my own. It’s when we hang the story on a series of questions, and then fail to answer any of them legitimately, that this becomes a problem.

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