Unknown Unknowns in Writing

unknown unknowns

Choosing what to let readers know, and when, is key to telling a great story. A good reveal will drive your story forward — the best unknown unknowns will completely upend your narrative and add more meaning for your reader.

We all know what we know. The smartest among us also know what they don’t know. These are the classic “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” in life.

What does this matter for writing? Books are full of unknowns. You are keeping your readers in the dark from page one until the big reveal and the climax and the tying up of all loose ends.

You, the author, know every detail, but your reader is in the dark, except for what you purposely share or what a reader has surmised.

How you breadcrumb the path is key to the enjoyment of the story. What you withhold, equally, helps carry the story forward. People flip pages to find out what they want to know. Curiosity drives readers. This is, of course, especially true for mysteries! But it’s the same for a romance. Even though there is always a happy ending, readers love to guess how it could possibly come about. Really, it’s true of all books. Readers are waiting to figure out “what it’s all about.”

In great books, information is purposefully doled out. Pieces of information, even ones that seem wholly unrelated, eventually fit together into satisfying patterns that unlock new meaning. How you hand out information can make or break the success of your “unfolding.”

The feeling of being on a treasure hunt when reading means you want to sate this craving for good information. Because readers know this is how books work, they weigh every detail that comes their way to consider if it has profound meaning.

Anton Chekov wrote, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The act of reading is anything but passive. If you hang that rifle, you have to use it – if readers spin thoughts and you never answer their speculations, you have seriously let them down.

Readers will be on the hunt for knowns and tirelessly attempt to fill in the unknowns. This means you can get readers to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Usually, even if you only give a few details about a character, like “he wore well-fitted, sporty clothes,” readers will form a far more detailed picture in their head. Each reader will have their own picture, filled in with their own preferences and life experiences. This is often why it’s such a shock to see your favorite books rendered on screen – they don’t look like that or sound like that or move that way!

Tell a reader your lead character wears glasses, baggy clothes, and is a librarian and they’ll get her “type.” They’ll fill in the details of her being mousy, quiet, nerdy, unattached — or attached to a guy with a pocket protector — maybe socially awkward, etc.

When you reveal she’s a spy after-hours, it’ll be all the more surprising and exciting. Everyone knows the attributes of a spy — you won’t have to say much about how clever, adventurous, brave, and trustworthy she is. For your two well-picked words, “librarian” and “spy,” readers might fill in hundreds of their own. Combining two already weighty words multiplies the effect, and it also conjures the known unknown.

Reveals, can be used to confound, inspire, frighten, or otherwise push all the emotional buttons of your readers. A murder mystery is a classic example. The unknown unknown is the murder, which, as soon as the body is found is a known unknown, which teasingly, frustratingly and nail-bitingly transmogrifies to a known – through as many clever twists and turns as possible.

Shaping and popping unknowns in stories is a large part of the art of being a writer. The best unknown unknowns upend much of what characters and readers think is known.

If there is a family in your book, with three siblings, they might never think to question who their parents are. Perhaps the book starts with them focusing on rebuilding the family restaurant, which they lived above, after a bout of arson. Searching through the wreckage, they find a safe and in it are adoption papers for the oldest sister. Won’t it be a huge shock to find out they never suspected their sister had a different father? That was certainly an unknown unknown.

Often authors work actively to make readers think they know something so that the presence of an unknown hits even harder. In this case, perhaps the author stresses how much the daughter looks like the father, same black curly hair, good white teeth, and tan-ready skin. This can work beautifully, for example, if the unknown father turns out to be the brother of the man everyone believes is her father.

Often the knowns are the tip of an iceberg: the other 90% is still below the water line. The mother confesses that her first love was the girl’s real father and they were together since childhood. They got married but he had to leave the next day for WW2 and was killed. His brother, who had to stay home due to poor eye-sight, took pity, and married her, adopting the baby. He also abandoned the love of his life, a young teacher, and both parents have been nursing broken hearts ever since.

The best unknowns totally change a story. Take, for example, the huge unknown unknown in the Star Wars franchise. Few lines are better than Darth Vader telling Luke, “I am your father.”


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  1. The black swan, Nassim Taleb’s unknown unknown. The worst kind for a trader. The best kind for an author.

    So often I’ve gotten beta readers who ask for more info early on. I guess that’s a good sign I’m denying them or being obvious. “Didn’t you read the part where the professor mentions Zeus’ wayward dalliances with mortals?” — “Oh, ah, I guess I did — right.” “Well, I don’t you think what was plenty of reference to why the MC is such a cad?”…

    Nice post.

  2. Thank you for your insights into writing. I learned some and got some light in writing. I’m now embarking in blogging but I have the doubt as to whether you have to continue in the same line of thought throughout your blogs or you could pick up a different subject on each blog.

    Every blog could convert into a book full of life experiences. So many things to be said and communicated. I will see.

  3. In the rifle analogy, maybe that’s hanging on the wall for a purpose apart from needing to be taken down to be shot. Did it belong to a family member and left there out of respect? Are they frightened of firearms due to a real or perceived fear? Can the rifle NOT come down? If so, why?

    Author Steven James (The Patrick Bowen Files) says when you write, you’re making a promise to the reader. Keep that promise in paying off what you’d said you would, whatever that payoff might be. The rifle example, either has a story to be told why it’s on the wall and stays there, or b): is repurposed from what it’s originally used for. Either way, it’s a promise the author MUST give the reader a payoff–or keep his promise to her–lest the author loses storytelling credibility with the reader.

    Good post, thank you.


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