Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

I Need to Know

First, a little music, from one of the Ugliest Men in Rock and Roll
It’s amazing to think of how long Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers have been around. The nice thing is, the album he released in 2010 (Mojo) is excellent, and they still put on a killer show that mixes old hits, new material, and some quality cover tunes.
Government and military organizations are famous for operating on a ‘Need-to-Know’ basis, where information is carefully controlled and parsed out only to those who need to know it. In theory, this keeps sensitive information from getting out into the wrong hands, where it can potentially compromise operations. As writers, we are the ones sitting at the top of the knowledge pile. We know what happens in our stories. We know the crucial backstory, and why characters behave the way they do, and it’s our job to parse that information out when and where it’s needed.
 The subject of ‘need to know’ came up yesterday at my Writer’s Circle. During the ‘free write’ portion of the afternoon, I penned a short bit that continued something I started a week ago. The rough idea has been floating around in the back room for a while, and decided to come out front, though I’m not sure why. Anyway, this looks to be the new WiP (yeah, I was working on something else that was supposed to be my new WiP, but I really wasn’t feeling that one. I wrote a fair amount of it through December, but to be honest, it never really took off for me. This new one has. I’ve written 12K words on it this week), and I’m pretty excited about it. The reaction in my group last week and this week was pretty positive, but the question of Need-to-Know reared its ugly head.
Without going into too much detail, the story involves life in a world shortly after some World Changing Event occurs. Said event pretty much wipes out a lot of technology – computers, phones, electricity. In other words, the sort of stuff that’s been done over and over again, but I’m doing it differently, dammit! Ahem. Sorry. Anyway, the story focuses on one family living in one small corner of the world. It’s not a sprawling, post-Apocalyptic epic on the scale of The Stand, for example.
Much of the discussion yesterday focused on that big, World Changing Event. What was it? Why did it happen? To which I said, “I don’t know.” And that’s the truth of it. I know what the after-effects of this event are, but I can’t tell you why it happened, or what, exactly, happened. In my mind, I’m as clueless as my poor characters, small-town people who find themselves in the dark, with no way to communicate with anyone who’s not within shouting distance. In my mind, the Event is also not really important. Sure, the characters are going to spend some time wondering what happened, but they’re going to quickly become rather preoccupied with little things: staying warm, finding food, and trying to hold on to some shred of society in the face of this catastrophe. In this regard, I’m taking my cue from stories like McCarthy’s The Road and King’s Cell(and in Cell, we know more or less what happened, though we don’t know why. In The Road, we have an idea what happened, but it’s mostly the result of simple logic and putting together a few hints in the story).
So, my question for you all is this: Do you need to know? Granted, it’s hard to answer the question without reading the story (and, so sorry, right now, you can’t!), but would that tick you off? If you picked up a book like this, would you be preoccupied with figuring out What Happened, or could you just accept it and read on?

8 Responses

  1. First, I heart Tom Petty. Second, for me, I wouldn't need to know. I like it better that way. I mean if a lot of communication technology was wiped out, chances are the characters wouldn't really know either so having the readers at the same level as the characters in that sense would make it even better. That's just me. But you could handle the whole question by simply addressing it in the book. Maybe a child asks a parent what happened and the parent can explain how they don't really know (and why they don't know, i.e. technology was wiped out to a large extent) and that at that point it doesn't even matter whether they find out or not, it only matters that they survive. It would only take a very short scene and there you'd have your kind of explanation to the reader as to why the story is about this family living in the aftermath and not about the event itself. It sounds great by the way and I'm sure that with your writing talent, it will be very amazing.

  2. I love Tom Petty.

    As for your question – It's tough to answer without reading the book. I think you'll know if you need to explain more when your done. Personally, I don't necessarily NEED to know, but part of me thinks most readers want to know there is a reason that they COULD discover if they could just talk to you. As such, you might need to know.

    Personal anecdote: I wanted to write a story about the life of three paranormal beings. I kept getting comments from my submissions that said, "why are they the way they are?" "What made them that way?" and I thought, does it matter? The story is about their interaction. It's a glimpse into a month of their life. They're not going to explain it to everyone they meet, and they're not going to discuss it in detail.

    Alas, I had to compromise and add SOME history before it was picked up, but I really didn't want to.

    Good luck with the writing – 12K in a week is brilliant!

  3. For me personally, I like to know the why. If your early betas (or are they alphas?) are wanting to know, will it bug your readers if you can't answer these questions?

    I do a lot of research for my books, even if that research isn't explained anywhere in the books. I need to have that information in my mind as I'm writing so I know if it would impact things that happen. Kind of like the rules for a magic system or the laws of physics.

  4. I wouldn't need to know.

    So many things shaped our country into what it is today. Do the majority of us know, or even care, about the wars and movements that got us from point A to point B? In a general sense, yes, but we don't dwell on them. We worry about the here and now. We worry about the future. Your scenario would be on a much grander scale, I'm sure, but would it really be that much different? Just something to think about. 🙂

    Good luck with the WIP!

  5. I should probably elaborate. I wouldn't need to know in explicit detail. By the end of the book, I'd want a sense of what happened, but I wouldn't need a play-by-play. If you're concentrating on the characters and their journeys, you should be fine. 🙂

  6. -Lisa and Carrie: The way I'm envisioning it, the story is so narrowly-focused that the people at its heart probably wouldn't ever know what really happened, unless things got fixed, or someone 'in the know' wanders through town. And right now, I don't know if that will happen. The crystal ball is murky so far.

    -Steve: Yeah, I fit into the category of WANT to know. On the other hand, when I read 'The Road', as much as I wanted to know – to really know, that is – how they got to that point, I got so caught up in the story that I was not dissatisfied to never find out. It *can* be done; it's just a question of whether or not I can do it, heh heh.

    -Donna: I do agree, I like to have that information, too, and it's usually necessary for me to proceed with the story. I left a ton of stuff 'on the cutting room floor' with my other MS. It's funny to me, how hung up these two people were on the 'but what happened?' front. As I make progress, I'll definitely keep this in mind.

    I truly appreciate the comments. I'll keep playing with this and see where it takes me. Thanks!

  7. I'm not sure I need to know, but I think you as the writer might. Without it, I think it would be hard to keep the effects consistent and, like Steve points out, readers who ask you about it might be disappointed. Good luck!

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