So you know that you need to write about hard, real questions and that you should explore the complicated aspects of those questions and not resign to cliches. However, if you have ever truly wrestled with a hard question, either by means of storytelling or not, you know that it can be extremely hard to find a real answer.
So, this post will be addressing what to do when you can’t seem to find a real answer and even if you should leave the question unanswered.
In my last post on answering hard questions, Kumquat Absurdium commented:
“Should we not only deal with difficult questions but begin to admit that sometimes we don’t known the answer instead of covering our ignorance with cliche? I know there are answers and legitimate ones at that but I was wondering if sometimes it is better to leave them unanswered? Or is that just unhelpful and leaving the reader feeling cheated?”
These are really great questions (hard questions in themselves), but I think we need to focus on answering the two unspoken questions in the comment. First, can we always find a real answer? And second, are answers helpful?
The first question truly deals more with theology than good literary practice. I am a Christian, so my answer is simple. Yes, real answers exist to every question, and humans have the ability to devote themselves to answering those question and can answer (but not grasp) the truth behind any question (though this may require a life-time or more of devotion to a single question.) However, I do want to mess with theology as little as possible in this post. Even if you do not believe that there are real answers to hard questions, then the second question still applies.
Are answers (whether true, false, or non-existent) helpful to others?
As writers, we must answer the second question based on how the answers might help our audience. Like I mentioned in my first post, we should write real questions because desperate people have real questions. Real questions and fake answers have driven people to suicide. It is our duty as writers to seek to help those people as best we can, especially since many of us have been helped by books in similar ways.
Several other commenters contributed to Kumquat Absurdium’s questions by suggesting that answers to hard questions may be intellectually satisfying but not emotionally so. Therefore, they suggested that leaving the question addressed but answered is a good option, so long as the writer leaves the readers with a sense of hope and not despair. One commenter pointed to how intellectual answers can give a sense of self-reliance, confidence, and even pride. I agree that this false sense of power over a question is bad, not only because it leads to arrogance and selfishness but also because the sense of power is not true. Human beings only have the power that is given to them and possess nothing. If you think you understand something intellectually or scientifically, you give yourself the impression that you have power over it. As I mentioned, not only does this lead to undesirable behavior towards others, but it also simply isn’t true. You don’t actually have power over anything outside of yourself.
Therefore I disagree that merely intellectually satisfying answers are true.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I do not think that we should disqualify an answer simply because our emotions are revolted by it, but I do think we should consider our emotions in the process of answering hard questions. Our intellectual answer should also satisfy emotionally. Granted, our emotions can be and often are wrong. We may be initially revolved to an answer but then learn to be emotionally satisfied by the same answer. However, I think there is a true difference between the emotions involved when someone is mortified at the idea of revealing himself as a liar and when someone is mortified that a mother would kill one of her own children to save the rest of her family. One reflect man’s twisted sinfulness; the other man’s inherent goodness and morality.
So, if you are answering a hard question and find yourself with a merely intellectual answer, then I would suggest that you have actually only produced a false answer and are ignoring the important world of emotions.
This also applied in reverse. If you have found a merely emotional answer, then you also have only a false answer and are ignoring the important world of emotions.
Finally, if you have found an answer that leads you to the sense that you have full understanding and power over the situation, then you also have a false answer.
So, if we assume that real answers do exist and answers that are merely intellectual are false, then should we or should we not write until we find real answers and write those real answers?
First, with the idea of helping our desperate readers in mind, we must consider how not answering the question might affect this reader. By merely addressing the hard question, in all of its emotion, physical, and intellectual complexity, we are providing the reader with empathy. The reader is no longer alone in their search and struggle.
This is very important, but I suggest not the most important. The reader is given temporary peace and encouraged that others are looking for the same answers. The reader enjoys and is encouraged by the story. However, I have found this enjoyment and sense of peace to be temporary. All you, as the writer, did was sympathize with and encourage the reader to search harder. You encouraged them to continue searching, while you yourself did not continue until you found the answer. At best, this is lazy; at worst, it is hypocritical and a scam.
The reader may continue with their search for answers based on your story, and they may even get farther than you and find the answer. However, too often, I believe the reader will still fail to find the answer and fall back even further into despair, since even his favorite story cannot find the answer.
So since, a real answer can be found and should not lead to self-reliance and pride, and a leaving no answer is likely to indirectly cause more problems, I purpose that posing a question and leaving it unanswered is also a false answer and even morally wrong– however, well intended.
Now, this is all great. We should write and answer hard questions. Fantastic. But that is harder than it sounds, especially if you start writing about truly hard questions. You will know this all too well if you have ever tried addressing a hard question in a story.
So here are some practical tips for writing hard questions and writing real answers, when you can’t seem to find real answers:
- Read books that answer hard questions:
- I’d suggest starting with C. S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, no matter what question you are asking. This book does a fantastic job of providing a true answer to extremely difficult questions within a well written narrative.
- Also read books written by writers that are primarily writers (not philosophers, apologists, or theologians) on the question. If you decide to read a narrative by a philosopher, you are most likely to get a false intellectual answer or simply find the answer forced into a story rather than a natural narrative approach.
- Find an older, mature person to talk about your question with. They may be hard to find, but there are some older people out there who might be able to help you with your question.
- Keep writing. If you have not found your answer yet, just keep writing. Don’t end the story. Ask your next question and keep writing. (You can edit later and fix the plot once you figure out an answer.)
- Set the story aside. Perhaps, you are just not ready to answer that question yet. Pick an easier questions and get back to your other story later. I mentioned Till We Have Faces above. When he was 18, Lewis wanted to write the story focused on the question, “Are the gods/God not just?” Lewis ended up finally writing the story near the end of his life, though he tried multiple times before. Maybe you just are not ready to answer your question yet, so wait but don’t give up.
So do you agree or disagree? Should we write answers to hard questions? Do you have any tips for doing so? What do you think of stories that pose hard questions but never answer them?