Open loops in fiction

A fiction-writing trick I find particularly compelling are open loops.

A cliffhanger is an example: you want to know how the hero survives, so your thoughts keep looping back to the situation, trying to figure out what happens next. But you need the author to tell you.

Really good writing uses open loops at the sentence level as well. The first sentence of the story is meaningful on its own, but also makes reference to something else; that something else is required to understand the full meaning. That sets up an open loop; I want to know more.

The following sentences provide additional context, helping close the first loop, but in so doing they make reference to other things. Even as loops are closed, new ones get opened. As the author is doing this, various characters are established. Their goals and intentions set up long-term open loops: ones that require a whole chapter or the whole story to resolve.

At any given time there may be a dozen open loops of varying timescales.

As a concrete example, let’s look at a few early sentences from the novel that prompted this thread as I started reading it and appreciating all the loops it was opening: Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince.

We open with: “Prince Zeheva squinted into the sunlight and smiled his satisfaction.”

This establishes that our character is a prince and satisfied with something that he sees. But to fully understand the situation, we need to know what he sees that satisfies him. Curious.

A somewhat different sentence would have been much less compelling: “It was a bright day, and Prince Zeheva smiled.”

This sentence would have made it sound like Zeheva was just smiling at the sunlight. He’s not actively looking at something – squinted into – and it feels like we can already understand the situation from this sentence alone. There’s no reference to something else left hanging.

Next sentence: “All the signs were good for the hunt today: claw marks on the cliffs, wing marks on the sand, and the close cropping of bittersweet plants along the canyon ridges.”

This closes the first loop – we now know what the prince was looking at that made him smile. It also opens new ones. What is he hunting, and what is going to happen next? The “claw marks” and “wing marks” suggest to me some griffin.

Notice how this sentence sets up both short- and long-term loops. The most immediate loop is “what is the prince hunting?”; that will get resolved within a few sentences. “How will the hunt go” will be an ongoing one.

“But the prince’s perceptions were more subtle and had no need of these obvious signs.”

This suggests that there’s something special about the prince’s senses. How are they subtle, and why are they special? Those are the third and fourth loops we’ve got open.

“He could feel the presence of his prey all along his skin, scent it in the air, sense it in every nerve. His admirers said he could tell when the time was ripe for the hunt simply by glancing at the sky.”

That resolves the ‘how are his senses subtle’ question. Down to three loops.

“His enemies said it was not surprising that he could sense such things, for he himself had been dragon-spawned.”

We are told that the prince’s senses are special because he’s part dragon. That resolves the loop of “what makes his senses special”, even as the reference to his enemies – who are they? – opens up a new one, keeping us at three.

The second paragraph opens with: “In truth, he seemed a human version of the dragon he hunted today.”

So he’s hunting a dragon. In the space of just one paragraph and one sentence, Rawn opened at least six loops while closing four of them, thus keeping the reader interested. We still don’t know how the hunt will go, so we want to keep reading…

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