Wrangling the Dangler: Unresolved Plots

There are many things that can dangle in terms of the grammatical side of writing: participles, prepositions at the end of sentences, fragments, the list goes on. But one that most writers forget about is the dangling plot line. In a story, every scene, discussion, and decision a character makes or is a part of must impact the book in one way or another. The “dangler,” as I’m going to call it, is any plot point that is left unresolved by the end of the book or series. It sounds simple, but isn’t always so easy to spot because writers may think of an event as something to drive the plot along, but not something relevant to the main conflict, and therefore, miss opportunities to expound upon them and further grip readers. It’s always gratifying when I can help an author identify these possible plot holes before they happen. Not only does it make their current story more satisfying to their audience, but it may open up even more intriguing plot threads they had never considered.

Let’s say you have a story about a soldier coming home from war. The first chapter consists of the main character lingering on the battlefield, waiting to see if he can spot any refugees from the other side, as a family member of his was in the fight. He thinks he sees someone who looks like his brother helping inspect injured soldiers, but as he attempts to cross the field without being seen, a groan from a comrade who is barely alive makes him stop cold, and he calls out to the medics to help the soldier to safety. By the time he looks over at the opposite field again, the man who looked like his brother is gone.

Now, suppose the book keeps going and the main character settles into life as a vet. Maybe he struggles with PTSD, starts a new career as a doctor thanks to that incident saving the other soldier’s life, meets some new friends and a nice partner… He’s happy. It’s true that the main plot of the book would center around our lead soldier adjusting to what it means to go back to life after the war, but suppose the book ended ambiguously regarding the brother. Even if the main character is happily adjusted–maybe he has a family, or has started a foundation for vets in his hometown, or simply reconciled with his PTSD thanks to the help of his friends-would you as a reader feel satisfied?

Probably not. Because even if the author looked at the incident with the brother doppelganger as a device to initiate the rescue that started him on the path to becoming a doctor, and the “brother” really wasn’t who the main character thought at all, readers will always be left wondering what happened to him. That, my friends, is a dangler.

This particular problem can be fixed easily enough by adding an epilogue scene or having the main character come in contact with the man he saw on the battlefield somehow. Whether or not he turns out to be the man’s brother, that plotline can easily be tied up, because the two of them meeting can lead to a reunion, or the soldier apologizing for not being his brother and helping the main character find out what really happened to him.

Some danglers though, are not always going to be so straightforward and prominent. Suppose you’re reading a crime story where a new detective comes to town to help solve a series of abduction cases. In one particular scene, she’s talking to the captain about her life before being assigned to this squad. Maybe the last case she solved ended up revealing her ex as a drug dealer and he was put in jail, but she’s disappointed in herself because two other members of the ring got away.

Like with the previous example, the new detective may not be the focus. Heck, she may not even be the main character. But nonetheless, her story and her past have the opportunity to affect the rest of the cast. Unless the author makes it clear that the boyfriend can never find the detective for one reason or another, there is always the possibility that the two escapee friends of his will break him out.

There are a myriad of ways to fix this, from a quick scene where the detectives see a news report of the accomplices being arrested for something else, to the ex-girlfriend explaining she has changed her identity with the help of the police, to letting the ex-boyfriend find her and seeing what happens.

The main goal of wrangling danglers is to not leave the possibility of new conflict unfinished, because it may very well lead to readers mistaking innocent information meant as backstory or motivations for plot holes.

What’s the biggest “dangler” you’ve found in a recent read? Share in the comments!

As always, keep making magic, word weavers!

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