Why "I Don't Know" is Not an Answer

Someone told me that Dr. Laura once snapped at caller, who was in the midst of tearfully saying she had no idea why her husband cheated on her, “‘I don’t know’ is not an answer.” I rarely – okay, never – listen to Dr. Laura, not wanting my head to explode, but she has a point.

I’m not saying that poor tearful woman knew the answer, but there isn’t a soul alive who couldn’t spin an answer. That is, a hypothetical answer. A possibility.

And, when it comes to writing, that’s often where the story unfolds. In the possibilities that run through the character’s mind as she tries to figure out why something happened. Even if at the end of the day, she still says, “Gee, I don’t know.”

Which is why, like Dr. Laura, you never want to let your characters get away with answering, “I don’t know,” without having them at least speculate on what they think the answer might be – regardless how far fetched.

Who knows, perhaps the reader – who often knows way more than the protagonist – will spot the “real” reason even though the protagonist dismisses it. Not to mention the fact that each possibility tells us more about the protagonist’s backstory, and gives us insight into how she sees the world.

Let me give you a perfect example. This is from Eleanor Brown’s captivating new book, The Weird Sisters:

She remembered one of her boyfriends asking, offhandedly, how many books she read in a year. “A few hundred,” she said.

“How do you find the time?” he asked, gobsmacked.

She narrowed her eyes and considered the array of potential answers in front of her. Because I don’t spend hours flipping through cable complaining there’s nothing on? Because my entire Sunday is not eaten up with pre-game, in-game, and post game talking heads? Because I do not spend every night drinking overpriced beer and engaging in dick-swinging contests with other financirati? Because when I am waiting in line, at the gym, on the train, eating lunch, I am not complaining about the wait/staring into space/admiring myself in available reflective surfaces? I am reading!

“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging.

Need I say more?

What about your characters? What intriguing facts have they tearfully coughed up when you’ve backed them into a corner, refusing to let them get away with, “I don’t know”?