The Zen Koan: Using Zen Thinking to Deepen Your Stories

In Zen Buddhism, the object is to circumvent our usual habits of thinking logically and try to access a deeper form of truth. In the Rinzai branch of Zen, puzzling statements known as koans are used to challenge a student's traditional way of thinking. Examples of zen koans are "what is the sound of one hand clapping?" "if a tree falls in an empty forest, does it make a sound?" and "what does your original face look like?" The questions are mysterious, baffling, and often frustrating because they have no logical answer. A lot of the time, some of the best and most haunting short stories arouse the same emotions in us, because they use a similar technique.

Short stories are at their best when they defy logic just a little bit. When they leave a question hovering in the air, unanswered, but haunting. Zen masters purposefully provoke their students into frustration by asking these questions and saying that every possible answer the student comes up with is wrong. Finally the student stops giving clever, rational answers and bursts out, "I don't know!" or gives some similar emotional response. It is this emotional response the master is looking for, a crucial first step to connecting with the question on a deeper level. In your writing, leave a little to the imagination. The stories that stick with us are the ones that leave us asking questions. Why did that character behave that way? Did he really have to do that? Why didn't she ask him what had happened? etc. etc.

The zen koan is a good metaphor for making your stories more emotionally satisfying, rather than logically so. Many fledgling writers feel that they have to explain everything that happens in the story. They must explain every character's motivation and why this happens when. While it's good to show motivations, let the reader do the work of figuring it all out. Don't explain everything, and better yet, leave some thing ambiguous. If there is a mystery hovering at the end of your story, or if the story could be interpreted in two different ways, it adds great depth. It will keep your reader invested in the story and wondering. So don't be afraid to leave some things to the imagination, or to build two possible interpretations into the story. It will leave an air of mystery hovering in the air long after the story has finished.

Blair Hurley is a creative writing student at Princeton University. She writes the blog Creative Writing Corner, which offers daily writing exercises, how-to's, and thoughts on the writing life.


  • excellent. Right now we have millions who don't even want to read. How can you get them to solve a puzzle if they can't even look at the blocks? (change of subject)

  • Cookie,I believe you're not giving readers enough credit. I write a lot of poetry. As important as not hitting the reader over the head is in fiction, in poetry, where everything is abbreviated, it's even more so.

    As to hitting the reader over the head in fiction -- well, as a fiction writer, I enjoy knowing all about the back story, but it doesn't have to make its way into my novels, or if it does, it may be a single line.