Order matters. Whether in science, math, or sentence structure, order matters. It also matters as a fiction technique–one often overlooked by writers.
Believe it or not, order matters in fiction because of how it affects the overarching goal of a novelist–to give the reader an emotional experience.
Writing instructor Randy Ingermanson explains this purpose of stories this way:
Your reader is reading your fiction because you provide him or her with a powerful emotional experience. If you’re writing a romance, you must create in your reader the illusion that she is falling in love herself. If you’re writing a thriller, you must create in your reader the illusion that he is in mortal danger and has only the tiniest chance of saving his life (and all of humanity). If you’re writing a fantasy, you must create in your reader the illusion that she is actually in another world where all is different and wonderful and magical. And so on for all the other genres.
If you fail to create these emotions in your reader, then you have failed. If you create these emotions in your reader, then you have succeeded. The better you create the desired emotional experience in your reader, the better your fiction. Perfection in writing comes when you have created the fullest possible emotional experience for your reader. (excerpt from “Writing the Perfect Scene” – emphasis mine)
In what way does “order” contribute to creating reader emotion? Primarily by allowing readers to experience emotion along with the characters.
Authors that overlook this principle of order at times show a character response before showing to what he or she is responding. Hence, the character might be expressing fear or joy and concern, but the reader is experiencing confusion. The reader is wondering, why is he reacting that way?
When the author pulls back the curtain and shows the reader what the character has already learned, there is no shared emotional experience–simply shared understanding. In short, the premature revelation of a response robs the reader of feeling what the character feels and turns the story into more of a cerebral rather than emotive exercise–at least if this reversal were carried all the way through the story.
I’ve been re-reading the Harry Potter books, paying closer attention to author J. K. Rowling’s craft. The world she created is so rich in detail, so believable, and yet I’ve felt strangely detached from the title character. I’ve speculated that perhaps this is because of the omniscient point of view which distances readers some from the character’s inmost thoughts and feelings, but I’ve also discovered that Rowling has a number of “reversals” in which she shows or tells a character’s emotion, then reveals what caused the reaction.
Often there is only a small delay before the reveal, but when the author shows or tells the reader the response before the cause, the reader no longer has an openness to his or her own emotions.
Here are a few examples from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:
“Don’t make us hurt you,” Harry said. “Get out of the way, Mr. Lovegood.”
“HARRY!” Hermoine screamed.
Figures on broomsticks were flying past the windows. (excerpt from p. 419)
– – –
“Have we come to the right place? Doby?”
He looked around. The little elf stood feet from him.
The elf swayed slightly, stars reflected in his wide, shining eyes. Together, he and Harry looked down at the silver hilt of the knife protruding from the elf’s heaving chest. (excerpt from p. 473)
– – –
Then he heard a terrible cry that pulled at his insides, that expressed agony of a kind neither flame nor curse could cause, and he stood up, swaying, more frightened than he had been that day, more frightened, perhaps, than he had been his whole life . . .
And Hermione was struggling to her feet in the wreckage, and three readheaded men were grouped on the ground where the wall had blasted apart. Harry grabbed Hermoine’s hand as they staggered and stumbled over stone and wood.
“No—no—no!” someone was shouting. “No! Fred! No!”
And Percy was shaking his brother, and Ron was kneeling beside them, and Fred’s eyes stared without seeing, the ghost of his last laugh still etched upon his face. (excerpt from p. 637)
In each of these examples, a character reacts slightly ahead of the reader learning to what they are responding. This reversal does not allow the reader to fully experience what the character experiences. The last example is most illustrative.
The young man who died in the scene was a minor character, but he had been standing near Ron, one of the central characters. First Harry comes out of the rubble caused by an explosion, then comes his close friend Hermione. Next are the lines recorded above. My first thought as a reader when the characters were reacting was, Oh, no, not Ron. When I learned at the end of the chapter that Fred had died, I actually felt relieved.
I doubt that was the emotional experience Ms. Rowling was going for at that point in the story. If she had shown the cause of grief, then given the reaction, I believe I would have entered into the emotions with the characters rather than standing apart and feeling something altogether different.