Tag Archives: curiosity

The Secret To Page-Turning Fiction

There is no actual secret to page-turning fiction — writing instructors, editors, top-selling authors all know precisely what makes readers devour a story, and many of them have shared what they know in books and blogs and writing conferences. So it’s no secret.

Still, I’m guessing the title of this post brought a few visitors who wanted to be let in on the secret. Or maybe they wanted to know if I know the same secret they know. 😉

The point is, the title created a level of curiosity — which is, in fact, the “secret” we’re talking about. Worded another way, suspense drives readers to turn the page.

All kinds of stories can have suspense, not just crime drama or action/adventure. As a device in fiction, suspense is simply that which teases readers into wanting to know more.

When the star player of the hometown baseball team comes up to bat in the ninth inning, behind by a run, one man on base, two outs, and the first pitch is a strike, fans — and readers — hold their breath. The next pitches are two balls, then another strike, evening the count at 2-2. The visiting team leaves their seats in the dugout to stand at the railing or on the steps, ready to spill out onto the field to celebrate. But the next pitch is a curve ball in the dirt, and the count is full. The pitcher has gone as far as he can. He starts his windup. The audience rises to their feet, their cheers reaching a crescendo . . . because they all want to know, will their star player come through and win the game, or will he strike out?

That little scenario above shows a couple things about suspense. First, there must be a real and believable expectation of success accompanied by an equal possibility of failure. If the home team had been behind by ten runs, fans wouldn’t really care if their star player came up to bat with one man on. No matter what he did, the team would still be behind. At the same time, having two strikes against him increases the plausibility of his failure.

Suspense also increases when the outcome matters. If the above was an inter-squad practice game during the preseason, the suspense would be much less than if it was game seven of the World Series.

Games, contests, arguments, elections, legal action, and so forth have a build in element of suspense — both (or all) parties can’t win. Somebody is going to walk away celebrating, and somebody is going to walk away sad.

But any unknown, not just a head-to-head battle, can create suspense. In the case of the losing team in our little example, did they walk away sad or suicidal or as sore losers, tearing up the locker room before they boarded the bus for the airport? Did the players blame the coach and look to get him fired? Did they turn on the pitcher who gave up the winning home run? Inquiring minds want to know, and will keep turning pages to find out.

The surefire way an author creates suspense, then, is to withhold information. It seems counter intuitive to writers who are starting out because our job is to tell the readers what’s happening, isn’t it? Yes, but not all at once. Some facts suggesting that there is more to come keep readers wondering, guessing, and most importantly, reading.

Suspense will not work, however, unless the important elements have been properly foreshadowed. Readers will not worry about the villain shooting the hero if he has no gun, so showing Mr. Bad Guy arming himself, introduces the possibility of a life-and-death struggle. Now readers want to know what’s going to happen with that gun.

Of course, it’s better to think outside the box and build suspense around something that readers haven’t encountered with great frequency. Predictability reduces suspense because readers, having recognized the situation, won’t have the same level of curiosity.

So, from page one of your manuscript, what questions are you creating in your readers’ minds?

Why is the protagonist despondent? Who is that woman he writes an email to every morning before going to work? Why does he delete it instead of sending it? Why did her boss fire her? Who can she trust? These are the kinds of questions writers should tease readers into asking as opposed to giving out the answers up front. When the answers do come — and they should — a new question should step into the gap. Then readers will keep turning those pages because they just have to know.

Oh, if you happen to be wondering about our star player and what he did with a 3-2 count in the bottom of the ninth, you can read a similar scenario in Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s poem “Casey at the Bat.” Enjoy. 😀

Advertisements

13 Comments

Filed under Suspense

Curiosity Versus Confusion

Some clarity creates curiosity; too little creates confusion

Some time ago I read an article in the Writer’s Digest by Steve Almond in which he stated what he considers to be the writers Hippocratic oath: “Never confuse the reader.”

Initially this seems to clash with much advice about backstory. Writers don’t need to put everything up front, we say, and readers are far more patient than we think. In fact, they enjoy being led into a story, enjoy figuring things out rather than having all handed to them.

In other words, one sign of an amateur is too much description, too much backstory at the beginning. But Almond’s article is saying that a sign of an amateur is to leave the reader in the dark.

Are these two points in opposition, as they appear to be? I don’t think so. I think there’s a huge difference between being confused and being curious. The best story piques a reader’s interest. I don’t think that will happen successfully if the writer gives too much information. Neither do I think it will happen if a reader is confused.

Like so much in life, there is a tenuous balance. What information should a writer give and what should he withhold?

Maybe one way to look at this topic is to consider what causes confusion. First, writers muddle readers with conflicting facts or details. If the master bedroom is on the right in chapter one, then it must also be on the right in chapter five. If the heroine is afraid of heights, then she shouldn’t volunteer to scale the ladder to retrieve the ball.

Confusion also results from improper motivation — when the reader isn’t given enough information to understand why a character is acting as he is. In the example above, the character may have a compelling motive for overcoming her fear to retrieve the ball, but it must be believable and compelling. “My dad will kill me if he sees that ball on the roof,” isn’t a good motive, unless in fact, the father is abusive and this has been clearly established by this point in the story.

Third, readers can be confused when the writer does not ground the story in the concrete. The following illustration is a variation of one Steve Almond gave in his article.

    He didn’t know why she said it, but more importantly why she said it about him.

Does this create confusion or curiosity? The answer to that question can only be determined by what comes next. If the reader doesn’t start getting some information (who is he, who is she, what’s the relationship between the two, what did she say, and why did she say it?) in the next paragraph, I suspect confusion may set in.

The author does not need to give all the answers, perhaps not even complete answers, and probably not answers without introducing new questions. But the point is, unanswered questions or long-delayed answers are a cause for confusion.

Finally, writers can baffle readers by putting something into a scene that has not been either foreshadowed or previously introduced.

If a character is confronted by villains on the right and another baddie on the left, even as the true antagonist closes in from behind, what’s the hero to do? Well, he’ll transport himself to another place using his magic power — the magic power the reader had no idea he possessed.

Above all, this kind of manipulation breaks the trust of the reader. He no longer feels confident that the author has told him all he needs to know.

But just how much should an author tell the reader? Almond’s answer to this dilemma is helpful:

The reader should know at least as much as your protagonist … [Readers] are happy to open with a scene, so long as they get the necessary background. And they don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

In other words, writers should deliver specifics on a need to know basis. 😀

Leave a comment

Filed under Backstory, Writing Rules

Let’s Talk Story, Part 3

Along with tension and suspense, stories should contain unpredictability. Readers often read simply because they want to know what happens. They want to satisfy their curiosity.

But what if the author has not created any curiosity? Well, chances are, those stories are still in manuscript form.

How then is curiosity created, especially because common wisdom says there are no new stories. I think the key to creating curiosity is surprise. The element of surprise can come in a number of places.

Characters can be surprising. Let’s take a romance, for instance. What if a married woman finds herself drawn to a secretive do-gooder while her relationship with her husband seems to grow colder and more distant by the day? What surprises could the characters hold? If you’ve read The Scarlet Pimpernel, you know the answer.

Some writers think they need to invent quirky, odd characters that haven’t been done before in order to surprise and avoid predictability. I think a greater challenge is to take the usual and make readers interested.

The movie Ever After did that with a retelling of Cinderella. The first surprise was the idea that the story wasn’t a story but history. The final twist was that Cinderella didn’t need to be rescued—she managed that on her own. But Prince Charming needed to overcome his prejudice against marrying a commoner. And he did! 😀

But more than characters can create curiosity and keep a story from being predictable. We’ll look at other elements next time.

Leave a comment

Filed under Story