Recently I touched on the importance of making a good first sentence, and a compelling opening scene. The focus of that was to provide the gravity to pull in a new reader or persuade an editor to put your manuscript in the “to be read later” pile. That’s all very important, but what happens when that editor or that reader finally get around to reading the next fifty pages?
Mysteries Aren’t Just For Thrillers
I consider writing a book similar to coaxing a wild animal into a cage with bits of food. You put the food down on the ground in a line to the cage. Or if you prefer, and have seen the movie ET, you’re trying to lure an alien with Reeses Pieces. The problem is that you have a limited amount of candy, so the question becomes how far can you space the placement of food and not lose ET prior to getting him to the shed?
A great opening to a story is like offering a nice bit of candy. People taste it, like it, and hope for more. If you give them another, they will stand where they are and eat it, but you don’t want that, you want them to move. Besides, after too much candy, they will get full and no longer want to eat. So instead of giving them a second, being that they are humans and not a squirrel or rabbit, you can promise them one—if only they will go over there.
The fireworks at the start of a story catches a reader’s attention. Mentally they might think, “Okay, that wasn’t bad, I’ll give this writer a few more pages now and see if they can maintain my interest. You now have sort of a loan of time with which to build an interest. The investor is still very skeptical however, so you’d better show them something soon.
As I said another bit of candy won’t work so well, you need something more substantive. The best, I feel, is an interesting question or compelling proposition. In a mystery story, it would be the puzzle that the client tells to the sleuth—the mystery.
“My husband died while trying a Houdini escape from a submerged, sealed cement block wrapped in chains.”
“That’s unfortunate, but why are you seeking my help?”
“You don’t understand. He was shot to death. Five bullets, and no gun was found.”
After reading that, you want to know the answer. You want to find out how this is possible. You’ll go looking for that next Reeses Pieces.
Only that can’t be the whole thing. If the answer to that one question is the sum of your story, it is like spacing the candy too far apart. If I have to wade through three hundred pages for just that last treat, I’ll get bored and stop. So you need to add more treats.
If you reveal that the man was shot before entering the box, but then discover that the man in the cement box wasn’t actually the woman’s husband, you have allowed the reader to have their Reeses Pieces, but then promised them another. This end-to-end reward and promise method works well to move a reader much the way Spiderman swings through a city, shooting one web while swinging from another. Still I find it too simplistic. An extra layer or two can really help make the story richer and the need to turn the pages that much more intense. So running several mysteries at once, staggering their paths of reward and promise differently than the first ensures that the reader stays riveted. If done well, there will be short-term puzzles, longer questions, and story (or series) length mysteries. Each one working as a sail to catch the wind of a reader’s interest and move them forward.
In addition to the mystery, you’ll need conflict. Most stories are all about conflict. The protagonist has a goal, and the antagonist is in the way of that causing conflict. This is possibly the most basic definition of a plot. Without it, you don’t have much of a story. I’ve actually read pieces that lacked conflict, short fiction mainly where events happen, and a character reacts, but there is no dispute, no struggle, and the writing simply ends at some point.
My rule for determining if you have a plot or not is to see if you can describe the story without describing the events that make it up. If you can say, “It’s about Bob, who is desperate for money so he robs a bank.” That’s a story. If on the other hand your description is, “Bob has a hard life and I reveal that over the course of the story,” and feel that doesn’t really describe the story without explaining the events…that’s not a story, that’s a detailed character workup. Or if you say, “It’s about a world where they have suddenly lost the use of electricity.” While this has an implied conflict of Man Against Nature, it isn’t so much a story as it is a setting for a story.
This said, there are many books on the market that according to this breakdown would not classify as stories, which are very successful, so clearly this isn’t always a problem. I would venture to guess that stories with plots are more commercially successful, where as those without tend to be more critically acclaimed. I’ve actually heard rumors that lit professors denounce plots as inconsequential and annoying as they merely get in the way of the important aspects of a book which are theme, symbols, meaning, etc.
Conflict between characters will also generate a desire to read. Hatred for an antagonist can turn pages just as effectively as concern for a protagonist. In recent years there has been a resurgence of authors killing their protagonists and letting the antagonists win. This can result in readers throwing books, or in the case of The Princess Bride: “You mean he wins? Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?” On the other hand, a hero that wins the day, is a bit like a spoiler.
No matter how you chose to do it, conflict should be a large aspect of your story if you want to keep the reader reading.
Tension and Suspense
If Mystery is the cerebral part of this equation and Conflict is the physical aspect, then Tension is between the two. Tension is created when the two conflicted elements enter into the same proximity. Nothing has to happen, it is often best when nothing does, but the tension it causes will rivet the reader. This is derived from the conflict and can help keep the reader’s attention even when nothing is really happening, or can’t happen.
Suspense is lengthening an exciting scene, building emotion. The enemy draws near, the clock ticks, just seconds are left, but in the narrative those moments will take three pages to complete. And a reader will read every word, and ignore phone calls, dinner and sleep to finish them.
Using each of these elements, Mystery, Conflict, Tension and Suspense and layering them like shingles so that they overlap leaving no gaps where something is not nagging at the reader to turn the next page, is how, as a writer, you keep your reader with you, how you get ET into the shed. No matter what your theme, genre, or how profound your message, if you can’t entertain well enough to cause your audience to finish your work, nothing else matters—you need to give your readers a reason to read.
Next week: Voice