Stop! Don’t answer that. How to write a novel–part 29

I caspellbinderre deeply about my audience. I really do. I want everyone to live long lives, read all my titles, and tell their friends about them. The irony is that in order to develop such ties, I have to treat my readers with cruelty.

“Say whut?”

It’s true. My goal is to keep the poor dears up all night — reading. How does one do that? How do you work folks into such a state that they have little or no choice when it comes to turning the page? The answer is embarrassingly simple, and storytellers have been using the technique since they first heard about Cain and Able.

darn bookYou keep readers on the hook by building suspense, and you accomplish this by posing questions that never get answered, or at least not right away. In most cases, you don’t even have to pose the questions. Readers do it for you!

Anyone who’s ever been deeply *into* a story will recall wondering how in the world a character would survive whatever dire predicament the author plunged him or her into. Really good writers can amp this way up. Some readers seriously agonize over what happens to fictional characters. That calls for exceptionally good writing. But it also calls for smart plotting. Good writers give themselves ample opportunities to change scenes, point of view characters, and pacing.

For some reason, however, many beginning writers completely miss what eventually becomes obvious: if you tell your reader everything right away, you’ll have nothing left to tell. Stories grow shorter as deeper secrets are revealed and more questions are answered. Why that should come as a revelation to some has always puzzled me.

Group of scared people watching movie in a theaterSo, don’t do it ’til you have to!

Let’s say you’ve opened your story with something as innocent as the delivery of an unexpected letter or parcel. The immediate questions, of course, are what’s in it, and who sent it. These two questions, at the very least, must NOT be answered! Why ruin a perfectly lovely bit of suspense when you can stretch it out for a page, a scene, a chapter or more? Be content with making the object in question more mysterious. What can you say about the delivery? How does your point of view character react? Is he surprised, agitated, angry, apprehensive, appalled? Does your heroine feign any knowledge of it, try to burn or bury it, send it back?

What you need to be looking for, of course, is motivation. Why does a particular player act the way they do? Once you’ve settled on something, or several things, you can go about the rest of the story knowing you’ll reveal what needs to be revealed in good time — and that would be when it suits you best. But that point is almost never right off the bat.

Next up: Feedback or Why you should never attend a critique armed.

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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2 Responses to Stop! Don’t answer that. How to write a novel–part 29

  1. Joan Page says:

    Josh, This makes so much sense to me. Thanks for saying in such a way that even I can understand and grasp it! (smile) Sincerely, your devoted student

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