Monday, January 14, 2019

But There's More...

A part of the interaction between the reader and the story is the question/answer process. As the story builds and the plot develops, the reader should have questions bouncing around in their head. “Does he think he’s alone in the house?” “Is she his long-lost mother?” “Who left the fingerprints on the wine glass?” Questions by the reader are the natural result of suspense. However, the best answers don't resolve the suspense, they build on it.

The other weekend I had the opportunity to enjoy some curry with a bunch of writers, playwrights, actors/actresses, and other creative types. As we discussed life, creativity, and all things story-related, the subject came up about those questions in the readers minds. For those questions, it seems like there are two answers to choose from -- yes or no. If the answer is no, then the reader continues to think and engage, seeking some kind of resolution. If the answer is yes, the problem is solved but the suspense and drama dies down. Not a big list to choose from.

That list, however, leaves out the best answers.

As we drank our Irish coffees, we discussed the ideal answer to any reader inquiry, which boiled down to, "Yes, and..." or "Yes, but..." Similar to scientific discovery, the best answers should create more questions. A simple "yes" brings a sense of closure to that situation, and while the reader might be satisfied in bringing that story arc to its conclusion, it takes away that drive to continue reading just one more page, one more chapter.

Think about this: For anything we read, any play or movie we watch, we should have some form of engagement with the story. At any point, there should be at least one question in our head. If there isn't, then why are we going through the entire process of reading the book or watching the play? Our engagement should be one of discovery. We should feel invested; we should want to move and grow with the narrative and the characters. Even during the scenes that tie one act to the next, we still need to wonder what is going on. If there isn't, then why are we a part of this?

It may sound like an exaggeration, but as writers, we should want our reader to feel compelled to read our work from cover to cover in one sitting. The reader should be hooked, dragged in. They should never want to put it down. They should always be telling themselves, "I just want to see how they find their way to the 95th Street bridge, and then I'll go to sleep." Of course, two hours later, the characters are long past 95th Street but the reader is saying, "I'll just read until they remember where they left the briefcase." And so it goes.

This is asking a lot from any reader, but underneath it all, the principle is the same. We always want our readers to be engaged, and it is our responsibility to make sure a few unknowns still linger even when a major plot arc is concluded. When a chapter gives a big reveal, and the reader asks, "So she is his long-lost sister?", the answer should be, "Yes, but..." The reader has an answer, yet wants to go further.

Some writers might challenge the importance of this. They may ask, "Isn't this just teasing the reader? Can stories be written without relying on this technique? Wouldn't it be easier to tell the story without all these games?"

I will always answer, "Yes, but..."




3 comments:

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  2. The last trilogy that provided the type of suspense that kept me reading all night included Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant. I am not one who can stay up late usually. Not only did I finish the first one in the wee hours of the morning, but I started Insurgent immediately after I finished Divergent.

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    1. That's a diabolical use of tension -- ending one book with enough suspense to start another one

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