From a writer’s perspective, all story has the same basic purpose: I have something I want to tell you. The problem is, you might be busy, or uninterested, or having fun doing something reprehensible (don’t pretend you wouldn’t).
So, first I need to get your attention.
So, first I need to get your attention.
I could just shout, “Hey! Listen to me!” but as we all know from late night journeys on the subway/tube/metro, that just comes across as crazy (although it’s a handy way to collect spare change).
As human’s we develop techniques to catch people’s attentions: Listen, we have to talk or the equally ominous I’ve got something to tell you, or the ever popular You’ll never guess what happened today...
That’s the basic, entry level approach. But we also learn the: So, I got to work this morning and I found a message that Larry wanted to see me in his office, immediately...
What I’m trying to say is I’ve been fired, but I start well before that happens in an attempt to manage the emotions of the person I’m telling. I want to break the news gently. I want it to appear not to be my fault. I want the person I’m telling to be sympathetic. So I rig the story in my favour. This is the essence of storytelling, to be aware of the impact of what you’re saying and taking it into account structurally. Depending on how I start the story the person I’m telling will have different emotional responses.
But underpinning all of these approaches is the innate (and often unconscious) understanding that the person on the receiving end is going to want to know what you want to tell them if you tee it up the right way.
At the beginning of the story there is the question. In macro terms the question is What happened? and eventually that will become apparent, but on the micro level every part of the story is also a question, that question being, And then?
Anecdote, the kind we share with each other on a daily basis, has the structure of this happened and then this which led to that... but if each step in that process is obvious it loses its power to keep the reader interested.
I went to the fridge and opened it and took out the pasta and ate it.
This follows the story structure, but does not fulfil the minimum requirements. It’s boring.
I went to the fridge and opened it and took out a pair of frosty underpants and put them on.
The unexpected helps raise interest levels, but this is still NOT the way to hook a reader into the story. Because: I went to the fridge and opened it.... is the set up and it is too straightforward. Even though it could lead to something unusual (the ice-pants) there’s no way to know that, it doesn’t present itself as interesting in the first part, and you have to get through the first part to get to the second part, so the first part has to have the hook in it. The question has to make you want to know the answer.
In order to keep momentum rolling within a story you have to pose a question the reader wants to know the answer to. Not one they’ll appreciate once they get the answer.
However, just because one interesting question hooks the reader, does not mean six questions will hook them even better, you also have to provide answers.
Harold woke. It was 3AM according to the alarm clock. He slipped out of bed, careful not to wake Megan, and crept downstairs.
So, the question here is what is he up to. He could just be getting a glass of water, and then go back to bed. If I did that, in beautiful prose of course, it would not only kill any curiosity, it would probably also make the reader not care about any further story questions raised. It has to be something interesting.
He stopped by the coat rack and slipped on Megan’s boots. They were a tight fit.
I could easily keep it a mystery and have him do all sorts of inexplicable things.
He tottered through the kitchen and opened the back door, slipping into the garden as quietly as possible. Ten minutes later he came back in, locked the door, put the boots back, and went back to bed.
Obviously things would be explained later, but so far this isn’t a very satisfactory story. If you were telling this story to someone face to face, they would undoubtedly stop to ask you questions. And you could insist to them that it would all become clear, but they wouldn’t care, they would just become irritated with you.
For maximum effect you want to pose a question and provide an answer in the same scene. That does NOT mean the answer you provide has to be the answer to the question you just posed. It can be an answer to another question entirely, but that rhythm of finding out one thing while becoming curious about another creates a snowball effect. Bear in mind you can ask more than one question at a time, and answers themselves can also lead to more question.
If the story above took our man into the garden in his wife’s shoes, and then he went over the garden fence into the neighbour’s garden and stamped around in the mud outside the neighbour’s window leaving clear boot prints and getting the boots muddy before returning to bed, even though it still isn’t clear why he’s doing that, the fact you can see what he’s doing, that his actions are deliberate, that he has a purpose, that is enough of an answers in the short term.
It is tempting to leave things open ended in an attempt to engender greater levels of curiosity, but there is a plateau effect, so you can’t just keep piling on mystery after enigma after secret. But if you need the reader to hold on a little longer before getting the answer to the big question, you can stop them cutting their losses and bailing by giving them an answer to one of the little questions you posed along the way.
As long as the reader feels they know more than when they started (even if they have more questions) then they’ll stay engaged with the story as a whole.
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