You don’t make readers want to know what happens next by not telling them what’s happening now.
There’s a guy, he’s being chased by someone. We don’t know who, we don’t know why. Clearly he doesn’t want to be caught, but other than that everything is a mystery. So as the reader you’re going to keep reading to find out what’s going on, right?
Well, maybe if you have absolutely nothing else better to do. But for most of us, that implication that everything will become clear if we keep reading, and that it’ll be totally worth it, just doesn’t pay-off in most cases.
Because it’s easy to make it seem like there’s something amazing around the next corner. It’s much harder to actually have something amazing waiting there.
So how do you make it clear that the journey will be worthwhile, and at the same time not reveal too much and ruin the surprise?
First you have to realise that a hyperbolic claim, even if it’s true, will feel suspect. That suspicion could be totally wrong—makes no difference.
Then again, we all know from adverts and marketing that hype works, but you need certain things to make it so. Things like money, spamming, brand, name recognition, notoriety, reputation... basically a concerted effort to convince as many people as possible.
When it comes to engaging a reader’s interest in a story, making hyperbolic claims can certainly make a difference. If reviewers and blurbs from famous people are telling you it’s fantastic, that can be very convincing. But when you make the claim yourself, it probably won’t sway so many people.
If in a story a woman is being chased through the woods, and she’s desperate not to be caught and is desperately afraid of being caught and by God it’ll be terrible if she’s caught, then that’s just the author claiming his own story is exciting and dangerous. That’s a problem, since what writer isn’t going to claim that?
Where’s the evidence for these claims?
I know a great recipe for hot chocolate. This claim may or may not interest you. I might be telling the truth, but are you really in the market for another way to make hot chocolate?
I know a great recipe for hot chocolate like you’ve never tasted before. Now I’m being a bit more hyperbolic, but in a fairly standard manner like you might see in an advert. It’s so generic it ends up not really meaning anything.
I know a great recipe for hot chocolate like you’ve never tasted before. And you won’t believe the secret ingredient. Okay, now I’ve given you something specific. What separates this hot chocolate is “something special”. I still haven’t told you what it is though, and I could be bullshitting (The secret ingredient is love!), but it catches the attention a little more.
I know a great recipe for hot chocolate like you’ve never tasted before. And you won’t believe the secret ingredient that means no calories. That’s right, zero calories. My claims are still unsubstantiated and hyperbolic, but I’m specifying the area I’m dealing with. I know there are people interested in this area, but also there are those who are not. By narrowing the focus I make it more attractive to some, and at the same time, I give others an excuse to move on.
The fear for a lot of writers is if they reveal what the story is about people will realise they don’t care about that subject and stop reading. So the writer keeps things as vague and mysterious as possible under the delusion that once the reader gets far enough into a book, they’ll keep going no matter what.
But a crappy idea is crappy no matter where in the book it’s revealed. The only real reason to delay and delay and delay isn’t to intrigue the reader, it’s to give into the feeling of insecurity that it won’t be good enough, so don’t tell anyone. And the thing is it may well not be good enough. But the only way to find that out—and then fix it—is to put it out there and deal with the reaction.
I know a great recipe for hot chocolate that masks the effects of poison. You can kill someone over a delicious beverage and leave no evidence behind.
As long as you’re dealing with generic, familiar ideas, the only people you’ll attract are those who happen to be already interested in the subject. Fans of particular genres fall into this group.
It’s only when you move onto something people aren’t expecting that the premise becomes interesting to everyone, and knowing specifics makes you want to know more. In the example above, you still don’t know what’s in the chocolate, but now there’s a reason to find out.
A woman running through the woods from a serial killer who wants to kill her (as serial killers are wont to do) doesn’t seem a very gripping idea because it isn’t. Hiding who or what she’s running from doesn’t make it any more gripping. Emphasising how scared and desperate she is also doesn’t help. The only way to make it thrilling and enticing is to give her something truly horrifying to run from, and then tell the reader what it is from the outset.
Not knowing what’s going on doesn’t make the story interesting, although you can string people along for a bit. Knowing what’s going on doesn’t necessarily make things interesting either if what’s going on is familiar and predictable. Knowing what the situation is and making the reader curious about what the character is going to do about it is what keeps readers turning pages.
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