Thursday, 11 April 2013

Just Get On With The Story?

If you ask a reader whether they want answers immediately, or do they want to wait a while, chances are they’ll want to know right now.

But that doesn’t mean you should give them what they want.

They might complain if you seem to be taking too long getting to it, but the more you build up the tension and suspense, the higher you raise the stakes, the more they'll enjoy the journey.

But human existence is all about knowing what’s best for you and not doing it. Or knowing what you shouldn’t do and doing it anyway.

We can’t help ourselves. 

How you delay the reveal, though, is not as straightforward as just holding back information or inserting a subplot. If it’s too obvious you’re adding elements purely to slow things down it’s going to feel like padding.

In order to make the story feel like a cohesive whole it’s important to make the separate elements all work together. No matter what a character decides to do it has to feel like it's part of the same story. 

One way to do that is mention up front something that will happen later, or foreshadow.

So, if George is on a quest to liberate the Holy Grail from a well defended castle and on the way someone asks him for help with a rogue dragon terrorising a village, you can make that feel less arbitrary to the reader by having some discussion earlier concerning the dragon situation, or even start the story with George having to deal with a pesky lizard.

Even if you don’t think of the dragon subplot until halfway through writing the story, going back and inserting the seeds earlier is worth doing.

In addition, if George goes off and sorts out the dragon problem and then comes back to the Grail storyline in exactly the same place as he left it, then it’s going to feel like you stopped one story to start another.

However, if something happens during the dragon subplot that changes the way George approaches the Grail storyline, then you're still moving the main story forward.

What you have to be careful of is knowing that the separate storylines are going to come together but not letting the reader know. It may seem fine that they'll figure it out eventually, and what a wonderful surprise it will be for them, but it's important to give the story a sense of cohesion.

So it's better to have George suspect there's a connection between the dragons and the castle early on than it is to just suddenly reveal it at the end of the story. 

That's not to say you can't have surprises, but going off in different directions and then suddenly realising everything's connected all at once will make the story seem contrived. 

Avoiding that feeling can be as simple as having a character voice their suspicions or make a connection that doesn't provide answers, but just brings the possibilities to light. It will make for a more satisfying read.

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21 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good point! It all has to weave together and further the storyline. Even if it sends it in a slightly different direction.

mooderino said...

@Alex - the hard part is making it seamless. The best stories make it look obvious and surprising at the same time (no idea how they do that).

T. Drecker said...

So true! There's nothing worse than a story where the hints/mysteries are forced. And when it flows, the story is amazing :)

Travis Erwin said...

Solid advice. Sending a tweet in your honor.

mooderino said...

@T. Drecker - when it all comes together naturally it can make a real impression on the reader.

@Travis - many thanks.

Elise Fallson said...

What's frustrating is when a story spends a lot of time building tension and raising the stakes, only to have the big reveal be--meh.

anothercleanslate said...

I guess this is why everyone isn't a successful writer!

Geoff_Livingston said...

The better the tension, the more worthwhile the ride...

Patricia Stoltey said...

There are definitely lots of reasons to slow down the pace in our novels regardless of genre. A non-stop tension, edge of the seat story can feel exhausting to the reader.

Botanist said...

And this is why, even though the eventual story has a start, a middle, and an end, the process of writing the story is so often anything but linear. The trick is to smooth it all out and hide the backtracking along the way.

Lynda R Young said...

When I read, I live for those ah-ha! moments... so I don't mind waiting as long as the wait is worth it (not easy to write though hehehe)

Heidi Mannan said...

I love the wait. It definitely makes the reveal better.

mooderino said...

@Elise - no technique can ever fix bad execution.

@Another - there are probably some other reasons too.

@Geoff - tension is key.

@Patricia - knowing when to ease back is also important.

@Botanist - it's a hard thing to learn from other stories if the writer's done his job properly.

@Lynda - it's when the pay-off isn't worth the wait that books go flying across the room.

@Heidi - I've been burned a few times, so I get a bit antsy if the wait's too long with no signs it's going anywhere.

J Keith said...

I had been wondering about the direction and necessity of my subplots. Your post helped me figure out which ones I needed to keep and how to integrate them more fully with the main plot and which to let go.

J Keith said...

Also, tweeted the post

John Wiswell said...

So long as you're giving the audience other things to enjoy, some other sorts of payoffs and crumbs, then the answers can wait. Of course they want them, though if those are the only desirable elements in the story, then you're in a real pickle.

John at The Bathroom Monologues

Janeal Falor said...

I agree that tension is key. As a reader, I hate not getting answers. But if the story is moving and keeping me in it, I don't even notice.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I too like Lynda wait for the Ah-ha moments in the stories I am reading. These are extremely difficult to write.

sassyspeaks said...

You're so right and that part is one of the hardest for me to write. However I'm in the middle of a screen writing class now and studying the formula so that nothing is left out. I should work for novels as well. It's very exciting and inspiring too !

mooderino said...

@J Keith - glad i helped. And thanks for the RT.

@John - if you can keep things rocking i think you can go off for a limited time.

@Janeal - if you've got the reader engaged you have to screw up pretty bad to lost them.

@Rachna - sometimes it never comes (especially in short stories).

@sassy - screenplays help with focus, but one of the joys of novels is the extra space to explore. It's a hard thing to balance.

Angie said...

Thanks for the awesome reminder. I have to admit that I HATE waiting for answers and I am one of those impatient readers that skips pages to find the answers. Sometimes the answers do not come soon enough!! I think there is a balance in leaving too many questions hanging (like LOST) and then giving away answers like free samples at Costco. Perhaps it is part of the art? The craft? Knowing how much to hold back and how much to reveal?? Love your blog!

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