Monday, January 12, 2009
But Why? When a Reader Asks Questions
When a reader sits down to read your manuscript (obviously once it's all been polished and reshaped into a rectangle box filled with yank-free toilet paper) they do so on the pretense of a good story.
However, the one way street we all so assume we're creating here. Listening to one of Peter's Pitch responses recently and also in a discussion I had last night with MG, it is clear that the act of reading is a one way experience certainly: the acceptance and absorption of story. However the total experience does not end with boredom, annoyance, tears, joy, or thrills.
There is a separate and entirely essential element: questioning.
Writers are constantly looking for ways to hook the reader, if it's not simply to get them to start reading, then it's to keep them reading, keep them thinking, keep them guessing. The easy genre for this to work in is mystery and crime: Who dunn'it, will the cops get the badguys? Will the detective rescue the heroine in time?
But, these are your standard quizzies - look closer, there are more important, more basic questions that pop up in a reader's head as you woo them with story. Questions whose answers - answered / ignored /alluded to but put off - may have a stronger bearing on whether or not the reader gives up.
In my latest attempt at a manuscript I've started very late in the plot's development. So much so that MG asked why would I do that, considering the important facets I was leaving behind and would therefore have to deal with in flashback - not a great dramatic tool (and remember we're trying to be dramatic to hold the reader's attention.
But then, I've taken the choice to unveil the flashback as a series of vignettes throughout the novel to force the reader into changing their view of a couple of characters. Let's hope that works.
In doing this what I'm essentially doing is making my reader have to deal with a lot of unexplained issues, background elements and character motivations that I may elude to but not wholeheartedly explain (for fear of giving the game away). I cannot, however, ignore the fact that as a reader reads, questions are raised, points of interest that they instinctively want dealt with so that they can file it and move on in the narrative.
If I avoid considering these questions, and then fail to answer them at the point in the narrative when the reader thinks of them, then I'm going annoy them. Certainly, I won't be deemed the authority on my own work and therefore why should the reader keep reading?
How many books have you read that failed to tie up certain niggling plot points - and you were happy about that? None. Because we want resolution, we want to know - it's the gossip in all of us, the need to understand the truth of the matter.
Same principle with those little questions, that wish for the author not to skip ahead while the reader is still dwelling on the brief mention of the dead mother, the lesbian who used to be friends with the protagonist, what kind of town the characters live in, how that character got from A to B.
If you can't consider these for yourself it may be worth asking your beta readers to write down questions that emerge in their head as they read your work - they may not all be relevant, or the same. You may specifically wish to hold back. But if you raise too many unanswered questions, you're not on a winning streak.