Gluing the Reader to the Page
An article first published nearly six years ago, the principles of which still apply:
A working piece of fiction has to attract attention and hold it.
The things that we have been accustomed to calling ‘characters’ must actually be convincing ‘attention-gatherers’ to be considered to be well-crafted (as described in more detail in How Stories Really Work). Then your plot must contain mechanisms, based on the questions ‘What will happen next?’, ‘What is really going on?’ and What is the right decision to make?’ which grip and hold that same attention, once you’ve grabbed it.
The only way you can really go wrong as a fiction writer, if you have the above in place, is to trip your reader up by injecting some unforeseen and unnecessary obstacle or inessential information, especially when things pick up pace.
Convention says that there must be some kind of logic to what happens, and your readers must be ‘anchored’ in some way to avoid confusion. ‘They will be too distracted if the complicated plotline becomes so complex that they lose track of it,’ says a little voice in your head. The novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell does this -just as you think you’ve grasped how things are going to resolve, another new idea or tangential plotline is introduced. Author Susannah Clarke pulls it off because her finale is grand and gripping; some writers don’t quite manage a successful ending. It’s not because they’ve been ‘illogical’ or held our hands too little; it’s not that they haven’t managed the story at the right pace so that we can appreciate what is going on.
It’s because they didn’t glue us to the page (or screen) regardless.
If we’re on a bus-top tour of London, we may not want the bus travelling so fast that we miss half of the sights -but we certainly do not want it to wait for ages at a stop. Motion, movement, flow, action, is what readers want, even if it’s all subjective.
In his Bond novels, Ian Fleming demonstrated a control of the technique, as in this short excerpt from Doctor No:
It was six-seventeen. With a squeal of tyres, a dingy motor hearse with black plumes flying from the four corners of its roof took the T-intersection into Richmond Road and shot down towards the group on the pavement. The three men had just had time to pick up Strangways's body when the hearse slid to a stop abreast of them. The double doors at the back were open. So was the plain deal coffin inside. The three men manhandled the body through the doors and into the coffin. They climbed in. The lid was put on and the doors pulled shut.
In the eight sentences above, the majority are short; there are scarcely any adjectives or descriptions to slow pace; the structure of each sentence is simple, and the action is precise. Fleming doesn't have to describe every movement in much detail to convey a complete sense of what’s happening nor to maintain tension -in fact, it is precisely this which keeps the drama going. We don’t need to know more than this to be gripped -in fact, more than this and we start to let go and drift.
Each part of the action is mentioned; nothing is left hanging. In action sequences, the reader needs to know the steps taken, one at a time. But the reader needs to be made to take the steps.
Suspense is not just a matter of having someone suddenly leap out of a cupboard with a knife. It’s much more satisfying for the reader, and actually much more tense, if the writer has signalled to you in various ways that something dramatic is going to happen at any moment and then it doesn’t happen yet. A sign of a great writer is for the suspense and tension to ebb and flow rhythmically, so that, perhaps just as the reader has been lulled into a quieter mood, something suddenly happens, or, at the peak of tension, there is a moment of humour skilfully handled so as not to disperse the suspense.
Foreshadowing is one technique for this -the presentation of subtle ‘omens’ or precursors to actual tragedies, like the narrator’s opening greeting in Charles Dickens’ The Signalman, an innocent greeting which later has a chilling significance.
There’s even ‘comic foreshadowing’ in which an incident or event is suddenly brought freshly to the reader’s mind long after it would have been assumed that it was forgotten, which gets a laugh at an appropriate moment. That’s how many jokes work.
You can probably think of dozens of examples, from early dialogue mentioning death in tragedies to initial jokes about marriage in comedies, all clues for the reader about what is to come, absorbed consciously or not and all part of the rhythm that the successful writer is beating out with every word, every sentence, every paragraph.
Don’t tell the reader too much: keep him or her glued to the page.
A reader who lacks knowledge is more likely to read on; a reader who knows more than is needed is going to wander away.