Keep the Reader Hungry... Or, Staple Their Eyes to the Page

Thursday, June 15, 2017
I've been struggling with the ending of my WIP. I already know my beginning needs to be completely overhauled (it's boring and doesn't engage and certainly doesn't hook the reader)... and now I'm thinking that if I can fix my lead, it'll result in my final pages getting polished to a high sheen.

I need to make sure my reader's hungry.

Recently I read this article by Lee Child on creating suspense/tension. I've been roaming through a forest of confusion--when it comes to the final part--and needed some guidance. Child wrote:

We need to bring the same simple principle to our books. Someone killed someone else: who? You’ll find out at the end of the book. Something weird is happening: what? You’ll find out at the end of the book. Something has to be stopped: how? You’ll find out at the end of the book... The basic narrative fuel is always the slow unveiling of the final answer.

I'm starting to understand that if I can create the whiff of a question in the first few pages, I can answer that question at the end... and keep the reader hungry until the very end.

photo by pixabay

This summer I'm teaching the class I have for the past five summers. It's an intense graduate class. The course teaches teachers to think of themselves as writers. It's all of June, all day and five days a week.

It's also a blast. 

Invariably, to prep for the class I reread some of my writing books to find articles and essays to share with the other teachers. Ralph Fletcher is always on the top of the stack.

Being self-centered (I'm-telling-myself-I'm-doing-research-for-others-but-in-reality-I'm-doing-it-for-me) I skimmed through the table of contents of Fletcher's What a Writer Needs until I found a section on tension. Fletcher writes:

This is such a fundamental expectation that while we read we are always on edge, slightly tense, awaiting the first sign of calamity. We actually get disappointed when events unfold smoothly: "Nothing is happening..."

Tension staples the reader's eyes to the page, and writers work hard to create it.

If I can craft a subtle question in the beginning of the story, it'll help me improve the ending. (After all, the middle was so easy to write. It practically wrote itself.)

And hopefully the reader's eyes will be stapled to the page the whole way...

If you're working on a manuscript, what kind of tension are you weaving into your story? Frustrated (and nosey) minds want to know...

Sioux is a writer, a teacher, a wife, a mother, a mother-in-law and a grammy. She's keeping her fingers crossed that a story of hers makes it over the final hurdle for the Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind of America. In her spare time (when she's not teaching or sleeping or fantasizing about sleeping) she reads voraciously and writes. To read more of her meanderings, check out her blog.


Margo Dill said...

Sioux, I like how you put a stapler there so that we can all imagine our eyes actually stapled to the page--oh wait, that is not the kind of tension you are probably talking about. :)

This is great. I have recently been helping two writers with romance novels and to one I said: There is no tension because they are basically together on page 20. And then to the other I said: We need some kind of deadline here to create tension. What could she be racing against?

Somehow, even in lighthearted books, there has to be tension or the reader gets bored.

Great post! (Also loved Fletcher when I was a teacher!)

Val said...

Who knew we should be wearing safety glasses when we read a real page-turner?

I hope you find the tension you're seeking in your WIP. I tend to err in the opposite direction, and put off the reveal to the very end, while clogging up the beginning with too much minutia and too many red herrings. Things are happening, but they are irrelevant.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Margo--I found some scary pictures of eyes actually propped open with toothpicks or stapled open... I didn't look too closely nor did I choose any of THOSE photographs... ;)

Val--Thanks for the good thoughts. My beginning is clogged. I know that. Hopefully I won't have to snake through the muck in order to improve my lead...

Mary Horner said...

Beginnings and endings are difficult, and tying them together is even more so! I recently read something about tension and it had a graph about where tension comes from, and was more effective if it came from more than one place, an interesting idea I need to keep in mind. Good luck, I know you'll find the right way to tell your story.

Sioux Roslawski said...

Mary--If it was an article or book title you could share, I'd love to read it. I'm struggling right now...

Mary Horner said...

I'll look, but not sure I remember. It seems like it was from an overdue library book, where I get all my information!

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