Everyone agrees that if you want to write a good story, one that will attract and hold a reader’s attention, you have to give him or her a reason to keep turning the pages of your book. But what does this mean in terms of the craft? How does a writer do this? While I am no bestselling author, I’ve learned a few tricks over the years, and they seem to serve the purpose.
Don’t Tell All You Know
First, resist the urge to explain everything. Oh, you don’t want to make every detail and piece of action so obscure and mysterious that the reader is left confused and annoyed. But the writer shouldn’t feel compelled to tell all that he or she knows at the time of writing. Readers participate in a story because they want to find out what’s going on and what will happen next—that is the essence of storytelling. To offer some elements that are described and explained in detail, while others are left to be questioned, presumed, or imagined, is the power that the author, who is the owner of the story, has over the reader, who is its discoverer.
This applies ever if you are not writing a mystery or spy story, where the heart of the plot is a big secret. Who committed the murder? Who stole the secret formula? In most novels, there is no aha! surprise to be explained at the end by a detective who is smarter than everyone else in the room. But in every story there still exists a secret to be learned. What has really happened? Why is this important? And what will happen next?
The author’s focus—his or her power of description and explanation at this point in the text—is like a searchlight probing a darkened landscape, or like a thief’s flashlight exploring a darkened room. In the reader’s mind, at the start of the story, there is only darkness. The writer should then choose, illuminate, and explain only those things that serve one of two purposes. The first is to reveal character and establish setting. The second is to advance the plot.
If it’s important for the reader to have a mental image of the character, then those details should be brought forward. For example, in my novel ME, Too: Loose in the Network, one of the main characters is described as being a tall, thin woman with short, blonde hair. These details become important when she is required to alter her appearance to impersonate someone else, and then the resulting confusion in her identity becomes the basis for a wrongful death. As a writer, I will generally throw in extra details like the shape of her face or the color of her eyes just to round out the image and not focus too narrowly on the important descriptives. But it is not necessary to explain at any point that the character has two arms and two legs unless losing one or the other might become a plot element.
Similarly, it helps to describe the story as being set in a particular place, say, Rome. And there the choice of what to describe—a famous landmark, or a favorite trattoria, or simply a crumbling wall—should help focus the reader’s attention on what the character on site would happen notice and find interesting. If describing the interior of a character’s home, the details should establish the person socially, economically, or in some other dimension. Are the furnishings gaudy and expensive, or old and threadbare? Each of the details, like each of the book’s subordinate characters, must work to earn their place in the story. And just as it’s not necessary to say the character has two arms, it is wasted words to say the action takes place on Earth—unless, of course, the possibility of going somewhere else is going to become a plot point.
Plant a Curiosity Bomb
The second use of the writer’s focus—as a device for advancing the plot—can be used to establish the elements of mystery and wonder that will keep the reader turning pages. For example, in describing the threadbare room in a poor character’s house, the writer might leave in plain sight a piece of jewelry or a recognizable work of art. To fuss over it at that point in the story—to an extent that would require an explanation of why it’s there—might satisfy the reader’s immediate curiosity. But isn’t it better to show the reader an anomaly and then leave it unexplained? How the character acquired this valuable, what it means in his or her life, and how its existence or loss might affect the story—all of these possibilities need to stay alive and unanswered in the reader’s imagination. This creates a sense of anticipation and so an active participation in the story.
Of course, if the writer introduces such an anomaly, it must later be used and explained. The universe may be full of casual coincidences, but—to remain viable in the reader’s mind—a well-constructed story must close all of its loops. Otherwise, the reader will feel cheated and disappointed.
This is where the author must be a good and curious reader in his or her own reading for pleasure. Only by participating in stories as an active and observant reader can a person get a sense of what other readers will find dull and unimportant, or important enough for establishing character and place but not likely to be relevant to the plot, or so damned curious and unexplained that the reader just knows it’s going to be important later—but how and why?
An author working in a specialized field, like fantasy or science fiction, faces a particular challenge in this creative use of detail. For example, many things on a spaceship might need to be explained—or better yet, alluded to in a way that seems to explain them. Is the air filtered and recycled, or bottled and dispensed? On long journeys, where does the food come from, and where do the human wastes go? Food out of freeze-dried pouches, wastes evacuated into space? Or everything through a matter recycler? What is the propulsive power, and how is the reaction mass, if any, stored and handled? These issues can satisfy the reader’s curiosity about the setting—or whet the appetite if the intended audience is made up of techno-junky gearheads. Not all of these details, however, are intended to become plot points. But some, particularly faults in the air or propulsion systems, might well be. In that case the author needs to know enough technology, and explain it well enough for the lay reader, so that a loose wire or a leaky valve will attract and hold the reader’s attention. The rest can be used as camouflage which—like the color of the character’s eyes—will keep the important detail from standing out as too obvious.
For another example, in my novel The Children of Possibility, the mechanics of this story’s peculiar forms of time travel play a major part in the plot. Some of the details, like the energy source driving the ships, are merely interesting and support the reader’s technical understanding. Other details—particularly the open framework of the ships and how vulnerable the occupants are to any malfunction—later become crucial to the plot structure.
This matter of camouflage can also become the subject of precise calculation on the author’s part. How much detail should he or she give in any one scene? How much to make tantalizingly relevant? How much to leave for the simple processes of character revelation and place setting? The answer is going to be different for every author and every book, derived from an internal calculus based on the story’s pace and dynamics. And here again, a writer who is also an avid reader will have the best feel for the underlying formula. Camouflage is the landscape, the visible background, over which that searchlight beam wanders.
Break Up the Action
Another key to creating anticipation and suspense is to avoid telling the story in neat and complete sequences. Instead, the writer can break up the action by ending a scene or chapter before it’s fully resolved. Of course, it doesn’t work to break off randomly, between punches thrown in the middle of a fight, between shot fired and shot received, or between lines of dialogue in the middle of an argument—or rather, it doesn’t work to do this more than once … or twice. If the author uses this technique repeatedly, the reader will know that its purpose is just to tease his or her sense of the pace and timing.1 And then the game, from the reader’s point of view, will be revealed and the excitement ends.
The best way to break the action is to conceive it as a series of apparently resolved vignettes in the first place. Each piece of action feels whole and complete in itself but does not bring the whole course of the story to a satisfying conclusion. After the first break, the reader discovers there is something more to come. And each apparent conclusion brings the pleasant anticipation that the action is not over yet.
In the novel Sunflowers, the sequence of various harmless actions—minor workplace accidents and errors—which eventually lead to a devastating fire in a coal-washing plant are broken up and told in rapidly building order, interspersed with the mundane actions of the characters who will have to respond to the fire. Later in the book, the story of a terrorist attack on the engineering company which is designing a new solar-power project is told over the span of several chapters. The separate steps of the terrorists preparing weapons and escape routes, scouting the site, making the initial entry, and conducting each stage of the assault are interspersed with the mundane but interesting work of the engineers as they discuss challenges and resolve issues with the project—and then with the reactions of one of the attack’s survivors.
This technique works best, again, when the author does not tell everything he or she knows at every point. The author simply presents the action without explaining its purpose and the viewpoint character’s overriding motives. The reader follows the sequences and builds up in his or her own mind what exactly is happening and what will—must—come next.
To conduct this kind of sequential action—and to provide a reason for breaking off at key points—it helps to tell the story from the viewpoints of separate characters. This is one reason I favor writing each scene from a single character’s perspective, rather than jumping around from one person’s head and set of ears and eyeballs to another’s in the course of a single scene. By controlling the point of view, I can have one character approach a door in one scene and another character—unknown to the first—crouching behind it in the next scene. The reader is the only person who knows the complete action and so experiences both anticipation and tension as it builds.2
For this reason, I like to write books with more than one main character. In First Citizen, which is told in the first person, the narrative switches back and forth between Granny Corbin, who first trains as a lawyer, becomes an industrialist, then a military leader and politician, and the roughneck Billy Birdsong, who over the course of the story attaches to Corbin as his bodyguard and closest confidant. Another of my novels, the two-volume Coming of Age, revolves around two main characters—a construction executive, John Praxis, and the lawyer who sues him in the opening chapter, Antigone Wells—both of whom suffer life-threatening illnesses and receive cellular-regeneration treatments that cumulatively will extend their lives for another century. In essence, this is a story that follows an ensemble cast of their family members, where dominant characters arise, play their part, and fade away in each section. By cutting between one character’s point of view and another’s in any of this action, I can break the movement of these stories into as many pieces as needed.
Begin with a Prologue
One way to break up the action is to start the reader with a scene or group of scenes that falls outside of the main story. This fragment of action can provide a trigger or inciting cause that leads to the story in the book, as the action against Hoover Dam sets up the federal project to build a solar power plant in orbit in Sunflowers.
The prologue should not only establish the need for the story but give the reader a dash of action and suspense that may be missing in the book’s first couple of chapters. In getting the general action going, the author usually must provide background, character definition, and place setting—activities that are not always conducive to exciting action. In this case, the prologue is a promise that, bear with me, this thing will pick up speed and snap your head pretty soon.
Or the prologue may preview the denouement, the final outcome or unraveling, of the story’s main plot. I am attempting something like this in the sequel to Children, another novel of time travel tentatively titled The House at the Crossroads. The prologue is actually a kind of epilogue, the last piece of the action. But since this is time travel, and one character’s point of view is always going to be either behind or ahead of another’s, I can get away with it.
Besides, tricking the reader with a logical or interpretive puzzle—at least in science fiction—is no sin, or not in my technique. I believe that the sort of readers who enter here want to be challenged, pushed up on their toes or rocked back on their heels, and have their mettle tested. Everyone else can go read a Harlequin romance.
Reveal a New Problem
Finally, an alternative to breaking up a single piece of business, such as the story of an attack on an engineering office, into its separate and partially resolved stages, the author can use one piece of completed action to reveal and foreshadow a new problem that the characters must deal with in the next part of the book. This is not so much a new technique as just the basic premise of good storytelling, where one action leads organically to another.
I am having fun with this approach right now in The House at the Crossroads. This story traces the history of the time portal built into the Carrefour House hotel in London’s Seven Dials district in the first book. One set of characters comprises the young couple who will travel back in time from the eighth millennium to plant the seed that opens the time portal in an English country inn outside medieval London. Another group—the Jongleur Coel Rydin and his mechanical friend Cinquemain from the first book, The Children of Possibility—works to stop their venture and destroy the portal before it can be set in place. In each case, the action of one group precipitates a response and causes a new series of actions by the other. For example, just when the keepers of the house are prepared to travel to the fifteenth century, the destruction of their pathway into the past places them five hundred years earlier and on the other side of the continent. And so it goes, back and forth—or so I hope.
The point is that any story told in straightforward, linear order, from one point of view, with everything described and explained to the reader’s complete satisfaction the moment it occurs … is boring. The action may be exciting. The characters may be appealing. But nothing teases the reader’s imagination. Nothing is left to the reader’s interpretation and speculation, with the possibility of greater satisfaction or disappointment.
The best way to keep the reader turning pages is to make him or her wonder what’s going to happen next.
1. Too many television screenplays do this, and the breaks are always timed right before a commercial, to lure the audience back to the action. This kind of obvious sequencing gets tiresome.
2. This technique is, frankly, based on modern cinematic usage. I suppose that much of the way stories are now written could not have evolved if it were not for creative uses of the camera in film. Unlike stage plays—or the early Stanley Kubrick movies, with their extreme wide-angle shots—where all the actors move and interact at once in an open-sided room or space, the camera in a film can now follow one character and then another through the action. In its best uses, the camera can adopt the character’s internal viewpoint, cutting back and forth between the actor in the process of observing, and the action he or she is seeing, hearing, and—along with the audience—beginning to understand.