Tuesday, 26 April 2011

How to make your story unputdownable


They say that love grows in the space between desire and satisfaction. While this may or may not be the case it's certainly true that to create narrative drive requires something very like the adage I quote above. Cultivating desire in the reader to keep on reading despite other demands on their time relies on a pattern of desire-delay-deliver - promise the reader something they want, delay the delivery of it, then deliver it – hopefully in a surprising and revealing way. If you can give your reader desire, anticipation and satisfaction in that order then I'm already buying your book, along with millions of others.

Here are some techniques for achieving just that.

Suspense

Suspense differs slightly from the desire-delay-deliver pattern as the implied event may not itself be desirable (although this doesn't mean the anticipation of it won't be enjoyable – think scary movies). It's usually associated with more negative feelings – anxiety, uncertainty and apprehension - but the pattern to deliver that propulsive effect is the same – an event is implied, the resolution of that event is delayed, then the event is delivered. The key is the anticipation of the event, and it's the delay in resolving it that creates the narrative drive. All of the techniques described below can be used to create it.

Voice

The reader needs to feel confident that you know what you're doing. If they don't think you've got what it takes to tell the story in a compelling and interesting way they're going to put your book down and go watch The Wire instead. So how do you convince them you know what you're doing? Simple - by actually knowing what you're doing.

Having a confident writing voice means being confident in your writing, and being confident in your writing is exactly the same as being confident in anything else – you need experience, skill and knowledge – experience of storytelling, skill in craft and technique, and knowledge of your subject/story. So go get some.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony is when the reader/viewer knows something the characters don't and is a very effective way of creating an anticipated event. If the reader knows that the serial killer is under the heroine's bed then that creates an expected event in the readers mind - the fulfilment of that situation is then desired by the reader and they read on to find out what it is. Although a fulfilment event is implied - and perhaps the reader will invent one of their own – there's no real certainty in how it will be resolved and reading on is the only way to find out.

Foretelling

Foretelling is where you actually tell the reader what's going to happen, either through narration, delivering events in reverse time order, prologue, character premonition or whatever. This is more explicit than dramatic irony, and care must be taken not to sap all anticipation by giving too much away. The key is to make the foretelling a promise of fulfilment, rather than the actual fulfilment itself. She tells you you're not getting your booty on the first date, but you'll get it on the third - you're gonna show, right?

Foreshadowing – a technique worthy of it's own post which I will attend to – is a far more subtle technique than foretelling. It is often used as preparation to make later events more credible but it can also be used to create an anticipatory effect. Watch this space for more discussion.

Crisis

A crisis in the story will imply dramatic events and can also be used to create suspense. I leap from a plane pulling my parachute cord and it fails to open. Dang. Implied event(s). I walk home from the bank with my life savings in a bag when 3 guys step from the shadows wielding knives. Dang. Implied event(s). I get home from work to find the wife in bed with the milkman. Double dang. Implied event(s). You get the picture. Once the event(s) are implied, the next thing is to delay the delivery of them.

Goal

A classic technique for creating narrative propulsion. By creating an empathic character who has a stated goal (which the reader will then desire for the character) – throwing obstacles in the characters way to prevent him getting that goal (delay) – then giving him that goal (fulfilment).

The anticipation of something can be more exquisite than the actual acquisition of it and this is essentially what all compelling narrative boils down to. Desire-delay-deliver. Let's get on with it.

Have I missed something? Would love to hear of any other techniques for creating compelling narrative.

8 comments:

  1. Good post, James. These are important elements you've brought to our attention. All of them make for a stronger story and I'll be looking for your post on Foretelling.

    I've just posted a review of Chris Vogler's 'The Writer's Journey' on my new author's site. His book has been my road map. If you have time I'd love to have you stop by.

    Cheers,
    ~rahma

    ReplyDelete
  2. Excellent post. I'd add compelling characters - if the MC is charismatic and fascinating, then I'll follow them happily, even if the plot or pacing is a bit weak.

    ReplyDelete
  3. The wife is in bed with the milkman? She doesn't live in London, then. Can't remember when I last saw a milkman.

    What about reaching a moment of tension, then switching to another set of characters? Best done at the end of a chapter.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Excellent post :) I would add plot, an interesting plot.

    And as a conclusion, "don't bore the readers" :D

    Thank you for the very interesting tips

    ReplyDelete
  5. @Rahma - one of my favourite writing books - will definitely pop round and have a look. Thanks for commenting.

    @Girl Friday - thanks for your post and your award! Appreciate your continued support and recommendation - it means a lot. Your point about an interesting protag is a good one, and you've reminded me that I did intend to have a section on pace in this post too which I forgot about. I'll have to save that for another day now.

    @Lexi - yeah, milkmen - a dying breed - you can still find them if you hunt them out. You make a very good point about switching to another storyline at a point of tension. I have found that frustrating in some books, but it's certainly an effective way of delaying a pay-off. How's Replica doing?

    @Jacqvern - hello there and welcome to the blog. Thank you so much for commenting. I hope you find some other stuff here that's useful to you. Yep, boring the reader is a definite no-no and an interesting plot is the bottom-line I think.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great post, James. I've just tweeted it. :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thanks, Heather - you're a star.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Excellent post James! Nice delivery. Bookmarked and tweeted :)

    Looking forward to the post on foreshadowing.

    ReplyDelete