Friday, November 21, 2014

Teasing Your Reader

Today's question: "This one may sound silly, but I am curious. A while back you posted a Friday Tidbit about Teasing Your Reader and gave an example for beginning a story this way. My question is, does the same process apply, let's say, in the middle of the book, when all the characters and things are established? How do you compensate? What are some things to think about? In other words, how do you do it?"

Because I don't want to recover ground we've already covered, here is a link to the original "Tease Your Reader" post. I just re-read it to make certain I still agree with what I said back then. (I grow and change in my writing the same as the rest of you!) But I think it's still quite a good, valid point.

The basic premise is this: Your readers want certain things out of a story. Your job as the writer is to dangle the possibility of satisfaction in front of their faces but not to give it to them right away.

The original blog post focuses simply on the opening of your book, but the concept holds true throughout your manuscript. A good story must always have unanswered questions and suspenseful puzzles to keep the reader turning pages, right up until the very end. And even once you reach the end, it's often a good idea to leave a few enigmatic threads dangling, particularly if you're writing a series.

In answer to the above question, this process absolutely applies to the middle of the book. If you are not teasing your reader in the middle of the book you're going to run into middle-of-the-book-sag, a common plight for many novelists and one of the most common symptoms of a manuscript headed for the dreaded Manuscript Graveyard.

Your characters and story lines should be established by the middle of the book, but does your reader know everything about them by this stage? If so, what's left to read? What's left to discover? The same is true with your plot threads. You've got to continue pulling the reader along with questions and a desire for resolution.

I'll use Dragonwitch as an example. That book is full of classic "teasing the reader" moments. Partly because there are so many separate plot lines in motion, and the reader doesn't learn how they all connect until quite late into the story. Look at the Dragonwitch's ongoing monologue initiated in Chapter 1. How long does it take until the reader discovers to whom she's speaking and under what circumstances? That's got to be close to the last quarter of the book! In the meanwhile, the intrigue of the character and the suspense of the story she tells continue to tease and intrigue all the way.

That is but one example. You've also got the suspense of "Is Alistair's prophetic dream going to come true or not?" "Will the Chronicler prove to be the foretold hero or not?" "Will Mouse repent of her betrayal or not?" "Will Leta discover the secret of the House of Lights or not?" Plenty of storyline teasing.

My editors once told me that they feared I "played my cards too close to my chest." They felt I should give away answers and solutions in the first half of Dragonwitch so that readers wouldn't ever have to be confused. Then I should simply focus on the action for the rest of the story.

This I absolutely refused to do. And I'm glad I did. Because yes, I did withhold information. Yes, I did withhold solutions. Yes, I did withhold the futures of the characters. But only to make the payoff for each of these so much more significant, so much more satisfying.

A good writer doesn't write for the stupid reader. A good writer trusts her reader to be intelligent enough to follow her teasing.


Hannah said...

How true, how true! And Dragonwitch is such a fantastic example of that ongoing tease.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Anne Elisabeth Stengl for answering my question the way you did. It cleared up a lot for me. I understand teasing a little better now. Thank you. :)
- Ameri

Anonymous said...

Great post! I loved Dragonwitch by the way.

Tracey Dyck said...

You pulled it off perfectly in Dragonwitch! I remember the thrilling "aha" moment when we discover who the Dragonwitch was telling her story to. :) Actually, ALL your books are full of aha moments. They definitely make for a delicious read!

Jenelle Leanne said...

"A good writer doesn't write for the stupid reader. A good writer trusts her reader to be intelligent enough to follow her teasing."

I love that! It is so true!