Personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby instructs his readers, and I'm struck at how easy it is to substitute “writing” for the word “personality.” This analogy also shifts the creative emphasis a bit. Many well-in-tended writers of mainstream and genre fiction focus on the stupendous “opening hook” without considering that reader interest is almost always strong in the beginning. The more serious problems creep in later on, when the flashy hooks are forgotten and enough hard jolts in the narrative flow might rudely remind readers of the writing process they're supposed to forget.
Creative writing is, after all, an illusion and, like Fred Astaire's seamless dancing, it must be sustained from start to finish. Breaking the spell can bring the audience crashing back to dull, thudding reality. Reflecting on nearly 30 years as a novelist and student of writing, I've zoomed in on six suggestions, each one designed to hold readers long after you've hooked them.
1.don't ever assume the reader is too dumb to get it.
A story flows – at time, even streaks along like a rocket sled – when it sticks to the basic elements of fiction. And it suddenly bogs down when insecure writer, fearing they're being too subtle for readers, try to redundantly “explain” what they've just written.
This tendency is most eviet in the beginning writers, which is why I've included this snippet of dialogue from “Slings and Arrows,” a story I wrote fro a creative-writing class in college:
“Steve, I have a confession to make,” Gene told his brother. “I was never in the Marines. I spent that three years in a Texas prison for stealing a car.”
“You...what?” Steve felt blood throbbing in his temples.
For three years he'd been proud of Gene, and now he had just calmly announced he's an ex-con?
Instead of entering Steve's head to say this, why didn't I just keep the conversation going? The reader surely got the main point the first time, and the betrayal of Steve's pride should be expressed in tense dialogue. Readers seldom need such interior “commentary” on dialogue, which usually just interrupts the spoken flow and narrative cadence. Frankly, it's better to risk briefly confusing readers than to repeatedly break into the story and perhaps lose your hold on them.
Likewise, much of the art of writing is in not writing. Don't wear down readers by overexplaining. Prefer the telling detail over the camera-eye approach. A novelist once described the aerial view of Las Vegas simply by mentioning the explosion of billboards everywhere. H.P. Lovecraft took self-restraint even further, making his monsters more terrifying by assuring his readers they were too horrifying to describe.
2.Keep the action rising until the climax.
A fast pace is crucial to holding reader interest, so everything that happens before the climax should “rise” like a swelling orchestra heading to a crescendo. The most important element, in creating this rising action, is conflict. Your basic “conflict formula”: Who wants what, and what or who prevents the character from getting it?
In Dashiell Hammett's “The Maltese Falcon,” Same Spade wants the black bird. Trouble is, several others want I, too. Since few readers will hang in there long if the ending is too predictable, the author used conflict to keep the issue in doubt until the climax. And because solving the problem too soon also resolves all-important suspense, he relied on twists, turns and upsets, “one damn ting after another.” Brigid's unclear motives, the Fat Man's hidden intentions, Joel Cairo's shifting loyalties, the thug Wilmer's psychotic unpredictability – the more obstacles your main protagonist overcomes bravely or cleverly, the deeper your hold on the reader.
Once the climax peaks, remember that all conflict is resolved. This, reader interest immediately plummets, so end the story fast. There's a special room in hell for writers who resist those all-important two words, The End.
3.To keep readers on the edge of their seats forestall the moments of dramatic confrontation.
As noted, hooking the readers with you opening is one challenge, but holding them to the end is another. In “Danse Macabre,” Stephen King argues that a closed (or half-open) door can be a continuous source of fearful suspense, but only so long as it remains closed. Once it's opened and the Unknown Thing confronted, suspense is resolved.
Screenwriters are adept (if not always original) at prolonging suspense. How many movies have you seen in which the hero's car starts just fine until the terrifying moment when a villain or monster is about to reach it? The motor grinds and grinds, viewers slide closer to the edge of their seats, and – mirabile dictu!
- the engine cates hold in the last possible second.
4.Don't impede dialogue momentum.
How crucial is topnotch dialogue in holding your readers' interest? “The first thing I do,” an editor told Renni Browne and Dave King in “Self-editing for fiction Writers,” “is find a scene with some dialogue. If the dialogue doesn't work, the manuscript gets bounced. If it's good, I start reading.”
Some writers believe dialogue should reflect actual speech, but in fact, dialogue, in fiction, isn't normal speech at all. It's highly selective and serves more to advance the plot than to replicate real speech. Every line, every word, should serve a purpose related to plot, conflict, or revelation of character.
Bestselling romance writer Meagan McKinney excels at keeping her readers around by using dialogue to promise that trouble is coming. In her romantic suspense thriller “Still of the Night,” heroine Stella St. Vallier suspects that a neighbor is using her sugarcane plantation to land illegal drugs. She complains to Sheriff Jervis Archer about it, not realizing yet (as does the reader) that Archer is part of the drug ring.
5.Appeal more to emotions than to intellect and logic.
“Just let me get this clear,” she said, ice in her words. “Basically, you're not going to do a damn thing about what I told you, right!”
“Sorry, Stella. Not unless you got hard evidence of a crime. I got other weenies to roast.”
He headed around the corner of the house to his car parked out front.
“Fine!” she shouted behind him. “If you won't do your job, I WILL!”
“It's your funeral,” Jervis called back.
Intensity of emotion is precisely what helped me sell my first historical novel, “the Unwritten Order.” In a letter written by Libbie Custer, wife of Gen. George Custer, Libbie made brief reference to an “unwritten order” that soldiers were duty-bound to kill a woman rather than let her be captured by Kiowars or Comanches, two tribes notorious for rape and torture.
I realize there was a good story here if I could take that historical fact and turn it into “felt life.” I created three central players: two cavalry officers, Seth and Corey, who were best friends, and Corey's charming wife, Jeanette. All three are stationed in New Mexico Territory, where, against their wills, Seth and Jeanette fall in love but never mention it even to each other. One fateful Sunday, Seth is assigned to the Sunday Stroll, an easy task for which he must escort Jeanette and some other officers' wives to the opera in nearby Santa Fe.
All goes horribly wrong. A war party ambushes them, and despite a heroic effort by Seth and his few men, everyone but him and Jeanette are killed. As the Indians close in, a badly wounded Seth, down to just two bullets, steps behind Jeanette and aims at her head. In the confusion of battle, he doesn't realize that Corey's platoon has just arrived.
Somehow he pulls the trigger, and even as Jeanette falls dead, he turns the gun on himself, unable to live with what he's done. But the weapon “hangs fire,” and just before Seth passes out from blood loss, his eyes meet those of a horrified Corey. That tragic section ends with the sentence: “Had he fought on for one more moment, Jeanette would have been saved.”
The rest of the story features Seth's agonized struggle to redeem himself in his own eyes, a redemption achieved only through suffering and, eventually, love. The real battle, in this novel, takes place in the human heart.
6.Rewriting is crucial to a seemingly effortless flow.
Shakespeare claimed he “never blotted a line,” while Gustave Flaubert didn't stop polishing the manuscript until his publisher pried it from his ink-stained fingers. Most writers fall somewhere between these two extremes, but “rewriting,” as William Zinsser said, “is the essence of writing well. ...”
Only through copious rewriting can writers achieve the unbroken flow thats critical to holding readers. Each rewrite should pare another layer of unnecessary verbiage from your manuscript, honing each sentence for brevity and clarity. Choose simple but powerful language that's easy to process.
In contrast, polysyllabic Latinate words are annoying, especially if readers are driven to the dictionary. Why expectorate if you can spit, or even elevate if you can lift? Stick mainly with nouns and verbs (things and actions, which are easiest to visualize), using adjectives and adverbs only sparingly. Bestselling frontier writer Luke Short was an all-time master at avoiding modifiers:
Dave paid for the drinks, then crossed the lobby, heading for the stairs. In his room he shucked out of his coat, lit up a cigar, swung the rocking chair so it faced the bed, slacked into it and propped his feet up on the bed.
Not one adjective or adverb (“rocking” here is part of a single noun), and while there's no blistering action, the nouns and verbs let you visualize what is happening.
Speaking of adjectives, avoid annoying your readers with the Noah's Ark syndrome – i.e., adjectives that march in two by two: “She was an apple-cheeked, cheery woman dressed in expensive tasteful clothing.” And be especially sparing with verb-adverb constructions, deleting all adverbs that weaken the verb by repeating it: “boomed loudly, bolted his food ravenously.”
Your friends might read your work out of obligation, but not strangers. “I urge you not to count on the reader to stick around,” Zinsser warns, which means its up to writers to compel readers with every scene. Achieving Fitzgerald's “unbroken series of successful gestures” requires writers to constantly demand of themselves: “Why” should the reader want to keep turning the pages?