Haydn Middleton edited books for Oxford University Press before becoming a full-time writer. (Haydn’s Goodreads page shows a selection of his titles.) He has published seven novels for adults and an eighth is forthcoming in October 2018.
This piece of writing is going to be about 1,200 words in length, and around the 900-word mark I’m going to tell you something that will blow your head off.
Getting The Reader ‘In The Vehicle’
That’s a fairly crude way to open a blog post.
If you’re a reader of refined sensibilities, it may well have put you off. (Another kind of reader again will go straight to the 900-word mark and check out whatever may be in store !)
On the other hand, it may just have tickled your curiosity and made you think, ‘Whatever this showman has up his sleeve, it could be worth me hanging around until the 900-word mark, just in case his reveal is as big as he says.’
And that works for books, too.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events warns children away, but only makes them curious to read on . It’s a fine art, withholding information.
So you will see at once that what I’m talking about here is – well – not talking about things. Or rather, making it clear to the reader that in due course you, the writer, will be delivering something rather tasty, but not quite yet.
Because it’s not just about what twists your book can deliver – it’s how you, the author, will get us there.
It’s the fine old writerly art of withholding information, and it can be classified within the box of technique tricks of known as ‘Getting The Reader In The Vehicle’.
Jump In And Snap On Your Seatbelt
I took that phrase about the Vehicle from the brilliant contemporary novelist and short-story writer, Haruki Murakami.
He once wrote: “For me, a story is a vehicle that takes a reader somewhere. Whatever information you may try to convey, whatever you may try to open the reader’s emotions to, the first thing you have to do is get that reader into the vehicle.”
It’s a sad but true fact that if you don’t fairly soon get that reader comfortably seated and belted in, then she probably isn’t going to go on the journey with you.
And offering the “bait” of some juicy information that will be delivered a little further down the line can be a good way to encourage your reader to suspend her disbelief.
But there are hazards in this approach, too. You can’t share too much, too soon, yet you need to share enough at once to engage interest.
In writing your story, you might not choose to address your reader as directly as I did at the start of this piece.
You might instead kick off with a scenario which is intriguing but inexplicable (an envelope which arrives in the post one morning, say, containing a human thumb and a pine cone).
The implication is that by the end of the tale, the reader will at least have a clearer idea of what’s going on.
If the recipient of that envelope himself doesn’t initially understand why he has been sent those things, that can be useful. Because while he tries to get to the bottom of the mystery, so too will the reader.
Matters get more complicated if the recipient does know why he’s been sent the package and this is made clear to the reader (e.g. the recipient shows no shock, placing the envelope in a drawer with fifteen others of exactly the same shape and size). Then it is up to the narrator – first-person or third-person – whether he explains at once to the reader what is going on, or else he withholds the information till a later stage.
Deftly handled, either approach might work. But ideally, the reader will want to feel that there is a damned good reason why she is not yet being let in on the secret. And what might such a reason be?
I guess the main one is that the reader will have happily made a tacit agreement with the author that what he is presenting to her is a glorified joke, and no one wants to be told the punchline half way through a joke, or indeed at its very beginning.
That can make for a rattling good read, especially in the case of works like the better short stories which Roald Dahl wrote for adult readers. There’s other kinds of fiction set out to pull off something a little more complicated, to present life in all its unmanageable and distinctly non-punchline-type glory. And it’s with regard to these other genres – which many Jericho Writers clients describe as broadly ‘more literary’ in submitting their scripts – that I’d like to talk from here on in.
Smelling Rats And Driving Off Cliffs
In telling a serious story about a serious subject (which, as The Catcher in the Rye triumphantly demonstrates, doesn’t mean there can’t also be plenty of humour along the way), it’s inadvisable to hold back key information about a character or situation merely in order to keep the reader reading. She will almost certainly smell a rat, lose faith in you as her driver (you’re taking her on a journey, remember), and jump out at the next set of traffic lights.
I’d say this particularly holds true with third-person narratives. If a first-person narrator fails to mention that he is actually married with three children until just before the end of a memoir in which he has been describing his recent courtship of a foreign princess, he can at least claim to have been in denial.
‘Unreliable narrators’, such individuals are called.* Amnesiac protagonists, like Christine in Before I Go To Sleep. Or protagonists who rationalise horror, like Fred Clegg in The Collector.
Which leads me to the knotty issue of using multiple perspectives in a story, and by that I mean any number of points of view greater than one.
I’ve lost count of the number of otherwise promising scripts I’ve read where things start to wobble, fatally, when an author forgets that Character A hasn’t yet found out what Character B has always known about Character C, who in turn has some dirt on Character A.
In such cases, the author is not just having to withhold information from the reader, but also from the respective characters. Too much withholding, already!
In my world, especially for new writers, there must be an irresistibly good reason ever to use more than a single narrative perspective, not least because then the author can often save himself the bother of writing about the same event twice over – which outside of courtroom dramas seldom makes for the most riveting read.
But finally, don’t go away from this post imagining that you should declare absolutely everything about a character or a situation right up front. That can be just as much of a turn-off as keeping stuff concealed.
How To Release Plot Information (Without Driving Off Cliffs)
As in all things, there’s a happy medium to be found.
Share with your readers just enough to keep them intrigued and reasonably informed, but not so much that they’ll be bored. Remembering this helps you time and control release of information for any plot.
It might be an idea to think of this reader as an actual friend or acquaintance – use this as a litmus test as to how much you say at any given moment about the passing scenery. If you know that the road after the next bend will lead you straight over a cliff, you really ought to tell.
If you feel compelled to share with them every fact you know about every tree you leave in your slipstream, ask yourself whether they would really want to have her ear bent about it.
Now with all that advice under your bonnet, off you go.
And happy motoring!
*That was around the 900-word mark. You don’t have to believe everything you’re told in an opening paragraph. ‘Unreliable narrators’, we’re called.
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