Saturday, October 6, 2007

Keeping the Mystery Alive

Putting the Suspense Back into Your Writing

”What is it that keeps a reader reading?” asks Peter Gelfan. Gelfan is a ghostwriter and collaborator-editor. He continues, “In nonfiction, it's information. In fiction, however, the pull is information's exact opposite: mystery. We're not talking about mystery as a genre here, but the essential quality in all fiction that cultivates curiosity, stimulates imagination, invites participation, and generally keeps the reader hooked.

“Every step of the journey should be fraught with questions, not only about how the story turns out but about the characters, their motives, and their history (also called exposition or back-story). All of this is designed to get the reader to connect, to put himself in the hero's or villain's shoes.”

In short, Gelfan seems to be talking about incorporating the traditional journalist’s questions of Who, What, When, Where, and Why into every fiction writer’s arsenal. After all, if it works for non-fiction news writers, why wouldn’t it work for fiction writers, whose goal is to be believable enough so that their stories might be true (Hey, it could happen!).

Ahh, but that doesn’t mean you need to load up the first two paragraphs of your fiction with all of the answers. A news article, because of its brevity due to a newspaper’s space restrictions and the reader’s short attention span, must spill its guts out early on, then go back later to fill in the details, providing the fine tuning that far few readers will ever see (or even want to see). So when you read a news story about the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, you walk away with something like this.

“United States and British combined forces launched a massive counter-attack against Afghan Taliban strongholds early Sunday morning. The attack, in response to the September 11 Taliban-backed terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, was launched from land- and sea-based staging areas, including two aircraft carriers and two submarines.”

Now the reader has learned—in 10.3 seconds or less—all he may need or want to know about what happened. If he has the time and patience, he may read on for the details.

Picture for a moment a novel about the very same occurrence. It is more likely to start out something like this.

“The moon--full, swollen, ripe, sweeping across the starless sky over New York, the misshapen buildings, the spirals of smoke and dust still snaking their way up to meet it--was a mere sliver of condensed light here, half a world away. Suspended midway between heaven and earth high over the capital city of Kabul, it seemed strangely surreal, out of place, like the stick figures in a Paul Klee painting. As Paula stared out over the countryside, she could hear the plaintive wail of the karakul in the fields, smell the thick, pungent smoke beginning to rise from the ovens of the bakers in the market square.”

Notice that the second, fictional, story contained more words than the first news piece and yet revealed far less about the actual story than did the straight reportage. That did not happen by accident.

Beginning writers of fiction often tend to provide too much information too soon, as though they are in a race to see which will give out first—the writer’s ability to provide information or the reader’s desire to devour it. They forget that the reason readers read fiction is to be swept away, to have their senses exposed to sensations that would otherwise be foreign to them, to be entertained. The reason readers read non-fiction is to learn.

Maintaining mystery in fiction is critical to the telling of the story. Once the reader knows basically everything there is to know about the story, it no longer holds allure or interest. It becomes old hat. It is little more than an overly long news article.

That doesn’t mean that the reader cannot know—or, at any rate, highly suspect—the outcome to any fictional tale he reads without losing interest in reading on. Some of the most intriguing tales of suspense start out with the outcome of the story clear and only the mechanism of how the characters got to that point remaining in doubt. Remember Double Indemnity? We knew everything we needed to know about the story from the very beginning ... except how it happened.

So the next time you put pen to paper in order to create that extraordinarily memorable piece of fiction, take a few moments to ask the five W’s of good journalism. Then, once you have the answers, spend the rest of your writing time not sharing them with your readers until absolutely necessary. Suspense, mystery, the unknown—they’re what make great fiction great. Try it. I'm betting you’ll like it.

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