Thursday, December 31, 2009

Our Job: Create Interest

Sol Stein said that “you are in a long line of storytellers whose job was to keep the listeners attention.” Our primary tasked is to keep the attention of our readers. If you’ve ever wondered why a writer who refuses to follow the rules is able to get a book published and get people to read it, it probably comes down to him having done something that keeps his readers attention. Who really cares if he uses was every other sentence or hops from one head to another? Maybe we do, but we much more willing to overlook such issues if he is holding our attention.

He goes on to say that we hold a reader’s attention by getting the reader to want something to happen that isn’t happening yet. This is the essence of suspense, but don’t think of suspense as something that only occurs in the suspense genre; it occurs throughout fiction and non-fiction as well. Consider The Neverending Story. What the reader would like to happen is that we get to explore this fascinating land in which anything is possible. If we could actually go there, it would be a wonderful place to explore and we would enjoy ourselves immensely, but it isn’t the same in the pages of a book. What makes such a place enjoyable is that the tourist can discover things for himself, but if we tell him about it in a book, it would be more like watching slides from someone else’s vacation. So instead of showing the reader all that Fantasia has to offer, the author shows Fantasia as it is falling apart. We want Fantasia to be saved, so that we can see it in its former glory. It is the fact that we have not yet gotten what we want that keeps us interested.

An enclosed space, such as an elevator, is the best place for suspense, Stein tells us. An enclosed space doesn’t have to have physical walls, it could be a family unit, but we don’t hold a reader’s interest by providing an easy way out. We create interest by implying the disaster is imminent. If the protagonist and the antagonist are in an elevator together, we expect that one might attack the other at any time. That provides interest. But if they are separated, we lose interest. I once read a book in which the protagonist and the antagonist were half a world apart. It gave me no reason to fear for the safety of the protagonist.

Our job is to create interest in our story by giving our readers a thirst for something, but not quenching that thirst. We must increase that interest by tightening the space in which we tell the story and making it personal.