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How to Keep Them Reading
Part One
by Tina Morgan

What is the one of the most crucial ingredients in your book? What, with it's absence can cause every reader to put your novel down regardless of how well your characters are developed or how your setting is described?


Without it, there is no reason to continue reading or to continue watching a movie or play. It's like watching grass grow. The reader/viewer needs a compelling reason to stay and take the journey the writer has created.

Many readers think that suspense belongs in mysteries and thrillers, but suspense is vital to all genres. Would we stay and watch Star Wars if we didn't wonder how Luke was going to stop the evil empire? Would we stay to read about whaling if we didn't wonder who was going to win, Moby Dick or Captain Ahab?

Suspense is that desire to know what is going to happen next. It can hold you on the edge of your seat or grip your heartstrings.

Will Romeo and Juliet ever get together? What about Sam and Diane? (Any one of the myriads of soap opera couples?)

Can Bob save his failing company and keep his family and employees from losing their homes?

Will Junie B. Jones ever find her fur mittens or will she steal the teddy bear backpack from the lost and found box? Will Bruce Willis's character in Armageddon be able to detonate the asteroid before the world is destroyed?

Suspense is that element that keeps us turning pages long after we should have turned out the light and gone to bed. It's a vital ingredient in any story.

Now that you know what it is, how do you incorporate suspense into your work? Let's start with a mundane situation and expand it with a little game of "what if".

Ted is driving.

So what? You travel/drive every day and it's no big deal. Why should we care about Ted?

What if we give him an objective?

Ted is driving to work.

What if we raise the stakes?

Ted is driving to work and if he's late for the third time this week, he risks losing his job. The problem is, he really does need a day off this time, so he's already in a bad mood.

What if we add a source of annoyance?

Ted has a terrible case of the 'flu. It's awfully hard to drive while wiping his nose and sneezing continually, all the while forcefully spraying mucus on the windscreen and steering wheel.

What if we add an element of danger?

Ted's car has very bald tires, one is bulging a bit and his mechanic has warned him that if he doesn't get a new set, he risks a blow out. Ted knows that driving down the high way at high speeds is dangerous, but he's really afraid to be late. What happens if he has a blow out in the middle of rush hour traffic? Should he take that risk?

What if you see the clock ticking during Ted's journey?

Instead of just showing Ted hurrying down the road, we also show him checking the time every few minutes as he drums his fingers on the steering wheel, or reaching for a new tissue in the almost empty box beside him? Instead of the reader having to guess how Ted is progressing, he/she can see that it's 8:30 and Ted is supposed to be at work by 9:00. Can he make it in time?

What if we add the unknown?

We know Ted's tires are bad, so if one does blow out, it's not much of a surprise. But what is his check engine light comes on and the car starts to make a strange noise under the hood?

What if we remove Ted's ability to affect his circumstances?

Ted's going down the highway, at any point he could take an exit and speed through town instead, but what if he sneezes at the wrong time, turns to dig deeper into his tissue-box and passes the last exit before a major traffic jam? Now he's stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic with the clock ticking down, his engine acting strangely, his tissue-box almost empty and his job on the line.

What if we add a little dramatic irony?

The audience is given the information that Ted's boss is actually quite pleased with his work and wants to give him a promotion. So he calls Ted on his cell phone and asks if he's going to be to work on time today. Ted waffles, he doesn't want to lie but he doesn't want to get fired on the phone if there's some wild chance that he just might make it into work on time. His boss wants to give him the good news in person so he doesn't tell Ted why he's asking. Ted simply feels that the boss calling is a veiled threat to his job. He sneezes several times anyway, but the boss doesn't seem to notice. Will Ted continue on to work even though he's now late? Will he get there in time to accept the promotion or will he turn around and go home without calling his boss because he's sure he's already fired.

Throughout this scenario I've played up the anticipation of Ted getting to work on time. I've escalated the tension by adding small annoyances to Ted's life. But what if I didn't do that. What if Ted simply jumped in his car and drove to work without any trouble at all. We see a few lines of his being concerned about being late but that's all the attention given to Ted's plight. As a reader, that tiny journey to work is not going to leave an impact if it's covered in just a few lines or paragraphs. But let's expand it to several pages and the reader is going to remember how nervous Ted was. When Ted finally arrives at work, his receiving the promotion or getting fired will be a stronger resolution because the reader has been anticipating it.

Join me for the next issue of Fiction Factor when I cover more ways to add suspense to your story.

Copyright 2002 Tina Morgan


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