Make the readers do their share of the work — it’s good for them

[— Karen Myers —]

The reader is your partner after all… encourage him to invest in your story.

Sure, you’ve got to give your reader all (or most) of the necessary clues… (You can let some of it be a surprise, but he’ll complain.)

Let’s look at some of the ways you can involve your reader more actively.

  1. Show or tell the reader what’s going on, but don’t clue in some or all of the characters. That’ll get him heavily invested in watching what’s happening, anticipating or enjoying character confusion, and waiting for what he thinks is coming.
  2. Tell the characters what’s going on, or simply demonstrate it. Let the reader look over their shoulders and be just as involved as they are.
  3. Actively mislead the reader. Point him in one direction and then drop subtle hints that you hope he won’t notice right away. The characters might be in the know, or not, but hopefully the reader realizes what he’s missed just as the clues become relevant. “Oh, of course!”
  4. Hell, he’s got his own personal anxieties that you know nothing about that he’s likely to insert, just to add to the mix.

It all comes down to ways to make the reader invest in the story.

Keep in mind that, if you write about something, the reader knows about it, too. So hiding things from him (fairly) is not easy.

I like to play the suspense card. That means that sometimes something happens, and neither the characters nor the reader (or even sometimes the author) knows the details of what’s happened — we’re all in suspense. The illustration above falls into that category. Now, for a comic image, that’s the whole joke, in one panel. For a story… you need a narrative structure to support the setup and to justify the delay you need to make that suspense effective.

Think of all the questions you could ask anent that image… What character is missing? Is he alive? What’s in the pit? Did everyone enter the pit at the same time? What was the encounter like? You can see how elaborate this could become…

There’s a lot to be said, however, for just letting the reader in on the whole business, unlike the characters. He can then watch all the mis-steps, misunderstandings, and tangled situations with a full sympathy — in on all the jokes, or sympathetic to all the anguish.

Either way, the reader is an active participant, and I think he wants to invest in a good story — that the opportunity to do so is part of what makes the story stick in his mind, makes him think about it.

What steps do you take to keep the reader invested in your stories?

10 thoughts on “Make the readers do their share of the work — it’s good for them

  1. One notes an excellent form of subtlety is a dual purpose one. So the reader sees it fulfill a purpose and is surprised when it comes back.

  2. I saw the image as bear entering the pit, human with shoes on leaving the pit. Then I looked a little closer, (and reading your questions), decided that both human and bear entered the pit. But, the first glance was far more interesting!

      1. Well, it almost looks like the man put himself into the pit and restoring the leaves above himself and the “bear” came along later.

        IE The only “gap” in the leaves is where the bear entered the pit.

  3. On subversions of tropes, I’ve found the ones that work best are the ones that rely on a character acting the way a normal person would.

    I’ve probably used the mummy sequence from Drake’s Lord of the Isles before, but it is an awesome usage of it.

    Basically the big bad is trying to resurrect his dead wife (she is the mummy) and has ended up using their daughter (the lead’s love interest) to power it. The heroes burst in as the ritual is taking effect.

    The mummy sits up, raises a pointing finger and in a thin wailing voice it speaks. “Stop him, he’s killing my daughter!”

    It completely subverts the classic mummy battle, but it does it by asking what would the person actually want. It makes perfect sense for her to want her daughter to live, she’s her mother after all. And they had been said to be good parents too, until she died and her husband lost his mind over it.

    It prompts the reader to think about the actual goals and motivations of the characters rather than simply coasting on tropes.

  4. Suspense, a few red herrings (“Is that song a clue, or just music?”), increasing tension (will he reach the free city? Will he be able to stay? Will he stay in the walls or step out to help someone?), the easy bits.

  5. One of the best authors to read for apparently-infinite variations on one kind of suspense is Max Brand. Most of his books that I’ve read have a variation (and he never did it the same way twice, that I’ve found) of what I’ve come to call Chess Match Dialogue.

    Two characters are alone having a conversation. One or both of them knows more than they are letting on. One or both of them is trying to feel out what the other one knows. Sometimes the reader knows nothing about either character. Sometimes the reader thinks he knows what both characters know. It would seem like there are a limited number of ways you could do the scene. But I’ve published half a dozen Brand novels, and read at least a dozen more, and if there was a limit, he has yet to hit it.

    For example, Gunman’s Reckoning (easily available on Project Gutenberg) has one of the best opening sequences I’ve ever read. A freight train is going through the mountains at night, and the brakeman finds a passenger who’s not supposed to be there. Pretty quickly you realize that they know each other, but haven’t met in a long time. The conversation starts with the brakie relating what he’d heard about the bum, Lefty, running a crew, then claiming he didn’t believe it. The bum, his pride stung, adds in details to what has been related, and eventually gets to the story of how his crew was busted up. One of them crossed a man named Donnegan, who then set to getting them all arrested, with only Lefty still free, and sworn to kill the man who busted up his gang. Donnegan, you’ll soon realize, is the hero of the story, and how his introduction is completed in that opening sequence is masterful. (Alas, the rest of the book after the opening is just okay. But what an opening!)

    Gun Gentlemen has two conversations of the type I mean, one at the opening, and one about halfway through.

    The opening has two notorious gunmen finding themselves standing at the same bar at the same time. They have no particular beef with each other, and quickly work out that someone manipulated both of them into a situation where, due to their reputations, they would almost be forced to fight, or the one who walked away would be considered a coward from then on. Then they try to negotiate a way to both walk away without any loss of reputation, or violence, to either of them.

    Later in the book, a boy of ten to twelve years old (he doesn’t know himself, being an orphan) has become a secondary viewpoint character, and is working on hunting down one of the gunmen (the hero of the story) who is being chased by several posses for false reasons too complex to go into. He is about to bed down for the night out in the middle of nowhere, when he encounters a lone stranger, who speaks carefully but is more respectful to the boy than anybody else has been. Brand pulls a double-switch on the reader here, because the stranger is obviously the hunted man, and protagonist, but the boy doesn’t realize it and Brand doesn’t admit it. When the two part, and a new chapter begins, the part of the conversation that wasn’t obvious — the protagonist’s reaction to how the kid implicitly viewed him — turns the story in a different direction, and the reader, smug in his assurance that he knew what Brand was doing, gets nearly as surprised as the hero.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: