Monday Motivation: Make ‘em hungry for more
To the Aztecs, the guns of the Spanish Conquistadores were magical weapons capable of destroying men at a distance. To the Aboriginal Australians, Capt Cook’s bark, Endeavour, was so other-worldly that they paid it scant attention. To my father, the everyday technologies that we all take for granted, would, had he lived, have seemed like artefacts of science fiction.
Magic lies more in the eyes of the beholder than in the things that astonish. Behind every wand there’s an algorithm; spells are, when you subject them to rigorous scrutiny, no more than cunning equations.
And so, from swerve of shore to bend of bay* I come at last to the dark magic of the writer, and the tricks he deploys to gain the effects he desires…
Suspense is one of those tricks. It’s a trick that draws us into story, and holds us in its thrall until the final revelation of plot or character.
If the writer hasn’t performed his legerdemain, the trick won’t work, there’ll be no suspense, and the attention of readers will flag.
Suspense, obviously, is an effect of some magical conjuration that only inspired writers understand…
Well, no, actually. Like blunderbusses, the Endeavour and cellphone technology, suspense is quite easily explained. It is just the consequence of the application of a few simple rules.
I was listening recently to an interview with Lee Child, author of 21 Jack Reacher novels, and the BBC interviewer said, “Let’s talk about suspense…”
What he said came as no surprise. We’ve been confiding the secret of suspense on our courses for years: ask a question and delay the answer. But it was the analogy that Child (real name Jim Grant) offered that really struck my fancy.
Here’s what he said:
“People say, how do you create suspense. I think immediately that the form of the question leads you down the wrong path.”
It’s analogous, he said, to asking, “How do you bake a cake?” The implication of that question is that the better the ingredients, the better the outcome; the more care with which you mix them, the more scrumptious the cake; the more precise the cooking time, the more perfect the product.
This series of assumptions is beside the point, said Child. When you really get down to it, it’s not the quality of the cake so much that determines the quality of the experience of eating it. The real question should be: “How do you make your family hungry?”
And the answer to that “is perfectly simple: delay dinner for four hours. And that’s what you do with suspense. You start with a question and then you don’t answer it.”
So the wisdom of Child’s response lies not so much in the tactic – delay the answers to explicit or implicit questions – as in the way he thinks about his reader.
How do you make your readers hungry for more? By teasing them with suggestions of aromas. By foreshadowing threats that hang vaguely but menacingly over your character’s future. By posing burning questions and then delaying the answers to them. By having a bewitching femme fatale crook her finger at your hero, but by the time he’s tugged his tie off and is panting for action, discovers that she’s disappeared… or has been murdered… or is more homme than femme.
Make them hungry for more and you’ll have a story on your hands that could launch you into Lee Child’s prodigious orbit.
P.S. Anybody recognise this?