The Reader’s Work

Young man travelling on train, reading book, profile

What happens when readers open your book?

If your opening pages captivate them, their brains get to work on the story’s outcome. They don’t want to be spoon-fed Pablum, to be told everything at once. They want to take the lures and cues in your first chapters to build anticipation for the kind of complex, well-seasoned feast you’re going to give them, culminating in the final delicious page.

In other words, they’re on a hunt to discover the unknown: “How is this girl going to get out of that blackmail trap?” “Who could have carried out this bizarre murder? And why?” “Why doesn’t this boy speak up about the abuse?” “This man is so quiet, so passive—what secret in his past made him that way?” “What makes this woman’s relationship with her mother so controlling? Will she ever escape? How?”

Readers want a story to love, yes. But they are most delighted by stories that keep them guessing, that invite and push and coerce them into becoming storytellers themselves as they keep trying to envision the outcome of a conversation, a decision, a risk taken, and of the story itself. Readers’ minds will take all your authorial cues and hints to create possible backstories for a character who’s acting strangely.

Every time you throw them a curve, the brain program running in the background will be reevaluating what they thought of a certain character, reorganizing their hopes for story outcomes, redirecting the path of the character’s growth arc.

In other words, their brains are working overtime trying to figure things out. And they’re delighted when they can’t, as long as you’re creating a logical outcome (even if it’s a big surprise).

Your job is to be smarter than they are. To keep one step ahead of them. To tell your story in such a way that they keep asking questions—and keep generating answers of their own, trying to guess where the story is headed next. To remember that readers LOVE IT when their guesses are wrong, when you surprise them with logically believable but unpredictable characters, outcomes, and results.

Kind of like real life.

Let’s pick a genre that doesn’t always do this well: romance. Hero meets heroine, they eventually fall in love, then overcome great obstacles to their blissful union. Standard format for romance stories.

It’s okay to pick a genre where readers know the ending’s happy. Some of us need that happy ending. But don’t bore your readers along the way. Challenge, delight, and out-maneuver them. Keep them saying, “OMG, I didn’t see that coming!” and “I can’t believe that happened. How will this ever get resolved?” They’ll bless you for it.

An example: A wealthy but lonely widower advertises for a respectable woman to become his wife. They meet and—after some obstacles—find true happiness. But here are the twists: The widower doesn’t expect to fall in love; he just wants companionship, someone to share the empty house. But he surprises himself by falling in love, only to find out that she’s been partnering with his son to kill him slowly, with poison. The kicker is, he now loves her, and accepts this progressive poisoning as a trade-off for her presence in his life. She begins to realize that her feelings for him are changing, even as she continues to administer the poison. Now what do they do? How will they resolve this odd turn of events? Read the book: A Reliable Wife by Goolrick. You won’t be able to foresee the outcome of this unusual romance.

Does your story take predictable plot turns? Do your characters simply meet readers’ expectations, or do they confound them?

Captivating and delighting your readers means keeping their brains busy with the lure of the unknown. As long as they can’t see around the next bend, they’ll keep reading, keep guessing at and creating new possibilities, new outcomes. That’s their work–and their addiction.

(I should know, having stayed up till 3 a.m. last night to finish An Ember in the Ashes,  the first in a great YA fantasy trilogy. Check it out.)

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