|Photo courtesy of Creative Commons and Brian Katt|
Last week I discussed why a writer needs to be careful with the time he spends on various aspects of his story in order to minimize the chance of sending the reader the wrong signals. Spending too much time on a description or subplot, for example, can trick the reader into thinking those things are more important than they really are, often confusing the reader. The flipside, of course, is that it’s also possible for the writer to spend too little time on the secondary details. If the writer pours all his attention into driving the plot inexorably forward, the story runs the risk of feeling like a railshooter.
In video game parlance, a railshooter is a shoot-em-up where the player only has a limited degree of movement. The game world constantly scrolls by in a predetermined route, leaving it up to the player to maneuver up and down (and/or left and right) across the limited screen area to shoot enemies that move the same way every time. In story terms, if every event in your scenes marches linearly toward each scene’s climax, your story may be in danger of boring the reader.
While revising one of my chapters this week, it occurred to me that my natural tendency is to make this kind of mistake. For example, if my MC is about to discover he has magic powers, almost everything that happens to him prior to that moment will foreshadow the event, either by having weird things happen around him, or by having strangers make cryptic comments, or… well, you get the idea. So by the time the big reveal happens, my reader will be pretty much expecting it. After all, I figure the reader already has a fair idea what’s going to happen based on the book blurb, so why should I bother to hide it? The answer, of course, is that I don’t want to bore the reader.
I suspect this mindset stems from my days of teaching. During class, I tried to lead my students through the lecture in as linear a path as possible, building on concepts in a logical fashion, so that by the time I hit them with the big concept, they’d already grasped most of it beforehand. Good for teaching, not so good when writing fiction. In fiction, the journey is often more important than the final outcome.
Who cares if your reader already knows your MC is going to gain magical powers? That doesn’t mean you have to lead the reader there by the nose. Have fun with it. Divert the reader’s attention with other things. Convince him the big reveal is happening in the next chapter and then spring it on him now.
In other words, find a unique way to tell the reader what he already knows. He’ll thank you for it.