Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"Half this game is ninety percent mental." --Danny Ozark

“Half this game is ninety percent mental.” --attributed to Danny Ozark, 1973-79 manager of the Philadelphia Phillies.

A novel is a kind of game between the reader and the writer. The reader knows the story isn’t true, and even realizes that the writer is holding back, dribbling out little bits of backstory, hints and clues, tidbits promising more insider gossip and revelations ahead. This is most true in the case of crimes novels, when the reader knows perfectly well the writer knows whodunit or how it comes out. The reader puts up with this benevolent deception as long as he or she remains interested. The writer strings the reader along, like playing a gamefish, and hopes the reader doesn’t throw the hook. Yes, the game is ninety percent mental.

Which brings me to this: what does the writer do to keep the reader turning pages?

The classic sources of narrative drive or tension are these:

Somebody is going to be killed.

Somebody has been killed and a friend or authority wants justice.

Somebody has been killed and the wrong person is being blamed.

An evildoer will continue to get away with his evil doings.

A selfish person will continue to victimize others.

A scam will succeed [or fail.] Think of all the wonderful Topkapi-style heists in which, law-abiding as you may be, you root for the crook.

The planet, country, city, or village is facing disaster. It’s The Satan Bug, over and over again.

Justice is being methodically thwarted.

Something impossible has happened. Think of the wonderful locked room murders from the thirties and forties.

X is losing Y’s love for a bad reason.

X is gaining Y’s love for an evil reason.

Last, rare, and very hard for an author to accomplish: A desire on the part of the reader to spend more time in the company of a character or characters. Most often, this works in humorous mysteries. Think Janet Evanovitch.

The love elements in crime novels are ubiquitous, but mostly used as sub-plots. One or more of the others must be central To the extent that an author can keep the reader involved in the outcome of one of these sources of tension, there will be narrative drive. A vector, an arc--what’s going to happen next?

And that’s the important thing. Pretend you are reading your book and don’t know what’s coming. Very difficult, but try. Ask yourself what does the reader hope? What does the reader fear? If you come on a page or scene where the reader neither hopes nor fears anything in particular—kill it.

Barbara D’Amato


David Terrenoire said...

The short answer is conflict.

PG Wodehouse used to tape his pages along his study wall and then go down the line reading each one. If a page didn't have conflict, he took it down and rewrote it.

If it's good enough for Plum...

Barbara D'Amato said...

Great point. Thank you. I hope he had a long, long wall. [Just kidding, as he would no doubt work in sections.] But he's so right.