Piquing Curiosity

Yesterday I mentioned some things that cause confusion—conflicting facts, improper motivation, a lack of adequate details to ground a scene, and a lack of foreshadowing. In trying to avoid confusion, however, I’m opening myself up to another novel killer—a boring story.

Well, maybe not a boring story but a story told in a boring way. I suggest a story can turn boring for several reasons.

First, the characters are flat (synonymous with cardboard, two-dimensional, stereotypical). A character who is not well-rounded is predictable, lifeless, a mere placeholder. There is no surprise, no wonder, no passion in such an individual.

The point here is to avoid oversimplifying characters in order to avoid confusion. Instead, a character, like a real life individual, should unfold in increments. Readers are not going to expect a detailed character sketch when the protagonist first shows up on the page. Rather, there will be a process of getting to know him through his actions, words, and thoughts. In fact, that process should continue all book long. Part of what will keep readers engaged is this getting to know the characters on an ever deeper level.

A second thing that makes the telling of a story boring, in my opinion, is a predictable plot. Again, it would be easy to fall into this writing pattern in an effort to avoid confusion. Even a “standard” premise, such as a romance, where the reader knows going in that boy and girl will meet and marry (or fall in love—I just liked the alliteration of meet and marry 😉 ), the story can be interesting, even exciting, because the how unfolds in an unexpected way.

The real plot question I think an author should prompt in his reader’s mind is, How will the protagonist overcome? And the secondary question might be, Or will he? Overcoming, I think, is at the heart of plot. Yes, the character must want something and must want it desperately. This something must matter. But it is in the overcoming of the obstacles that stand in the way of the character obtaining his desire that has readers sliding to the edge of their seats and turning pages as fast as they can.

But if the obstacles are ho-hum, nothing new, seen that one coming a mile away, or if they make the character look foolish because he didn’t see them coming a mile away when the reader did, the plot will fail to pique curiosity. Who is curious about what he is sure will happen?

A third area that can spark curiosity in the reader is the story world. What’s it like in this place, whether it’s the world of a research scientist working in a name university, a missionary starting an orphanage in Indonesia, an astronaut landing on Mars, or a hobbit traveling in Middle Earth. Again, readers won’t want to know all about this place up front. Just as the author must introduce the characters gradually, so must the story world unfold gradually.

Steve Almond gave a good way to determine what needs to be revealed when. I quoted it yesterday, but I think it bears repeating:

[Readers] don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

Makes sense to me. 😀

Published in: on June 18, 2008 at 10:03 am  Comments (2)  
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2 Comments

  1. One of the better ways to get into a character is to play that old game: tell us one thing no one knows about you. This can be challenging, especially in a room full of people who know you well.

    But I think it works with characters, too; it’s just that those interesting things need to be a little off, quirky, or plain strange–like Dean Koontz’ Odd Thomas who sees dead people. We learn that fact immediately and it pulls us into the story to see what this “odd” person does next. The dead don’t talk, but he can see them. It doesn’t hurt when Elvis shows up once in a while to ride along with Odd, offering silent companionship.

    Revealing something unique–whether talent or history–sets the character apart from the ordinary.

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  2. Quirky works especially in suspense or thrillers, don’t you think, Rich? Some people (Donald Maass, for one) advocate brashness as part of a character’s make-up. By that he means the courage to say or do what other people only think about, and usually after the fact.

    That’s been the hardest thing for me to embrace. My characters tend to be too “normal” I think.

    Becky

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