Writing Tip #49

Keep readers hooked, from beginning to end. In The New York Times Book Review today, author Tom Perrotta said this:

“I have definitely accepted the aesthetic principle, that you should be more interested toward the end of a book than you are in the beginning. Which is not always the case in literary fiction.”

I totally agree. Perrotta calls it a “primal narrative engagement,” which I think is something all writers strive for no matter the genre — to create a book that, despite the constant tuggings of children, a household and a career, just can’t be put down by readers, a book that not only sustains interest, but elevates it and, if it’s really successful, even exceeds expectations by the end.

A tall order, for sure.

So how do writers do this? Damned if I know (how’s that for a tip, ha!). But I do know that as a reader (and perhaps a writer as well) I come across books all the time that seem to fizzle out near the end. I felt a bit that way about Amy Waldman’s The Submission, a debut novel of literary fiction that I truly enjoyed, but toward the end I felt that I was less enthused (although, for me, the book was ultimately saved by a single line in the epilogue). Generally, though, I think readers’ expectations change throughout the course of a novel, and toward the end readers need the intensity, or the something, ramped up a notch in order to sustain even the same interest.

With a genre like mysteries or thrillers, this may be easier to do, since near the end these stories tend to pivot in new and unusual directions — they culminate in a chase of sorts, mysteries are unraveled, bad guys are discovered and pursued, expectations are flipped on their head. I like to think of readers of Baby Grand, my thriller, as boarding a train that’s just about to pull out of a station and riding the train as it slowly builds steam so that by the end the train is going full speed and the reader is hanging horizontally off the rails of the caboose desperately wanting to hang on and see where things lead.

Hopefully, that’s enough to pry readers away from bill-paying and laundry.

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