Books are puzzles

Have you ever asked yourself… what makes a good book? What makes you engaged? Everyone is different. We all respond to different things. But, at the root of every good book, we become engaged.

As humans, we’re curious. Ever driven slowly alongside a road accident? We want to see, to know, even if we know it’s none of our business. Because we’re human. Curiosity is ingrained… its in our blood . Some of us are stronger than others, some of us can fight the magnet of morbid curiosity, but only the strong-willed succeed.

As writers we need to satisfy a reader’s curiosity. That doesn’t mean telling readers what’s going on. That’s boring. We need to drop clues. Don’t tell a reader your character is angry, show a reader they are. Let the reader have the satisfaction of deciphering whether or not those ‘flared nostrils’ mean the character is angry. Even better if your dialogue shows anger. Or maybe use subtext and make the ‘flared nostrils’ a contrast to what’s being said. Give the reader even more opportunity to become engaged.

And this ‘line-by-line’ showing is just the tip of the iceberg.

A reader needs hints and questions raised throughout the books they read. I don’t believe genre changes a reader’s basic need. They don’t read for purple prose. They read for enjoyment. To feel. Reveals scattered in a book keep a reader satisfied. However, there needs to be balance. Hints v reveals – it’s not easy to juggle.

I find it easier to imagine I write a giant puzzle. I want a reader to enjoy themselves. To help ensure I do this, I ‘show’ most of the time (I let a reader decipher how a character is reacting), I plant questions so a reader can wonder and I scatter my prose with moments of description that allow a reader to see a picture only they can see. I (hope) I don’t give too much detail. I want a reader to picture what they imagine, but by giving a few details. Not by telling. Not by reciting a list (even if that list is a ‘showing’ list). The ‘showing’ list only manipulates a reader and detracts from their enjoyment. The more a reader has to figure out, the more they should enjoy your book. Think Harry Potter. You can think what you like about J K Rowling’s writing, but her books are popular for a reason. J K Rowling knows how to engage her target audience. I admire that.

In a first draft, writers needs to tell themselves what’s happening. Think of Terry Pratchett’s famous quote. In subsequent drafts, a writer needs to go back and start layering in hints and questions. Add in the showing. This part is the fun bit. This part is where you drop clues for the reader. The more clues, the more a reader should enjoy reading your book. Of course, there are moments when telling is necessary. Again, learning this is a balancing act. It’s all part of the joy of writing. And that should start with entertaining your reader. Of course, not everyone’s goal is to give a reader enjoyment. Writers, ask yourselves, ‘what’s your goal?’

I expect it to take many books to learn every skill out there, and then some. I plan to savour the journey. How about you?


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