The one thing a successful novel must do

Here’s a post at Jane Friedman’s blog: The One Thing Your Novel Absolutely Must Do

What’s your instant reaction? What do you think it is?

I think the author of this post, Susan DeFreitas, is correct: the one thing the novel MUST do is arouse the reader’s curiosity about what’s going to happen.

And that, to me, is the foundation upon which every other ambition for a novel is built. Because it doesn’t matter how convincing your characters or setting, how well-wrought their concerns, or how high the stakes in your story—if the reader stops turning the pages, it’s game over.

I think, in other words, this idea is pointing to the dreaded phrase that so often leads to a do-not-finish outcome: “I don’t care what happens to any of these people.”

I would add, there are TWO things that can lead to that particular “I don’t care” outcome for me, and only one is a loss of interest, eg, a failure of the novel to arouse curiosity. The other is a loss of emotional engagement with the protagonist or the whole cast of characters. A novel written for the sort of reader who enjoys clever murder mysteries for the intellectual puzzle and doesn’t particularly care about the characters may have only one failure mode: failure to arouse curiosity. A novel written for the sort of reader who wants to engage emotionally with the story and the characters has two failure modes.

But I think the linked post is quite right: the opening of the novel must arouse curiosity or the reader will stop turning pages. That may well happen before the reader has a chance to engage emotionally with the characters. DeFreitas says:

In general, the most effective technique for getting the story out of the gate quickly—while still addressing the essential back story and exposition—is to tease it. Which is to say, to allude to what happened in the past, or important elements of the world building, without coming right out and explaining them.

This arouses the reader’s curiosity and makes them want to know more, so they keep turning the pages. This buys you time to get the reader hooked on the story and invested in the characters—so by the time a more detailed explanation is delivered (say, another 2–10 pages in) the reader has no choice but to keep reading.

Ah, yes, there we go, the reader needs to get invested in the characters. Yes.

So what keeps the reader turning pages? Questions.

Questions about the protagonist’s short-term goals. Questions about side plots. Questions about characters. Questions about virtually anything that is not the central premise of the novel—which is another of way of saying, questions that feel like they might be addressed within the next chapter or two.

I think this is true! I never thought of it exactly that way — that the author should be providing questions that feel like they will be answered soon — but I think that’s correct.

Good post. Click through and read the whole thing if you have a minute.

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