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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Looking for "B" - A device for holding reader's attention

Here's a nice little writing device you can use to keep your audience's attention span fixed to the page - I'll tell you about it later. No seriously, that's basically how it works. What works? Hold on a minute.

First I have to explain something before I explain the something about that.
First I have to tell you that I've had an occasion to visit Hannibal, Missouri several times in last year. You see, where I currently live is not really that far from Hannibal. Well, not really that far. Anyway, if you aren't aware-- a famous writer spent quite a few years growing up in Hannibal and some of his most famous novels are set there. (Although he renamed the town "St. Petersburg" in the stories - it is Hannibal in reality.)
Of course I am talking about Samuel Clemens or "Mark Twain" as his preferred nom de plume. The funny thing about hanging out Hannibal was that my knowledge of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huck Finn" had really grown rusty. I mean, the last time my eyes had absorbed Twain words must have been in grade school. Fact is I forgot a lot but I kinda - sorta remembered a few facts and plot points but come on! There I was walking around Hannibal.

There's the Clemens house with the "white washed" picket fence made famous in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer". There's a replica of the little shanty that his boyhood friend Tom Blankenship (model for the character "Huckleberry Finn") grew up in. Over there is the Thatcher house...etc.. etc..

All right, the point is -- here I was trying to draw up from memory, different images from the Twain novels that I could relate to the landmarks I was seeing and I had nothing. Soon after returning home, I quickly went to local bookstore and picked up "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and commenced to reading. Not only was I able now to bring up various places in my memory as I read, but I was also able to discover something else interesting. An interesting literary device Twain used to propel his story - a device I often use in writing Murder mystery scripts.

What is it?

O.K. I will tell you. It's simply withholding crucial information until after the fact. Case in point - in Tom Sawyer, Twain glosses over key bits of exposition that a reader would normally expect in the time-line. Twain lifts it and places it after the fact. What is the Effect? Keeps you reading to find out what just happened.

One example is during the murder trial of "Muff Potter", we the readers, along with Tom and Huck all know that "Injun Joe" is true killer. But will Tom or Huck reveal this crucial piece of information? In the story, the night before the trial, Twain makes a casual point of mentioning in a small sentence:
"Tom was out late, that night, and came to bed through the window."

Does he tell us anymore about this? No. Just a "throw-away" line it seems.

The next day at the murder trial, just as we are about to believe an innocent man is going to be found guilty, the defense calls "Thomas Sawyer" to the stand!
Wait! What?
Yes, the defense calls Tom to the stand! Tom reveals everything! That fatal night in the graveyard. What he and Huck both witnessed. How Muff Potter didn't do a thing and how Injun Joe is the real culprit here!

Wait a second! Did we miss something?

No. Twain did tell you about it. Well, sort of. Remember that night - the one where "Tom was out late"? Well, Tom was out late because - he went over to the Defense lawyer's house and confessed the whole truth.
Oh! I see.
Sure, you see! Now!
But do you also see what Mark Twain did there? Sort of a literary "sucker punch" if you will. He sets up a trial of an innocent man -- builds up the suspense making you hope against hope that someone will come forth and tell the truth!
Suddenly, Tom is called forth and saves the day and as a reader you think: "Hold on a second, Mr. Twain! How does this lawyer know that Tom knows the truth?"
When did that happen?
Hmmm, I guess I better keep reading to find out!

And what you find out, what Twain finally comes forth with is more or less an: "Oh by the way, remember when Tom was out and that whole, 'came to bed through the window'. Remember that bit? Well, that's when he went over to the defense lawyers house.
Why didn't he tell us that before? Like.. right before the trail?
Well, honestly that would have been rather dull now wouldn't it?
Why?
As a reader you would know what to expect: This happened - which will lead this thing to happen - which will cause this deal to happen. A to B to C.
One thing that will lull readers into boredom and frustration is allowing them to predict or guess where your sentences and story are heading.

I recall many years ago, working a quiet Sunday afternoon with a girl who was an avid reader. Upon completion of the book she was reading, she violently hurled it across the room. Why? She had it figured out in the 2nd chapter. She only kept reading until the end in hopes that she was wrong. She wasn't.

Now I come the part where I (and others) use the same "sucker punch" device. It is a staple of the murder mystery genre. As you know, in almost every good murder mystery, there is point toward the end of the story, where the detective has the "murder" figured out. Does he or she immediately shout out the killers name? Does he or she quickly reveal what clues and indications were discovered and share them with everyone? No.
In the classic mystery scenario, everyone is asked to gather together while the detective goes over each point step by step until it builds to a finger pointing crescendo. It's essentially the same device - withholding important information until the end. It keeps the audiences attention. They want to keep reading or watching to find out "who did it"!

As a writer it's important to hold your readers attention. If you reveal everything right up front, your book could be thrown across the room. It's like wrapping up a birthday present and handing it to the person and saying, "It's a food dehydrator."
It's best if you don't tell them everything. Allow them the pleasure of finding out. And one little nice device is taking them from A to C. Make them wonder where B is.
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