I’ve been studying bestselling novels of late. I’m trying to get a feel for what is working and why; suss out the author’s special sauce that seems to be speaking to readers. I have to admit, sometimes I’m befuddled when the quality of the prose is lacking or the story drags in too many places. Or worse, when the characters are whiney and aren’t particularly sympathetic. But after some careful comparison, I think I’ve figured out the secret.
Regardless of genre, what keeps a reader going is nothing more than a big question. A mystery.
Who among us doesn’t love to be tempted and tantalized with secrets, or burning desires, yet uncovered?
THE BIG QUESTION
As an author of historical fiction, I enjoy weaving in sparkling details—the frothy petticoats of a princess, a lamb bone used for buffing marble, or steam cars cranked by hand. But they won’t keep a reader going for the long haul through the novel’s twists and turns. In literary fiction, the beautiful writing is what you come for, but you keep reading to see how the character changes, how they confront the big issue the author has chosen for them. You keep reading because you don’t know what will happen, but you must find out. I mentioned historicals and literary fiction because they can be less plot-driven than some other genres. The same goes for some women’s fiction, but the end result is the same: all good fiction is riddled with mysteries.
With my first few books, I set these mysteries up without realizing they were there. As I have evolved as a writer, I’ve discovered how important it is to create these questions on purpose and to plant them strategically. As you might suspect, the most important question is the HOOK, or the mystery that is connected to the premise of the novel.
For example, in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, we worry whether or not Elizabeth Bennett will fall in love, or be a spinster in want of a home after her father dies, simply because her prejudice gets in the way? This is the central mystery. Once this question is planted, the author expertly layers in others to support the premise because: [Read more…]