August 9, 2013
One Way to Keep Readers Reading
With short attention spans growing shorter due to so many distractions from iPhones, social media and our own to-do lists, how do writers keep readers with them all the way to the end?
Using a narrative question to maintain interest throughout a book or short story is an effective and time-honored technique in fiction. Will Ahab kill the great white whale? Will Red Riding Hood escape the big bad wolf? The narrative question is established early and readers keep going because they want to find out how the narrative question will be answered.
But what about non-fiction? Narrative questions can be used effectively in that genre as well. For example, an author sets up an issue (trouble losing weight or difficulty in finding new customers or problems getting along with your mother-in-law) but doesn't give the answer right away. Instead, the solution is revealed step by step throughout the book or article. In a book, the set-up may even take a chapter or two before the remedy is slowly laid out.
A narrative question can be effectively deployed within a chapter as well. Maybe the question is why losing weight is difficult when we are constantly surrounded by reminders of food in the media, in our home or at work. Here's one possible structure.
After describing the problem people face, the author might discuss Solution A, but show why that doesn't work. Then Solution B is considered, but that also fails. Likewise Solution C. Now readers are really ready for the answer that solves the problem. They are thinking, "If those three seemingly reasonable solutions don't work, then what does?" They are motivated to know. Each chapter of Deep Church by Jim Belcher does this effectively.
When setting up the problem, it's important not to build up a straw man that's easy to knock down. Show the real difficulties and why it's so hard. Give the very best arguments for the solutions that you nonetheless think ultimately fail. That will help your audience feel the tension and yearn more keenly for an answer, make your solution all that much more satisfying and keep them reading.