Monday, January 4, 2010

NaNoReVisMo #6: Electric Kool-Aid Conflict Test PART TWO

Back in November, INTERN posted about a curious phenomenon she noticed when flipping through a stack of library books: wherever she stuck in her thumb, she was never more than two or three sentences from a clearly identifiable internal or external conflict.

In the intervening weeks, INTERN has been doing more experiments in her (padlocked and bat-infested) Book Laboratory, and has noticed another phenomenon among published novels, memoirs, and even some non-fiction.

INTERN observed that at the end of every chapter in any novel she picked up from her pile, she was left with at least one, but sometimes two or three, Questions. The existence of these Questions produced in INTERN's fevered little brain a desire to keep reading, if only to find out the Answers.

As INTERN continued the experiment, she was horrified to discover that even when she thought a particular book or chapter was trashy and poorly-written, she would still experience desire to keep reading if the Questions were salient enough. Like a rat in a maze, INTERN wanted to scurry down the hallway of each Question, lured by the promise of answering Cheese.

End-of-chapter Questions come in many different flavors. Here is but a small smattering:

There's the Mystery Question: "Could it be that roguish masked man was the legendary...Thievaro? But if so, where was his wooden leg?"

The Will-he-make-it: "Will Casey make it to the baseball diamond in time to save his team?"

The Bet-he-won't: "Will that hideous car crash prevent Casey from making it to the baseball diamond on time?"

The And-he-didn't: "Oh no! Casey missed the ball game! How will he survive the horrible consequences?"

The Inner Turmoil: "Can Georgette forgive Sir Roguesly for leaving her at the altar?"

The Growth Spurt: "Will Frodo be able to carry on without his beloved mentor?"

The Scientific: "Is the atmosphere of planet Ziggabrix really turning people into sponges?"

The Technical: "Why can't the motorcycle engine start?"

The Twist: "How will this new information or unexpected turn of events affect the hero?"

The Flirt: "Did the lascivious Sensualissa really just WINK at RAYMOND???"

The Hero Gets Shot: "The hero got shot! Now how will Trentsville protect itself from zombies?"

The Mystery Flirt: "It has been suggested that a certain character knows more than they have been letting on! But what do they know?"

Etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.

A question doesn't have to be Big and Monstrous for it to be interesting. God forbid that every novel or memoir should be a constant stream of mysterious or coy chapter endings. Emotional subtleties and changing dynamics of character relationships can form effective questions just as well as plot twists and mystery bandits.

But whatever kind of Question it is, INTERN has found that there is always a Question. And that Question is what keeps INTERN reading. Giving the reader something to want (answers, resolution to built-up tension) can be an effective way to keep interest high.

Note, however, that the experiment totally fails for jazzy, unusual books like Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore's incredible So Many Ways to Sleep Badly. Books like that have developed other ingenious ways of keeping readers interested, and it will take many more sleepless nights in the Book Lab for this lowly INTERN to even scratch the surface of those.


  1. Oh, but don't forget the novels that starts their first lines with a question, or at least a curio, and then continue to ask questions all the way through. And, of course, the modernist endings that leave a question at the end, after asking questions all the way through!

    We are a very questioning species, it seems.

    Or maybe not?

    Steph x

    PS Apologies for the modernist ending. I only did that to ensure that you read the PS!

  2. By Jove, you're right. I've never really noticed this but its so true. This is going to help my writing a lot.

    Thanks for the tip. You are awesome personified!

  3. LOL! Now I'm interested in Thievoro and baseball diamonds. And of course I want to know if INTERN is from planet Ziggabrix. That's why I keep reading her blog...

  4. Would it be fair to rephrase this as, each chapter makes a promise? The Flirty one, for instance, could be a question, but it could also be a direction. If, for instance, we have no doubts that Raymon will take her up on her wink (and therefore not many compelling questions), perhaps what nonetheless prompts us to go on is the promise of getting to read about the taking up. Of course, Questions are promises, too: promises to answer. Except sometimes books break those promises and are better for it.

    Or, more literarily, we have few question about how Hamlet will go, and neither did the original audience. It's the promise of carnage and tragedy and melodrama and (hopefully) good acting that makes us watch, not the questions we have. (Though a good tragedy does have questions, like, "How on Earth will a forest get on the hill, and who could possibly have not been born from a woman?")

  5. Ooh, neat point Christian! Questions and promises are very close cousins, aren't they?

  6. Oh my, but don't I love what you said about So Many Ways to Sleep Badly at the end, thank you for a delicious New Year's gift!

    Love --

  7. "God forbid that every novel or memoir should be a constant stream of mysterious or coy chapter endings." God forbid indeed! In the original Nancy Drew books, every chapter ended with a ! or a ? How awful it must have been to be a teenager in the thirties when coyness abounded.

  8. I dunno... I kind of like this one.

    Should narcoleptics take laxatives?

    Haste yee back ;-)

  9. Sometimes an ANSWER can be more devastating than the question.

    And if a question is always asked - when to we start to fear from reader fatigue?


  10. I like thinking of it in terms of questions better than promises, since questions are the stuff that suspense is made of.

    If I read a book that makes promises and I'm not enjoying myself, I'll put the book down. But I've found myself trudging through some god awful dreck just to find out what happened to so-and-so.

  11. Hello Mattilda! thank you for writing such a wonderful book :)

  12. You're so right. When I first read Harry Potter with my kids, I added my own music to the end of each can add it too. Makes it more fun..."Dunt Dunt DUNNNNNNNN!"

  13. What if you don't like the question? Do you still keep reading?

  14. catwoods: Maybe questions are INTERN's personal form of crack, but if a strong enough question exists INTERN finds it hard to stop reading. Then again, if a question feels artificial and slimey, then no!

  15. Intern, I just posted on this topic, but yours puts mine to shame. I am your eternal fan.

  16. Way to go, putting strange research into something useful and thought provoking. Makes me wonder if the same strategy / logic might be somehow applicable to the short story... Like a writer might be able to include questions to provoke to the next section, or even lay out the piece and guesstimate where the bottom of the page might be.