The One Thing Your Novel Absolutely Must Do

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Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers a first 50-page review on works in progress for novelists seeking direction on their next step toward publishing.

Start in the middle.

Get all the important characters on the page in the first chapter.

Reveal what the protagonist wants.

Reveal the protagonist’s vulnerabilities.

Establish what’s at stake.

There are a whole lot of books on the craft of fiction out there, and it can feel like every one of them makes the case for one thing your book must do if it is going succeed. And for the most part, their recommendations are good.

But as far as I’m concerned, the novel is novel, in that it’s constantly being reinvented, which means precepts like those above can go right out the window if it serves the story.

There’s only one thing that any novel must do if it’s going to succeed, and that’s arouse the reader’s curiosity.

According to the emerging body of neuroscience associated with fiction, as soon as a reader’s curiosity is aroused, dopamine is released into their bloodstream, signaling that important information is on the way. The reader starts making predictions about what happens next, whether they’re aware of it or not, and this in turn keeps them turning the pages to find out.

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.

But what exactly arouses curiosity? And how does curiosity work in different parts of a novel?

1. Curious openings

At the beginning of a novel, there’s so much we don’t know, and so much we’re just starting to understand. But if the author takes the time to explain the back story in detail, it slow the pace of the story, and the reader will feel like they’ve been hit by an info dump.

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.

2. Propulsive plotting

Once you’ve gotten past the opening, the biggest danger zone, in terms of losing your reader, is the middle of the novel.

This is where they’ve had all of their initial questions answered—the ones you raised with your opening, via those curious clues. Now you’ll have a number of “balls in play,” as far as the plot goes, but it’s clear that the central conflict of the plot won’t resolve any time soon (because that would be the end of the story).

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.

For example: Will the protagonist stay with her abusive boyfriend? When will the boss find out what the protagonist has been hiding? Is there actually something shady about that character who seems so helpful? And was that fire in the neighbor’s house actually arson?

If you find yourself struggling with the pacing and narrative momentum in the middle of your novel, ask: What questions drive this section of the narrative? And: Am I focusing clearly enough on those questions to keep the fires of curiosity burning?

3. Unexpected endings

Once they’re past the middle of your novel, chances are, readers will finish it. But even here, there’s a final battle that curiosity can help you win.

The end of the novel provides the answers for all the questions your reader has about the story (with a few exceptions: sometimes it can serve the story to keep a few strings hanging, especially if you’re writing a series). But even so, the way your story answers those burning questions has a big impact on how your reader will ultimately feel about the book, and what they’ll say about it to their friends.

Since your story first aroused your reader’s curiosity, they’ve been making (unconscious) predictions about what will happen next. And we all love to be right about our predictions, because that makes us feel smart.

But we also love to be surprised by an ending, to discover at least one element in it that, while it fits all the evidence that has been established in the story, and perhaps seems inevitable in retrospect, comes as a surprise.

That sort of surprise leaves us feeling that we’ve been in the hands of a great storyteller—one skilled not just in arousing our curiosity, but using it to show us something new.

It also makes us want to tell our friends about the book, and forces us not to say everything we’d like to, in order to avoid “spoilers.” And what’s more intriguing than a friend who recommends a novel they just read, but can’t tell us about the ending?

Curious indeed!

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