In my previous post on pacing, we discussed how an author hooks her readers by giving them intriguing narrative questions that slowly get answered throughout the story. But now we need to dig a little deeper and look at the two components that can take a good book and turn it into a great book. Those two components are:
- Where the author gets her narrative questions from
- And how she guides her readers through those questions
First, the where.
The Definition of a Seamless Plot
After Rowling finally lets us read Harry’s mysterious letter, she immediately starts tackling the next big question on our minds: What will Hogwarts be like and will Harry fit in? Notice that Rowling’s newest narrative question stems directly from the answer to her previous big question (i.e., “What’s in Harry’s letter?”). That is the definition of a seamless plot – smoothly transitioning from one story thread to the next.
Here’s what’s not smooth (and not suspenseful): Pulling some new narrative question out of thin air and plopping it down on the page. Imagine a bar brawl breaking out in the middle of a story about a nun living in a convent. Unless you’ve clearly and believably moved your story in that direction, your reader won’t be on the edge of her seat trying to figure out how a bar fight got into a nun convent. Suspense – true organic suspense (the only kind a book should have) – builds from what has already happened.
If Rowling’s new big question hadn’t somehow stem from Harry’s letter, if she had swung her narrative in another direction entirely, she would’ve jolted us out of the story. Instead, Rowling sustains the suspense by smoothly transitioning from one major story question to the next: 1) Harry trying to get his hands on that letter 2) Harry reading the letter 3) Harry acting on the contents of the letter (i.e., going with Hagrid to Diagon Alley to prep for Hogwarts).
Now for the how: How does Rowling guide us through the minefield of new questions that pop up with Harry’s acceptance to Hogwarts?
Questions + Perspective = Suspense
Whenever a writer dishes out new questions in her story, she needs to help her reader prioritize them. Because Rowling always has a lot of questions hanging in the air (as all great writers do), she needs to make sure that her readers know which one to focus on at that moment in the story.
Not giving your reader a narrative direction is like asking her to drive an obstacle course without depth perception: Everything looks like it’s the same distance away and she can’t determine which obstacle requires her immediate attention. That’s confusing and frustrating, and a fast way to lose your reader. Luckily, the solution is simple: The more focus you put on a particular question, the sooner your reader will expect that question to either be answered or at least play a major part in the plot until it is answered.
Once Rowling has her story’s big question switch from “What’s in the letter?” to “What will Hogwarts be like and will Harry fit in?” she doesn’t send Harry back to Privet Drive to get into a random fistfight with Dudley. She’s pointed us in the direction of Hogwarts and she’d better head that way or she’ll risk losing our interest; hence, the next chapter takes Harry to Diagon Alley.
But what about all of the other questions that inevitably formed with Hagrid’s appearance and Harry’s letter, like: Who is Voldemort? Why has Harry been kept in the dark for eleven years? And why was Hagrid expelled from Hogwarts? Let’s look at that last question to illustrate how Rowling tells us exactly what she wants us to focus on at that point in the story.
Even though Hagrid’s expulsion adds more detail to his character and another layer of suspense to the overall story, Rowling informs us immediately that this question isn’t going to be pursued at the moment. Here’s the conversation she writes between Harry and Hagrid:
[Harry:] “Why were you expelled?”
“It’s gettin’ late and we’ve got lots ter do tomorrow,” said Hagrid loudly. “Gotta get up ter town, get all yer books an’ that.”
By having Hagrid ignore Harry’s question, Rowling signals to us that we should do the same. (And notice that Rowling manages to not only have Hagrid say what’s not going to be pursued at the moment, but also what is: Harry preparing for Hogwarts.)
Transitioning Little Questions to Big Questions
Even though you’ll only be pursuing one big narrative question at a time, it’s important that you still have many other little questions hanging in the air. This not only makes for a richer, more intricate story, but it also prepares the way for when those little questions move into the big question spotlight (which they have to at some point or how else will you answer them). Think of it like dropping bread crumbs for your reader: When one of the little questions eventually becomes the big question, it will seem much more believable because it was mentioned earlier in the story.
Looking back at our example above, Hagrid’s expulsion eventually becomes the big question in Rowling’s second book, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; and because his expulsion was mentioned earlier, it feels much more believable and organic to the story.
More posts on pacing: