In Bear, Otter and the Kid, by TJ Klune, two things occur near the beginning: first, we learn that Otter has just returned from San Diego and for some reason Bear is angry with him. This isn’t a goal that the character has, specifically, but it’s a mystery, which can certainly be used to heighten suspense in any novel, regardless of genre. Why is Bear angry that his friend has come home? And to get back to character motivation, this mystery doesn’t just come out of nowhere. If Otter had left town and Bear was merely curious about why, and why he’d now returned, it wouldn’t be much of a story. Instead, the mystery is fueled — though the reader doesn’t know it, right away — by Bear’s desire to be with Otter, and his hurt that Otter left, in the first place. Bear’s underlying need to be with Otter is what adds the emotional suspense to the early scenes in the novel.
The author does a great job keeping us guessing about what’s realling going on, until, at the end of chapter two, Otter drops a bomb on the reader, by stating frankly that they never should have ___. I’m not going to say what it is that they never should have done — I’ll leave that to your imaginations, and encourage you to read the novel yourself — but even though we half expected it, it still comes as a surprise. More importantly, it leaves us with a bunch of questions: What? How did that happen? What does it mean? And these questions propell us forward to the next part of the novel.
Had Klune begun chapter three with a simple explanation, expanding on Otter’s line, the suspense would have fizzled right away. Instead, what the bastard — sorry, “author” — does is jump back in time three years and give us another important scene that we’ve been wondering about. It’s an infuriating delaying tactic, but it works, because this is information we’ve been wanting — just maybe not right here. But no matter. We’re willing to wait for the resolution. And Klune subjects us to over thirty pages of backstory before we get it, during which I was practically writhing in my chair. It was agonizing, waiting to find out what the heck had happened between Bear and Otter, and my husband had to put up with a lot of grumbling on my part, but the important thing is, I kept reading. There was no way I was going to stop!
Kate Sherwood did something similar in Dark Horse, forcing the reader through some of the most intense scenes of grief and loss that I’ve ever read, before Dan takes his first tentative steps towards building a new life for himself. Those scenes were almost physically painful, but by this point, it was clear that Dan could no longer continue the way he had been going. Something was about to snap, unless he found a way to move on — hopefully, into the waiting arms of Jeff and Evan. As a reader, I was willing to go through the grief with him, and keep reading, until we came out on the other side.
I’m talking about scenes like these as if they’re tortuous scenes that the writer forces the reader to endure, dangling a carrot at the end of them, but of course that’s not really the case. These scenes, in both novels, are essential to the story and to the way the character develops. Random scenes, simply inserted to delay emotional resolution, would have been annoying and frustrating. The scenes needed to be important to the story and to the development of the characters. And because they’re important, they need to be played out, rather than skimmed over.
It would have been easy for Klune to give us a quick paragraph or two of back story, before giving us the resolution to the scene he set up at the end of chapter 2. But something would have been lost. The reader wouldn’t understand all of the conflict that had led up to that moment, so the revelation about what happened between Otter and Bear wouldn’t have been all that big a deal. And Bear’s reaction would have seemed exaggerated and a bit childish.
Similarly, Sherwood could have cut ahead a month or two and told us, “After the funeral, Dan decided to accept the job offer.”
Oh, sorry. I was starting to nod off there….
The delay before we get the payoff we’ve been waiting for isn’t just a nuisance. It’s critical.
Yes, it can be overdone. An author can drag it out so long that the reader gets frustrated and decides the payoff isn’t worth the wait. But if the author is able to strike a balance, planting a question in our minds, or making us want something — a tender moment between the heroes, perhaps, or an admission of affection — and then forcing us to not only wait for it, but to be unable to stop reading while we’re waiting, because what we’re reading is just too interesting to put down…and then the author ends this cycle by hooking us again…we’ll be helpless to resist.
And that novel will stick with us for a long time after we finally reach The End.
Check out more of Jamie Fessenden’s rants about the art of writing on his blog, at www.jamiefessenden.com