Make 'Em Wait: Delaying Reader Gratification

Popular nineteenth century novelist and playwright Charles Reade once famously shared this advice on writing: "Make 'em laugh; make 'em cry; make 'em wait."

Today, I'm taking a few minutes to focus on the last facet, that of "wait time," in the art of storytelling.

To keep the reader flipping pages, the writer strives to quickly raise compelling questions by giving incomplete information in the form of intriguing dialogue or narrative. There's no shortage of advice on how to set hooks that appeal to reader curiosity.

To look at one example, here's a quick snippet from the opening of one of my recent romantic thrillers, Beneath Bone Lake (Lovespell, May 2009):

The boatman’s paddle dug deep beneath the moss-green surface, biting and twisting like a switchblade’s killing thrust. Pulse thrummed and muscles burned as he dragged the canoe forward, threading through a swamp-dank maze of pale trees, the ghost sentries of a forest flooded years before. Above, the skeletal branches reached skyward into silver, their bony fingers veiled in Spanish moss and predawn mist.

A harsh cry heralded a white egret’s low flap over water, and a higher-pitched, more melodic twitter warned the sun was close to rising. With a glance down at his watch, he swore, then flipped away the cigarette he had been smoking. He had to get moving, get the hell out of here because cold or not, the damned bass fisherman would be out at first light. He couldn’t take the chance that the silent incursion of an electric trolling motor would bring one close enough to notice that he carried no tackle — close enough to hear the splash as his loathsome cargo slipped over the canoe’s side.

By this point, the reader is (I hope) wondering who is this guy, why doesn't he want to be spotted, and (most importantly) what -- or who -- is the "loathsome cargo" he's on the water dumping?

After growing curious about these important questions, the reader might be mildly engaged if they were quickly answered. But tension is heightened with a "jump cut" (quick switch to a totally different scene) where Ruby Monroe, flying into Dallas after a year-long civilian work stint in Iraq, is extremely excited about the prospect of reuniting with her little girl and Ruby's sister, who's been caring for her. A new set of questions is raised, including the airport theft of an important item along with Ruby's family's failure to appear.

Now, with any luck, the reader should be caught up in Ruby's anticipation, worried that the body from Scene One isn't one of the heroine's family members, and compelled to keep flipping pages (with mounting dread) to find out what's really going on.

Rather than offering a quick pay-off, however, the story then forces readers to follow a chain of discoveries, revelations, dubious allies, and tantalizing possibilities to get to the questions' answers, the most important of which are delayed, delayed, delayed until the final pages.

But it's a balancing act, and no easy task, to keep the reader from becoming confused and/or giving up in frustration. To prevent these pitfalls, it's important that the author also raise lesser questions, which are answered at varying intervals. By satisfying reader curiosity on those counts and doing so in a fresh, novel, or unpredictable way, the author sets out the trail of breadcrumbs that will eventually lead the audience to a satisfying intellectual and emotional payoff.

Achieve this ideal balance, and you've effectively "bookmark-proofed" one page-turner of a read.

Question for the day: What was the name of the last "page turner" you read? How did the author make it "unputdownable?"


Brandie Nickerson said…
Linda Howard's Burn...I enjoyed the heroine. For me the heroine moved the story. I enjoyed the bomb-ticking suspense as well, but I was up until two in the morning wondering if the heroine would blow up with the boat.
Brandie Nickerson said…
thanks for the post...I'm working on a romantic suspense and your advice really helped me!
You're welcome, Brandie, and I'll have to read that book. I love Linda Howard's romantic suspense, and I believe I have it in my TBR stack. :)
This is exactly what I've been working on in my replotting, so thanks for that affirmation! It's so hard to "set up" that place in the plot where the dominoes all fall without being either a) too obvious or b) boring. As I was reworking, I kept trying to figure out how much to tell the reader, in what order and at what points. You don't want to frustrate the reader by withholding too much, but at the same time, you want to withhold enough to keep her/him reading. It's a very fine line, one that I'm not yet comfortable walking.
Christie Craig said…

Great post. Great information. I love how you point out that you can't just keep creating questions on top of questions. I think this menthod is used in some of today's TV shows. There is always a fine line between creating a question and creating confusion and you are the master at it.
I'm never sure I've gotten the balance right until I have a couple of beta readers go over the manuscript. And then I tweak like mad before turning it in. The control of information is definitely one of the toughest thing to get exactly right.

You're a sweetheart. Thank you! And you're right. Some TV series go so far raising questions (without allowing any short-term payoffs) that viewers click off in frustration. It's really hard to sustain interest over a period of years.
Gerry Bartlett said…
It doesn't have to just be dark suspense that keeps you turning the page either, Colleen, though I love how you do that. My readers tell me the same thing, that my books are fast reads though they're on the lighter side. I write in first person and frequently end the chapter with an "Aw, sh**!" moment and the reader wondering what Glory has done now. It's a constant effort and very deliberate to keep the pacing just right.
Absolutely, Gerry. Your books are a great example of how an author can use the threat of the "virtual death" (or maybe "undeath," in your case!) of a relationship meltdown or humiliating scenario - such as spending four hundred years stuck in a body that was retaining water when the change occurred! I don't know many women who can't relate to that horror!

For those who haven't checked them out, Gerry writes hilarious books in the series that begins with REAL VAMPIRES HAVE CURVES.
Anonymous said…
A technique you've mastered, Colleen. Still struggling with this. My crit partners say it's better, but some days I'm not so sure as I sit staring at the mass of words on my computer screen. Your writing is an inspiration to me. Thanks for the advice and taking the time to post it.
Teri Thackston said…
As a fan of Colleen's books, I can attest to the fact that she's a master at making us wait, and then making the wait worthwhile.
It's so hard to get a good perspective on the success of our own work, Sheila. Keep after it and listen to those CPs' encouragement. You'll get where you're going one step at a time.

Thanks so much for the very kind words, too!
Just saw your comment, too, Teri. Thanks so much!

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