Many writers come to literary consultants with manuscripts that are already beautifully written and well edited but simply don’t have that gripping quality, and even the most ‘literary’ fiction should compel you to turn pages. When editors talk about stirring mystery or intrigue, you might think, well I’m not writing a mystery novel, so here’s some more straightforward language – the key to compelling fiction is asking questions and delaying their answers.
Most novels will centre around one big question. In crime, it might be: who murdered Billy? In romance: will she end up with Aaron? In uplit: will she meet her real mum? If you’re not sure what your novel’s big question is, look at your inciting incident (the event or situation that upsets the balance of the protagonist’s life) and the conclusion (the thing that restores the balance and sets a new normal) and decide what the reader should be asking until that conclusion hits.
It’s also vital to have little questions popping up in the reader’s mind throughout the novel. In our romance example, you might have: Why doesn’t Aaron talk about his family? How will they convince her best mate he’s not who she thinks he is? Who is his ex, really? It’s important that the majority of your little questions relate to the big question.
To be clear, I am not encouraging you to scatter rhetorical questions through your manuscript. But you need to write each scene with a sensitivity to the question that will bring it to the forefront of the reader’s mind. Show that there’s something to wonder about rather than telling us. Look at this dialogue from Us by David Nicholls, which follows Connie telling Douglas that she’d like to separate:
‘We’ll have to cancel the Grand Tour.’
Connie sighed. ‘Let’s see.’
‘We can’t go travelling around Europe with this hanging over us. Where’s the pleasure in that?’
On p.26 of the novel, Nicholls gets us asking the little question of whether they will in fact go on the Grand Tour and the larger question of whether they will have a good time if they do. Emerging from this is the story question: Could the Grand Tour save their marriage? This question isn’t presented on the surface but the reader will connect the dots and think ahead.
Once you’ve got the reader hungry for answers, the question is when to provide them. You want to allow the tension to build to maximum without letting the reader get frustrated. A little burst of satisfaction every few chapters will enhance the reading experience and increase trust in the author. Your big question will inevitably be answered towards the end, so try to answer little questions as you go, but make sure when you answer one question that another is active. (Avoid being too neat – if it goes question answer question answer question answer the reader will sense the author at work. Question question answer question answer answer might be more effective!)
Answers also need to be shown, not told, but you can draw attention to them by foreshadowing (dropping hints that something significant is about to happen) and amplifying the atmospheric detail.
Unnatural withholding is a bad habit writers often slip into when using this technique. In an effort to stir intrigue, authors will often leave out an important detail, but if the POV character sees or experiences this detail and it’s just the reader who doesn’t, you’re cheating. The reader will feel the author is playing games with them rather than inviting them on a genuinely mysterious journey. If you don’t want the reader to know what’s in the box, don’t let your POV character open it!
You’ll see this in TV – in that series six Line of Duty finale, the team knew who a certain codenamed character was before the audience did – and scriptwriters can get away with it in the same way writers using an omniscient POV can. That said, the omniscient POV is incredibly hard to pull off and unnatural withholding is generally seen as a lazy writing device.
Another way to make your work more gripping is to reconsider the structure and rearrange some of the existing content. End chapters on a question. Start them on an answer. Use line and chapter breaks to keep the pace up.
Don’t become reliant on a big reveal or twist at the end. If you want the reader to go down the wrong track, that wrong track needs to be as compelling as the truth. Many unpublished novels with a big twist at the end are lacking in a story goal – make sure your reader has an idea of where they’re going, even if it’s wrong.
Get the reader asking questions about big things and little things, make sure the POV character has the same facts as the reader, even if they’re not on the same emotional journey, and organise your structure around questions and delayed answers.