Storytellers, Are You Cheating Your Readers?

If you’ve been following the quick updates to Jonathan’s story, you know he’s been fooling around behind his wife’s back. I certainly wasn’t happy when I saw Jonathan and Fiona kissing in the corner. I’d never expected him to be a cheater after he married Kat.

By the way, this might be a good time for me to point out that I’m not really the author of Jonathan’s story. He is. All I do is follow him around in the game, watch what he’s up to, and then put it all into words. I have no idea what he’s going to do or how his story will end. It’s a fun challenge for me to write a story that has neither a plan nor a plot. In fact, I don’t think of it as a story. It’s more of an on-going look at Jonathan’s life.

But, I digress. Back to the topic at hand. Cheating. Now, I’m not talking about cheating in the game. I’m not talking about cheating in love and marriage, either. I want to take a moment today to discuss cheating in the stories we write.

Are YOU cheating your readers?

When we write a story, we’re making a lot of promises to our readers. We’re asking them to trust us as writers. Keep reading, and I’ll give you an entertaining story. Keep reading, and I’ll give you drama and suspense. Keep reading, and all your questions will be answered.

Even though we don’t say these things directly, whenever we sit down and begin telling a story, we need to deliver on a reader’s expectations. It’s an implied promise we make.

One of the worst things a writer can do is to cheat the reader out of suspense. Unfortunately, this is also one of the most frequent mistakes writers make.

This was my best attempt to capture a “frightened” sim.

Imagine this scene. It’s late at night and a young, innocent girl can’t sleep. She gets up, goes outside, and strolls into the garden. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a man jumps up and grabs her.

Scary? Well, maybe. If we were watching this happen in the movies, we’d probably jump out of our seats, especially if we were watching a film in the horror genre.

But, reading and movie-going are two different things. If we’re reading about this young girl and a man jumps out of the shadows and grabs her, we’ll be surprised. That’s all.

Now, imagine another scene. Once again, it’s late at night, and our young, innocent girl is tossing and turning, unable to sleep. Meanwhile, outside her window, a dangerous man has just slipped into the yard. Now, when our girl gets up and decides to stroll through the garden, we have good reason to worry about what might happen. Will the man see her? Will he assault her? We don’t know…and if we care about this young girl, we’ll most likely keep reading to find out what’s going to happen.

Of course, sometimes it’s hard to show the man in the garden, so to speak. If we’re using a limited point of view, we can’t show things that the character isn’t aware of. So how do we put the man in the garden?

We use the character’s five senses to suggest that something isn’t right. Maybe she hears — or at least thinks she hears — sounds outside her window. Maybe something awakens her from sleep, and she can’t figure out what it is. Maybe she sees — or senses — a shadow moving past the window. Maybe she glances outside and notices that the wind’s blown the shed door open. At least, that’s how it appears to her. Or maybe she just has a “bad feeling” that something’s wrong.

Be careful here, though. We don’t want the suggestion of trouble to be so strong that our girl would be a fool to check it out. There’s a term used for young heroines like that. “TSTL”. Too stupid to live.

Next, we ease back on the tension. It turns out that the noise was only a tree limb brushing against the window. She discounts the eerie feelings as only imagination. She walks outside, latches the door of the shed, and returns safely to the house. All appears to be well.

Now the man in the garden appears. By creating tension, then drawing back, we’ve hit the reader with both suspense and surprise. We’ve done this by using a technique known as forewarning. We’ve planted suggestions in the reader’s mind, essentially promising that something is going to happen. We’ve then delivered on that promise.

Careful use of forewarnings will build suspense throughout the story. The trick to using them successfully is to start off with small suggestions and then build them into big problems that eventually lead to a crisis.

Consider this example. Our story is about a husband and wife on a wildlife safari. On the first night, the wife nervously asks the guide if lions ever come around the campground. “Absolutely not,” the guide responds. “You’re perfectly safe here,” he assures her. The second night as she’s ready to fall asleep, she hears a lion roaring in the distance. She hurriedly goes to the guide. “Are you sure we’re safe?” He nods. The lion is far away, and it’s very rare than one ever comes close to camp, so rare, it’s nothing at all to worry about. The next day, reports come in of a lion prowling around a nearby village. A day later, there’s word that a lion has killed a man in that village. Hours later, someone reports seeing a lion nearby.

You get the picture. Nobody is going to be sleeping that night. Everyone will be wide-awake and fully armed, ready to protect the encampment.

But suppose the writer hadn’t given all these forewarnings. How would a reader respond? Most likely the reader would be shaking his or her head. Having a lion suddenly attack the campground without warning wouldn’t make sense. Rather than the “shocking surprise” the writer hoped to create, the reader gets only an unconvincing incident. Worse still, the writer has cheated the reader out of a lot of suspense.

The corollary to this is in not making false promises. You’ve no doubt heard this advice before through the principle known as Chekhov’s Gun. The famed author once explained:

Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.

Making a false promise to a reader means suggesting things that never happen, setting up problems or dangers that never occur, or leaving a reader hanging with unanswered questions. Suppose in our African safari story, we built up all those forewarnings about a possible lion attack — and then nothing happened.

Nope, that’s cheating the reader.

Here’s a practical way to use forewarnings in your stories.

  1. No apparent threat. Whatever you’re introducing — whether it’s the main villain of the story or another problem situation — it should appear innocuous at the beginning. There’s no danger, no real threat. The lion, remember, is far, far away.
  2.  Potential threat. Next, show that the element — the villain, the lion, the problem — could become a problem under certain circumstances. There’s still no real danger, but…well, if the lions can’t find food, they might attack, but nothing to really worry about, right?
  3. Possible threat. By this stage, we let the reader know the threat is real. Danger could still be avoided, but it’s really only a matter of time before trouble comes. With the lion analogy, the nearby village has been attacked. How long before the lion comes to our encampment?
  4. Real threat. Now, the danger is real. The lion is at the camp, and it’s time to grab that hunting rifle you showed earlier. You did show the gun, right?

If you keep these two hand-in-hand principles in mind, your readers will never feel they’ve been cheated of the suspense they deserve.

Always forewarn the reader of threats and dangers to come.

Never make false promises by hinting at things that don’t come.




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